Why US Emissions Rose in 2018

The news isn’t good for 2018. US CO2 emissions are estimated to be up 3.4% from last year, from a new Rhodium report. The details of that report are really interesting.

Emissions per sector

Unpacking those in order, we’re doing a good job at electrifying everything, however where we get that electricity from isn’t keeping up with demand. In the past the building of new Natural Gas power generation basically was at the expense of Coal power. But, now we’re at the point where the bulk of new demand is being served by Natural Gas, as we can’t build zero carbon sources nearly fast enough to keep up with new demand (not even to mention retiring old sites). A carbon price would be really effective at changing this equation.

Transport is really interesting, because buried in the report is this really interesting graph:

Figure
Are we at peak car?

Even with all the growth, gas demand was down. This further supports the theory that we’re at peak car that’s been floated in a few other places. Transportation sector emissions are still growing though because shipping (via trucks) and air transport are still on a growth path.

Buildings were another area where things were problematic, and a big part of it was the polar vortex last winter. We had just converted over to geothermal, and the fleets of oil trucks running all over last winter were notable. The buildings sector really needs more performance standards/building codes, and pushes for enhanced insulation and heat pump conversions. Our conversion from fuel oil to geothermal last year took 7 metric tons of CO2 off the board, which was the single biggest change we could make as a family.

Industry was the last huge add. I do wonder if they will have deeper numbers on what actually was going on here. What gets in this bucket is not always what you’d expect:

What is industry anyway?

Close to 20% of it is petroleum refining, which means that a lot of this could be attributed to increased US exports of fossil fuels, and the push this administration has made there. It is one of those areas where we get a 2 for 1 if we reduce fossil fuel demand other places. A carbon price would help here quite a bit, and help more generally in the rest of the industrial sector as it would let each part of it figure out how to do what they are doing in a more carbon efficient way.

While the report is not good news, it’s at least helpful to see what actually was driving it to figure out what kinds of policies would help.

Sloop At the Factory

Having lived in the Hudson Valley for over 20 years, I now get to be one of those folks that says things like: “have you been to that new icecream place? It’s across from where that dumpling place used to be, that was a bbq place before it. You know the one in the old bank building.” Businesses and places leave a fossil record, and after 20 years you become aware of the fossil layers beneath the current facade.

But, there are times when the new facade plays so much tribute to the old, and the old was so familiar, that it’s notable in it’s own right. As with Sloop at the Factory, where we were last night.

Sloop Factory Entrance

Sloop is one of the older craft breweries in the area, I remember them with bottles at farmers markets close to 20 years ago. I had heard recently that they had opened a new brewing facility at an old IBM plant, but the way it was described to me at first it didn’t sink in where it was. Which is the old IBM East Fishkill 330C building. The building that was on the other side of the cafeteria from 330D where I first worked when I moved to the Hudson Valley.

The old IBM site is really a great place for a brewery. It’s got all kinds of infrastructure, as this used to be chip manufacturing. 20 years ago they put in a new water pipeline from City of Poughkeepsie to have high quality water for their lithography lines (tolerances for chip manufacturing are much stricter than drinking water standards). And it’s nice to see something using that space instead of it sitting empty.

Drinking water tap
I really have no idea what kind of monitor station this once was, but now it’s the water tap.

But where I truly applaud the Sloop folks is how much they embraced the bones they are built upon. They converted an old monitoring station to their water tap. They have plaques of various IBM invention accomplishments out along the walls. The whole place pays homage to an era that’s past, as they expand into the future. With over 60 breweries in the Hudson River Valley, it feels really appropriate to have one now in an old IBM site, spanning the industries between the generations.

Cozy up to the bar, or pick a table. There are stacks of board games and arcade cabinets around.

Sloop’s always had some great beer. But with all the space available to them in this place they also put in a kitchen (with a kids menu), and have a ton of low, high, and picnic tables through out it. There are stacks of board games, including an old copy of candy land that we played last night. As a parent of a 4 year old I really appreciate this new brewery ethos of being kid friendly (Kings Court is doing this right as well). I like good beer, and being able to bring the whole family along makes for a fun evening.

We’ll definitely be back. And I look forward to taking old friends that used to work in those buildings back as well to get a glimpse of the past and the future all at once.

