New freelance writings: A new space treaty, space radiation risks, and collapsing coastal cliffs

Here’s a few stories I’ve recently written and published in Undark magazine, Scientific American, and Hakai magazine. Thanks as usual to my excellent editors! I’m only posting brief excerpts here, so if you’re interested, please check out the whole thing using the links below.

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(Blue Origin flight test. Credit: Blue Origin)

It’s Time for a New International Space Treaty

With satellite traffic increasing and space tourism set to take off, the laws governing space are due for an overhaul.

Space is much busier than it used to be. Rockets are launching more and more satellites into orbit every year. SpaceX, the private company founded by Elon Musk, blasted more than 800 satellites into space in 2020 alone. Extraterrestrial tourism is about to take off, led by space barons Musk, Jeff Bezos, and Richard Branson, two of whom have already taken their first private space outings. The frenetic activity of space agencies and space companies around the world will extend beyond Earth’s atmosphere, too. Within a few years, the moon will see many more landers, rovers, and even boots on the lunar ground. So will Mars and eventually, perhaps even some asteroids…

Things have changed considerably in the more than half century since international space diplomats hammered out the Outer Space Treaty, the agreement that continues to serve as the world’s basic framework on international space law. Before space conflicts erupt or collisions in the atmosphere make space travel unsustainable — and before pollution irreversibly tarnishes our atmosphere or other worlds — we need a new international rulebook. It’s time for the Biden administration to work with other space powers and negotiate an ambitious new space treaty for the new century…

[Read the entire piece in Undark magazine, published on 22 July.]

Predicting When the Next Bluff Will Fall

Researchers in Southern California are using lidar to improve scientists’ understanding of the erosional forces that cause bluffs to collapse.

In August 2019, three women were relaxing on the beach of Encinitas, California, north of San Diego, when the oceanfront bluff unexpectedly crumbled, showering them with tonnes of sandstone. One of the women, who had been celebrating her recovery from breast cancer, was killed instantly, while her sister and niece later died in the hospital.

That tragic event was neither the first nor the last bluff collapse in a scenic and densely populated, yet precarious, coastal region. Just a few kilometers to the south in Del Mar, a bluff collapsed following a rainstorm in 2016, undermining a busy coastal roadway. Sections of beachside cliffs came crashing down in the area in 2018, too, though no injuries were reported. In February this year, another bluff collapsed—along with the aging sea wall intended to hold it back—about 10 meters from the rail line that links San Diego and Los Angeles and serves nearly eight million passengers and numerous freight trains annually.

Collapsing coastal bluffs are a threat wherever waves, earthquakes, and intense rainstorms can destabilize steep seaside terrain, and with sea levels rising, this risk is increasing. It is a pronounced risk throughout many areas along the Pacific coast of North America, especially in Southern California. Considering that many lives, homes, and vital infrastructure are at stake, scientists have been trying to figure out exactly what causes such cliffs to fall…

[Read the entire story in Hakai magazine, published on 9 July. It was also republished in The Atlantic and Smithsonian magazine.]

New Space Radiation Limits Needed for NASA Astronauts, Report Says

Although meant to minimize risks to human health, the proposed new limits would still be exceeded by any conceivable near-future crewed voyage to Mars.

Astronaut Scott Kelly famously spent an entire year residing onboard the International Space Station (ISS), about 400 kilometers above Earth,and his NASA colleague Christina Koch spent nearly that long “on station.” Each returned to Earth with slightly atrophied muscles and other deleterious physiological effects from their extended stay in near-zero gravity. But another, more insidious danger lurks for spacefarers, especially those who venture beyond low-Earth orbit.

Space is filled with invisible yet harmful radiation, most of it sourced from energetic particles ejected by the sun or from cosmic rays created in extreme astrophysical events across the universe. Such radiation can damage an organism’s DNA and other delicate cellular machinery. And the damage increases in proportion to exposure, which is drastically higher beyond the protective cocoon of Earth’s atmosphere and magnetic field (such as on notional voyages to the moon or Mars). Over time, the accrued cellular damage significantly raises the risk of developing cancer.

To address the situation, at NASA’s request, a team of top scientists organized by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine published a report in June recommending that the space agency adopt a maximum career-long limit of 600 millisieverts for the space radiation astronauts can receive…

[Read the entire story in Scientific American, published on 14 July.]

We’re not in climate change’s “end times”

I just wanted to write down some of my unedited thoughts here, for posterity’s sake…

Credit: NOAA

As people in the Midwest and Northeast of the United States cope with the polar vortex and frigid temperatures, right after people in the Southwest endured arguably the worst-ever wildfire season, it’s easy to feel like the end of the world’s upon us and there’s nothing we can do.