Book Review: The Sixth Extinction

Over the holidays I finally got around to reading/listening to The Sixth Extinction. It was quite good, but the language was at a density level where I found listening to the audio book to be a lot easier than reading on my kindle. Fortunately for me, both copies were in our library, so after my ebook lend expired I switched to e-audiobook lend to finish it off.

The book uses the lens of a number of extinct or endangered species to look at humanity’s impact on the world. And each species provides an opportunity to dig into a different part of science or the history of science around them.

The chapter on the Mastadon was fascinating. I never realized that the Mastadon, first discovered not that far from here in the Hudson Valley, was the trigger for the idea of species extinction. Unlike the Mamouth, whose teeth can be confused for that of an elephant’s, the Mastadon has cone shaped teeth that can’t be. It was odd enough that Thomas Jefferson believed these beasts were roaming the west, and were part of the reason he sent survey teams out. Eventually it would trigger the idea that species could go extinct, and start the process of reconstructing our past. But it’s super cool this happened in our back yard.

I learned was that Ocean Acidification was kind of accidentally discovered to be a thing after picking through the remains of the failed Biosphere 2 project. It turns out their biosphere wasn’t so good, so CO2 levels got up north of 1000 ppm, which drove the pH of the water quite acidic.

I discovered that I had a closer relationship to bat white-node syndrome than I realized, as Al Hicks was one of the state ecologists that first found it in NY. I met Al last year through at the regional Citizens’ Climate Lobby conference, as he’s also the Albany chapter lead.

And I really liked some of the visuals around the idea of a “new pangea”. It’s interesting to think about how global trade has effectively eliminated all the island barriers that we once had.

Definitely a recommended read. Going to be digesting some of it for a while.

Communication in 2019

Given that google is shuttering hangouts sometime in the next year, I decided this was finally the time to bail out of it. It did a lot of different things.

Chat

One thing Hangouts gave me, was a chat system that I could easily use from my computer and my phone, and that didn’t super compress images when my wife and I would exchange kid pics when I was on a trip.

Signal looks like it will be my more or less full replacement for that this year. It’s based on an open and secure protocol, and there is an electron desktop app that seems to work quite well. It also seems to be where a critical mass of the folks I chat with regularly have landed, so nudging over the few stragglers will hopefully not be that hard.

Group Chat

I’m using Slack a lot for work, and for HV Open. Our completely dead IRC channel became a more lively rolling conversation once we moved that community to Slack. And it’s a much better place for a rolling conversation than this long standing group Hangout that we had going a year ago. I’m no longer actively involved in any open source project that uses IRC as their communications base (Home Assistant uses Discord which I start from time to time), so I haven’t run IRC for the better part of a year.

Video

The other thing that Hangouts gave me was convenient video platform that mostly just worked (even on Linux). Fortunately Zoom does that even better. Citizens’ Climate Lobby uses Zoom extensively, and I’ve been using it whenever I can instead of phone calls. Video is so much more expressive. We’ve even had pretty good luck linking in external participants to our CCL monthly meetings.

Hangouts video was also how I called home during business trips. There will be less of those in 2019, but I’ll see how zoom works on the mobile side this year.

Blogging

I really want to be blogging more often again. This blog is self hosted WordPress. We’ll see if this sticks once I’m back in the office and time slips away. While I’m not planning to drop out of social media in 2019, I do think that giving them less exclusive content is a good thing, and posting more here in the open is good. I use Feedly to read a lot of blogs, so if anyone else who reads this is also writing, drop your RSS url in the comments, and I’d happily follow you on the open internet instead of in a closed garden.

Email / Texting

Email is always good as well. You can always find me at sean at dague dot net. Easy enough. Email has inertia, I get it. Texts are good as well. I’ve tried to go out of my way and check in on folks a little more than I used to, which means my text messages are a thing now (and never used to be). We’ll see how many of those folks (who are not computer people) I can convince to hop to Signal this year.

I do wish Google didn’t auto abandon everything it created, but given that it does, at least there feels like there are good replacement tools now.

Facebook. Sigh.

Quitting Facebook is often an act of the privileged. (Note that lower income teens are about twice as likely to use Facebook as teens from richer families.) It’s fine for white men like me to get pissy and leave because we have other outlets for our grievances and newsrooms are filled with people who look like us and report on our concerns. Without social media, the nation would not have had #metoo or #blacklivesmatter or most tellingly #livingwhileblack, which reported nothing that African-Americans haven’t experienced but which white editors didn’t report because it wasn’t happening to them. The key reason I celebrate social media is because it gives voice to people who for too long have not been heard. And so it is a mark of privilege to condemn all social media — and the supposed unwashed masses using them — as uncivilized. I find that’s simply not true. My Facebook and Twitter feeds are full of smart, concerned, witty, constructive people with a wide (which could always be wider) diversity of perspective. I respect them. I learn by listening to them.

Source: Facebook. Sigh. – Whither news? – Medium

This post echos a lot of thoughts I’ve had around Facebook and social media in general. There are so many more questions than answers right now.

A Year in Podcasts

Every year my mix of podcasts changes up a bit, and the end of the year is worth reflecting on what I’ve been listening to.

Always on Top

These podcasts I’m always jumping to the top of my queue when a new episode comes out:

Skeptics Guide to the Universe – a great weekly dose of science and critical thinking. The crew also published a book this year which was incredible. The weekly Science or Fiction game on the show, is always a lot of fun. This has been in my bump to the top list for years, and I don’t see it changing any time soon.

Bombshell – 3 folks with incredible experience in and around the State and Defense departments take a deep dive on the week’s news through a national security lens. And drink. And ask guests what’s their favorite statistical distribution. And, the hosts and guests all happen to be women. This podcast wins the award for the one I’m mostly likely to recommend to folks out of the blue, and every single person that started listening after that thanked me for it.

Binges

I had two podcasts this year that I found, and immediately listened all the way through ignoring the Always on top rule above.

Farm to Taber – Sarah Taber is a crop consultant who has seen the ag industry from many different perspectives. She’s got incredible stories about things she’s seen on farms, and a system perspective that I found really interesting. She works really hard at showing that while a sustainable ag future is a great goal, the current narrative of “big ag bad, small farm good” really papers over a lot of complexity that’s really important if you want a sustainable future. Highly recommend if you are interested in how your food gets to your table, and she’s also great to follow on twitter.

2050: Degrees of Change – Johanna Wagstaffe is a CBC meteorologist, and put together the 6 part series last year which tells the story of what 2050 British Columbia in Canada looks like because of climate change. Every episode starts with the morning wake up interaction between a 10 year old girl talking with her “smart assistant” about what she needs to do that day. They then unpack one aspect of that with the best experts and modeling we’ve got today. The picture it paints is really powerful.

Climate and Energy

Because of the Citizens’ Climate Lobby volunteer work, I started finding more and more content in the area to dive deep on issues. So a huge part of my listening feed includes that.

Citizens’ Climate Lobby Podcast – This is the mega feed. It includes the monthly lecture / meeting, the citizens climate university deep dives, citizens climate radio interview show, and recordings from sessions at conferences. I listen to most of it, and even got the administrator to up the published list to 100 so I could go back through some older content. I’m often listening to one of these when I’m driving down to our monthly meeting to set the mood.

The Interchange – this is a weekly dive in a pretty wonky way on energy and electricity sector from green tech media. The show can be a bit corny at times, but is great to understand how the electricity sector is actually changing in a greener way, and want some of the barriers are to it.

Warm Regards – Dr Jacquelyn Gill, paelo-ecologist from the University of Maine, and a bunch of other great rotating guest hosts talk about climate change topics, and bring in pretty amazing guests. I discovered it when they had someone from CCL on, and have been avidly listening ever since. I really like the approach they took recently in adding a new mini climate related piece of research at the end, because apparently climate change is making bears eat less salmon. This one also qualifies in the “Always on Top” category, but is in this list for thematic reasons.

Listen to Every One

There are a few more podcasts that I make sure to listen to every one.

The Mirror of Antiquity – My friend Curtis Dozier, who teaches Classics at Vassar College, now has a podcast about where we see ourselves in the ancient world. The episode on what it means to make a translation, and what parts of the original are really accessible was pretty amazing. As was the episode on the invention of Europe.