But that would be a huge mistake. We have to avoid that feeling. Even some science journalists, have been acting like the end times are here. Jokes about an imminent apocalypse and collapse of civilization might get a few likes on social media, but when they become the norm, we all suffer a loss in morale and our motivation for action dissipates into the warming atmosphere.

My one-month-old daughter and two-year-old son will likely live to 2100, assuming they at least average lifespans. Climate scientists tells us what they can expect if our business-as-usual scenario continues. They’ll experience more extreme weather events, from heat waves and droughts to floods and extreme cold. They’ll witness more frequent and intense wildfires and stronger hurricanes. They’ll deal with the loss of key fisheries and crops that can’t adapt quickly enough. Coastal people will lose their shores and infrastructure there, while arctic people lose their livelihoods and island dwellers entirely lose their homes and communities.

To prevent all this, or to mitigate the damage, we need positive action, not counterproductive and depressing talk of worst-case scenarios. I was an activist myself while I was a university student in the 2000s. Even as my fellow student activists and I took on David versus Goliath fights on things like university products from sweatshops and old-growth forests, living wage campaigns for local workers, and opposition to disastrous wars in the Middle East, we felt more optimistic as we engaged in the struggles, even if we objectively had slim chances for success.

There’s social science evidence for this phenomenon. Over the past couple decades, sociologists and psychologists have found that collective action can lead to more feelings of hope and less of fear among the participants — which in turn leads to more action. In contrast, I worry that a constant, myopic focus on the worst that can happen paralyzes us. We might write a click-friendly article or complain on Facebook and Twitter, and then we do nothing. That helps no one.

But let’s be honest: despite the daunting challenges we all face today, we’re not living through the end of the world — either environmentally or politically. It’s not like we’re all about to die and our government’s about to collapse. Our grandchildren and their political leaders will still be grappling with the myriad implications of climate change in the 22nd century, even if some crops will already have been lost and some people will have had to retreat from flood zones and fire-prone regions.

The proposals in the Green New Deal provide an excellent example of what can be done in the US across a range of industries. If some version of it were to come to pass, it would include popular infrastructure projects and create thousands or even millions of quality green jobs as well as support for the people who will bear the brunt of climate change and have the fewest resources to withstand it.

We can and should argue over the details, including ways these projects would be funded and whether to promote carbon taxes, nuclear energy, and so-called negative-emission technologies. We need major society-wide changes that decouple our economy from fossil fuels, and people have been clamoring for it for years. Finally influential members of Congress like Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey have begun to listen and propose legislation. Yes, this is ambitious and might seem challenging politically during the Trump administration, but remember that environmentalists managed to spur the Nixon administration to create the Environmental Protection Agency and Clean Air and Clean Water Acts.

If we really want to achieve a better future, let’s live in the present as if that future is possible. Climate change has become the most pressing — and the most formidable — threat of our generation and the next. But if we mobilize, think big, and act now, rather than dwell on everything that can go wrong, we’ll eventually weather these storms.

To combat climate change, incremental change is not enough

Some people, including Andrew Revkin in the New York Times, argue that we can effectively mitigate climate change and keep greenhouse gas emissions in check with small policy changes here and there. But I think we no longer have that option; the window for solving this massive problem with incremental changes closed years ago.

(Credit: US Dept. of Energy)

(Credit: US Dept. of Energy)

Even while we brace ourselves for the incoming Trump administration, with numerous appointments on the transition team who deny basic scientific understanding about climate change and human activities driving it, we should not just defend current first steps in place, like the Clean Power Plan. If we are to combat climate change and if we are serious about avoiding worst-case scenarios, which would detrimentally affect millions of people worldwide, especially those living in coastal areas and low-lying islands, then we need to actively push for more.

In politics, people often talk of incremental changes, pushing for small reforms when the opportunity arises in the hopes that they somehow add up to bigger shifts over time. That might make sense for some policy goals, but as we reach so many “tipping points” with the climate, such as indicated by the horrible state of Arctic sea ice this year, we no longer have time for dilly-dallying. People and groups from very different political backgrounds have come together for big changes before—often for war—and now I hope that many will try to set aside their differences to try to realize a common goal.

The Clean Power Plan, developed under the Clean Air Act, goes after power plants, the country’s largest source of carbon dioxide emissions. It sets targets such that the national electricity sector’s emissions must drop by about 26-28% below 2005 levels by 2025. (Recall that 1990 was the original baseline, used by the UN’s Framework Convention on Climate Change, but the Obama administration shifted it, possibly to make it seem like its reductions are larger than they actually are.) The result will be less of an emphasis on coal-fired power plants and more renewable energy as well as energy efficiency gains. We may see more use of natural gas or even nuclear power.