The Long Now – Both the monthly lectures, and the conversations from the interval are amazing. An organization who’s core tenant is to increase long term thinking (to the point that they write the current year as 02018), brings together some amazing folks. My favorite of the year was calls Soldiers and Scouts. It starts with wondering if the history of humanity is not unlike that of the robot uprising, where evolution has shaped us to be one thing, but we are in the process of rising up beyond our programming to be something more. The narrative works really well, and makes you think a lot about the way we think and react in the world. And, the seminar with Kim Stanley Robinson on climate change and science fiction was equally wonderful.

More Good Stuff

My podcast queue backlog is typically over 100 episodes. As I mostly listen when driving, flying, or doing yard work, there is lots of great stuff in my queue that I just dip in to from time to time. We’ll hit these fast for speed.

  • Commonwealth Club of California – they produce something like 400 events a year, and podcast most of them. I value this for new ideas and injecting something different into my feed.
  • Code Switch – a podcast on race in america.
  • The Churn – podcast about the Expanse TV Show (which is my second favorite show being produced right now after The Good Place).
  • Radiolab – a unique way of telling (mostly) science stories.
  • More Perfect – Radiolab team diving into the history of the Supreme Court. The episode on the 2nd amendment is a must listen.
  • Planet Money – A dive into economics. This year’s 5 part series on launching a satellite into space was great.
  • Planet Money the Indicator – 5 minutes each day about 1 number in the economy and what it means. I missed when they dropped the indicator from the show, and glad they just brought it back as a dedicated podcast.
  • Wait wait don’t tell me – NPR news quiz comedy show, mostly because 11am on Saturday is a time we’re never home any more. We also go to their live shows whenever they get close.
  • Imaginary Worlds – why we create worlds in scifi and fantasy, and what they mean to us.
  • 99 Percent Invisible – a look at design and the built world. You will never see the world the same way again.
  • The Allusionist – a deep dive into the oddities of the English language, with lots of humor and punning.
  • Benjamin Walker’s Theory of Everything – a truly unique podcast that blends fiction and non-fiction in a seamless way that often makes you wonder where the line is. I still need to catch up on the giant multipart series this year on fake news.

Hopefully Something for Everyone

Hopefully something in here caught your attention. My top recommendation if I can only recommend one new thing you listen to, is Bombshell. I also think that everyone would be well served by having more critical thinking in their life with Skeptics Guide. But everyone listens to things for their own reasons, so knowing why I like certain things might help you decide if you would as well.

I wish you happy listening in 2019 and beyond!

What Citizens’ Climate Lobby has Meant to Me

Over the past year and a half I’ve been volunteering with Citizens’ Climate Lobby, a volunteer group with a laser focus on passing federal carbon pricing legislation in a bi-partisan manner. I got involved originally from a Communications perspective (handling monthly emails and social media), but then due to scheduling challenges with existing group leaders, ended up taking on the group leader mantle for our local chapter.

The Investment in Volunteers

Volunteers are being asked to do some pretty amazing things: self organize at a congressional district level; directly lobby their members of congress; reach out to members of the community can grow support; establish deep relationships with local media. How does an enthusiastic volunteer even do any of these things? Well, the national organization will walk you through it, with world class training.

This, hands down, is the thing I find most remarkable about the organization, it’s investment in volunteers. Multiple nights a week, every week, there are training sessions running for volunteers. When you join on as a group leader you are signed up for a weekly emerging group leaders program, that’s 12 weeks of 1 hour evening sessions going through the whole of the organization, the theory of change, the levers of political will, active listening. All interactive with other new group leaders, all with the ability to ask questions along the way.

After that there are skill building training sessions running at least once a week through Citizens’ Climate University. And if you can’t make the session live, it’s all recorded and made available as a webcast and a podcast to catch up at your leisure.

I’ve volunteered in other contexts, and not seen this level of support and investment in volunteers elsewhere. The only time I saw this level of investment from a work perspective was when I was part of a Leadership Excellence program at IBM back in 2006.

These skills, like active listening, are not specific to the CCL policy goal. They just make you a more kind and effective human. Understanding where people are really coming from. Focusing on the fact that interactions with others don’t need to be high stakes, it’s ok to just connect on whatever common ground you can find. And, getting lots of time to practice. I’ve already noticed this changing, for the better, some long standing relationships.

Engaging in the Community

In the last year working with CCL has given me this nudge and excuse to reach out all over the community in ways I never did before. I sat down with a neighbor of 14 years, that I never knew lived here, who chairs our town’s Conservation Advisory Committee. I reconnected with a college friend from 20 years ago who’s now a local Rabi. I’ve got to sit down with members of local city councils, and our county legislature, with some amazing local non-profits and small businesses. I’ve gotten to know other volunteers in neighboring CCL chapters, and built new friends there. And a few of us are now working on a list of local craft brewers we’re going to reach out to, which is going to make for an amazing 2019.

All these people have been here all along, but in circles I wasn’t aware of or engaged with. And now, with this excuse to talk about climate change solutions, it was motivation to reach out and find them, and sit down for a chat. And out of it I’ve already made some amazing new friends with some really incredible people. Those relationships I will value for years to come.

Diving Deep on Climate and Policy

In the past year I’ve read economic modeling studies, climate assessments, and many a policy paper. I now have a much better understanding of what the Clean Air Act actually does, and how it does it. What the Clean Power Plan really was, and why it could only be so effective. How energy markets work, especially the electricity sector. What NY state’s grid looks like, where we actually get our electricity from.

The part of my brain that consumes two books on React.js programming in a week to write a medium complexity application in a new technology, is loving diving in on all this industry specific knowledge. And understanding the complexity in these things also helps me understand what pathways are going to be effective to really decarbonize.

And the Successes

And, after a year that’s been amazing and engaging on learning and process, we also had some great successes. The Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividends Act was introduced into both the US House and US Senate during then end of the 115th congress. Both with bi-partisan co-sponsors. Both will be back next year.

I have to admit, when I joined the group and really internalized the Carbon Fee & Dividend model, I wasn’t really sure it would every happen. This isn’t a papering over and declare victory proposal. This is nothing less than a complete transformation of our economy off fossil fuels, with 40% reduction in emissions in 12 years, and 90% reduction from 2015 levels by 2050. It’s not just targeting the electricity sector, it’s really going to transform the whole economy.

It just seemed too ambitious to make it to the Hill, but it still was the best idea on the table, so I was happy to push on it. And when the bill landed, I was on an Adrenalin rush for a week.

And the best part is how this mechanism is symbiotic to all kinds of other solutions. This accelerates every single solution in Drawdown. It will make a Green New Deal easier to accomplish, and more impactful should it happen. It’s in line with the Paris agreement, and leaves the door open for lots more action to meet even more aggressive targets. And, because of the Dividend, it is something that doesn’t leave anyone behind.

Next Steps

I’m extremely enthusiastic about CCL’s work in 2019. A bill is a long way from a law, but you can’t have a law without a bill. My work schedule is going to get a bit busier in the new year, but we’ve collected such an amazing group of volunteers locally, it’s just an excuse to help folks grow more into roles and hand off some responsibilities. Both are good things to do.

If you are looking for a volunteer organization that is going to make a difference on Climate Change, and help you grow to become a better advocate for any issue, CCL is a great organization to be a part of. Introductory calls happen every Wednesday night. Our local chapter meets on the 2nd Thursday of the month at Beahive in Beacon, NY.

Come join us, make a new friend, and help slay the climate dragon.

Two Degrees: Cities, Architecture and Our Changing Environments

Source: Two Degrees: Cities, Architecture and Our Changing Environments | Commonwealth Club

There were a few things in this podcast that struck me. The first was the summary of the thesis of Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. Societies collapse because one of the 3 following things happen:

  • They don’t think there is a problem
  • They think there is a problem, but think it’s someone else’s to solve
  • They think there is a problem, know it’s theirs to solve, but take ineffective action

This describes how lots of things fail, not just civilizations. I’ve seen so many software projects fail on premise #1 and #2. It seems simple, but as a framing it’s pretty good at classifying where things are stuck.

Efficiency is not sufficient

A lot of the talk was about how we’re going to need to change the built world. We hear a lot of talk about efficiency, which is good, but not sufficient. When it comes to the efficiency of cities, dense infill near transit hubs ends up far surpassing any retrofitting of buildings. Building cities around the idea of decreased car miles is super critical.

Will pipelines carry Hydrogen in the future?

One thing I did not realize is that a lot of our city level infrastructure for the methane/natural gas network existed before natural gas was widely used. It used to carry Coal gas, which is a mix of a lot of things, but notably 70% hydrogen. This means that the city level infrastructure could be reused to supply hydrogen gas in a future where we don’t want to be burning methane. 