But the Clean Power Plan is not enough even to meet the country’s Paris Agreement commitments. Other beneficial policies make a difference as well, including California’s climate regulations—which include generating 50% of the state’s electricity from renewables by 2030; reducing hydrofluorocarbons; and the EPA and Department of Transportation’s regulations on heavy-duty vehicles. If all of these things went according to plan, the US’s Paris pledges might be achievable.

Some people who should know better (such as the IPCC and US Democrats) include flawed or unproven technology, like carbon capture and storage in these policy frameworks. We should not depend on these or other so-called “negative-emission” technologies developing in the near future, as argued in this recent paper in Science by Kevin Anderson and Glen Peters.

Furthermore, even before Donald Trump takes office, the US is not on a path to meet its Paris Agreement pledges. This analysis in Nature Climate Change by Jeffery Greenblatt and Max Wei makes it clear that more has to be done. The Paris Agreement itself was supposed to be just a first step.

Even *if* the US and other major greenhouse gas-producing nations fulfill their Paris climate pledges, we’re still heading toward around 3 degrees of warming, far beyond what scientists warn is a safe threshold. When climate experts put together the Paris Agreement, they recommended 1.5 degrees warming as the threshold we should shoot for, but I don’t think it’s possible to achieve that economically or practically. But perhaps with major policy shifts in the US, Canada, Europe, Australia, China, India, Brazil and elsewhere, 2 degrees might be achievable. Even that, however, could mean losing some island nations, more extreme flooding and droughts, numerous losses of species, suffering coral reefs, dwindling of some agricultural crops and fisheries, and shifting of ecosystems and growing deserts, among other disruptive and destructive impacts. In the US as well, economists and climate scientists are trying to estimate the “social cost of carbon,” which could cost this country billions or more in damage (though Trump’s transition team has tried to downplay these numbers so far).

The fact is, to mitigate climate change, we can’t emit much more greenhouse gas. The US has already burned through most of its carbon budget. Shifts from fossil fuels to renewable sources of energy, especially solar and wind, are already happening, and this trend would be tough to reverse by the incoming administration. Instead, it could be framed as a business opportunity, and perhaps Trump would be keen to back it in some way.

Lastly, let’s remember that, across the political spectrum, many people are in favor of major infrastructure projects. Investing in wind farms and solar power plants while upgrading public transportation systems, for example, could create millions of jobs, stimulate the economy and put us on a better path toward reigning in our toxic greenhouse gases.

The climate crisis is not a reproductive crisis

If you read or listened to NPR’s All Things Considered last week, then you probably came across this interesting article and podcast by Jennifer Ludden, provocatively titled, “Should We Be Having Kids In The Age of Climate Change?” This post is mostly in response to that, and I suggest checking out the NPR piece before reading this.

Ludden and Travis Rieder, a philosopher and ethicist at Johns Hopkins University whom she highlights, help to provoke discussion, and I appreciate that. They make a pretty compelling argument, while raising questions people rarely consider or talk about. But as you’ve probably guessed, I’m not convinced by the argument. Nonetheless, after suffering through July, the warmest month ever recorded, this is a good time to discuss these issues.

Map of temperature rises that have *already* occurred. (Credit: US National Climate Assessment / NASA)

Map of temperature rises that have *already* occurred. (Credit: US National Climate Assessment / NASA)

Rieder argues that the simplest solution to address climate change and reduce carbon dioxide emissions is to have fewer children. The emissions savings one can make during a lifetime don’t add up to the projected emissions of a whole other person, he says. I agree with many points he makes, but it’s not so simple.

Climate scientists project average global temperatures to rise by more than 2 degrees Celsius, a pivotal level that could take us past some “tipping points,” and the Paris climate agreement falls far short of preventing that.

We need to take dramatic action. Just making a few adjustments here and there isn’t going to cut it. Not even close. Prius-driving people with Al Gore-approved light bulbs at home aren’t saving the world—far from it.

Continue reading

Future Long-distance Transportation: Trains versus Hyperloop?

As I rode Amtrak trains up the scenic California coast from San Diego toward Santa Cruz, I wondered about what long-distance travel here might look like in a couple decades. Will “car culture” prevail, as gas guzzlers, hybrids, and growing fleets of self-driving cars jam the highways criss-crossing Western United States? Or will airplane flights become increasingly popular and uncomfortable? Or as climate change begins to hit home and droughts heat up, will people try to avoid these greenhouse gas-emitting (and federally subsidized) modes of transportation and even avoid long trips altogether?

I took this photo from my comfortable window seat on Amtrak's Pacific Surfliner train.

I took this photo from my comfortable window seat on Amtrak’s Pacific Surfliner train.