There was lots more in the episode, and I’ll have to listen to it a second time because it was so informative. Not everything fits in my brain going over it only once. You can listen to the whole episode on the Commonwealth Club site.

Maize that fixes it’s own Nitrogen

For thousands of years, people from Sierra Mixe, a mountainous region in southern Mexico, have been cultivating an unusual variety of giant corn. They grow the crop on soils that are poor in nitrogen—an essential nutrient—and they barely use any additional fertilizer. And yet, their corn towers over conventional varieties, reaching heights of more than 16 feet.

A team of researchers led by Alan Bennett from UC Davis has shown that the secret of the corn’s success lies in its aerial roots—necklaces of finger-sized, rhubarb-red tubes that encircle the stem. These roots drip with a thick, clear, glistening mucus that’s loaded with bacteria. Thanks to these microbes, the corn can fertilize itself by pulling nitrogen directly from the surrounding air.

Source: The Indigenous Mexican Corn That Uses Air as Fertilizer – The Atlantic

Take 1: Holy crap this is cool. Corn is a huge staple grain, and requires a lot of off farm inputs to grow because it takes a lot of nutrients out of the ground.

Take 2: This maize matures in 8 months instead of 3 months for commercial corn. Interesting. Dr Sarah Taber pointed out on twitter that this is a really critical point. Nitrogen fixation takes a lot of energy, that has to come from somewhere. Modern varieties of maize might have had this bred out of them for a reason, so they put their energy into sugar and maturation instead of the ground. It may not be possible to keep this trait, and have the maize mature any faster.

This is important. Because the headlines for most articles on this make it sound like we’ve solved a hard problem in farm science and corn won’t need fertilizer in the future. That’s definitely not what the science says.

Take 3: The science behind verifying this is kind of amazing. You can’t tag nitrogen atoms to prove where they are coming from. So they did 5 different independent ways that each provide circumstantial evidence that the maize is actually doing this.

Take 4: The IP generated by this goes into the public trust. This is done under the Nagoya Protocol to address the very real concerns of bio-piracy by indigenous peoples. Good on them!

Take 5: The url of the Altantic piece is https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2018/08/amaizeballs/567140/. Yes, they really did go there.

Tell the Complicated Story

It turns out that one of the solutions to get us all to talk to each other is to stop simplifying the narratives we use:

After the conversation ends and the participants are separated, they each listen to audio of their conversations and report how they felt at each point. Over time, the researchers noticed a key difference between the terrible and non-terrible conversations: The better conversations looked like a constellation of feelings and points, rather than a tug of war. They were more complex.

But could that complexity be artificially induced? Was there a way to cultivate better conversations? To find out, the researchers started giving the participants something to read before they met — a short article on another polarizing issue. One version of the article laid out both sides of a given controversy, similar to a traditional news story — arguing the case in favor of gun rights, for example, followed by the case for gun control.

The alternate version contained all the same information — written in a different way. That article emphasized the complexity of the gun debate, rather than describing it as a binary issue. So the author explained many different points of view, with more nuance and compassion. It read less like a lawyer’s opening statement and more like an anthropologist’s field notes.

After reading the article, the two participants met to discuss Middle East peace — or another unrelated controversy. It turns out that the pre-conversation reading mattered: in the difficult conversations that followed, people who had read the more simplistic article tended to get stuck in negativity. But those who had read the more complex articles did not. They asked more questions, proposed higher quality ideas and left the lab more satisfied with their conversations. “They don’t solve the debate,” Coleman says, “but they do have a more nuanced understanding and more willingness to continue the conversation.” Complexity is contagious, it turns out, which is wonderful news for humanity.

Source: Complicating the Narratives – The Whole Story

The article calls for a new approach to journalism which makes sure to tell the complex story, and not the simple one. It’s full of very specific ways of doing this, and why telling a 2 sided story isn’t the same thing as a complicated one.

One of the things that struck me most was how much this was the same as the motivational interviewing / active listening that is part of Citizens’ Climate Lobby training. When we pull back from interactions all being high stakes winner take all, and more about mutual explorations, we make a lot more progress understanding each other.

Exploring and discovering how things are more complicated, with a focus on climate and software