Of course, airplanes and automobiles aren’t the only game in town. Many people frequently take trains between southern California and the Bay Area, and the trains yesterday were full of people heading north. It currently takes ten hours to traverse the distance from Los Angeles to the Bay Area, and if the state’s high-speed rail is completed according to plan, by 2029 one could make the trip in sleek bullet trains in just two and a half hours.

Here's another photo, this time from the observation car of Amtrak's Coast Starlight train.

Here’s another photo, this time from the observation car of Amtrak’s Coast Starlight train.

On the other hand, Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX and Tesla Motors, has popularized the Hyperloop concept. This system would hurl groups of two dozen people at faster airplane-like speeds in low-pressure tubes—like the old pneumatic tubes used by banks (and human-sized tubes in the Futurama cartoon)—in as little as one fifth the time of high-speed trains. Engineers could be building the first Hyperloop pods well before the final tracks in California are laid.

High-speed rail, the Hyperloop, and self-driving cars all have their advantages and shortcomings, but my feeling is that trains will be the way to go, at least until the 2040s. I may be biased, as I’m a big fan of trains. But let’s consider the issues of practicality, budgets, and timelines.

Conceptual design rendering of a Hyperloop capsule (Credit: SpaceX).

Conceptual design rendering of a Hyperloop capsule (Credit: SpaceX).

The necessary technology for high-speed rail is already available. American engineers could build on the innovations of European, Japanese and Chinese train systems. It will be difficult to cross some mountainous areas in Southern California, but if the Hyperloop comes to pass, it will be built through a similar corridor and will face similar challenges. But engineers don’t really know how the Hyperloop could work yet, either like expensive Maglev (magnetic levitation) technology or floating on pressurized air like air hockey pucks, and many years of testing remain. They don’t even know where they might build the first Hyperloop either; it might come to Slovakia before California.

The high-speed rail project has notoriously gone over budget, as it’s now at $68 billion, twice original estimates. Legal and political disputes have plagued it as well. (Furthermore, Southern California lost out when state authorities recently decided to build the first segment of the route from San Jose, rather than Burbank, to the Central Valley.) But the Hyperloop concept is still in its early stages, and its budget estimate of only $6 billion is wildly unrealistic and has been rightly criticized by economists.

High-speed rail has dropped behind schedule, but now that people are actually in the process of building it, I think it will be completed near the current timeline, within 15 years. (It reminds me of the James Webb Space Telescope, which experienced many budget overruns and delays, but now NASA’s sticking to its final larger budget and launch date of 2018.) If the Hyperloop, on the other hand, were shown to be successful elsewhere, it’s hard to imagine Musk or someone else even starting to build it in California before then.

The technologies involved in developing self-driving cars, either for taxis or personal use, are farther along than the Hyperloop, but they’re not ready yet. Scientists predicted last year that, like trains and the Hyperloop, self-driving cars could drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But these estimates assume that many Americans will jump on board these smaller vehicles and trust their software. This study also assumes no “rebound effect,” but if the cars are as good as hyped, it’s reasonable to expect that people would drive more, using more energy than before.



Finally, maybe it’s just me, but self-driving cars seem kind of strangely anti-social. Instead of expending so many resources to build thousands of cars driving in unison on the same highway, wouldn’t it be simpler to design a more efficient public transit system with already available technology? If you really like your car, you can drive it to the train station!

Current Views of Climate Change: the general public versus top presidential candidates

I crossed the country last weekend to participate in the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington, DC. It’s the biggest general science meeting of the year in the U.S., and I was excited to attend along with thousands of other scientists, science writers, science policy experts, and educators. I darted from session to session to see as many interesting sessions and talks that I could, including ones about gravitational waves (of course!), science in Iran, communicating science with humor, and grand visions of the future of science—presented by the heads of NASA and the National Science Foundation, among others.

But I’d like to share some other findings presented at the AAAS meeting, about public opinion on science and technology issues. Cary Funk of the Pew Research Center warned that journalists should not oversimplify the state of affairs. “There are a mix of factors underlying public attitudes toward science-related topics,” she said.

What do people think?

Based on Pew and Gallup surveys, it seems that people’s views on climate change vary with political ideology or party affiliation, with age, and to some extent with geographic location. Their views don’t seem to vary as much with gender, race, religion or education level.

Latin America and Africa are more concerned about climate change than the U.S. and China. (Credit: Pew Research Center.)

Latin America and Africa are more concerned about climate change than the U.S. and China. (Credit: Pew Research Center.)

It turns out that views of climate change are different around the world. In particular, Latin Americans and Africans, more than people elsewhere, think that climate change is a very serious problem and that it’s harming people now, and they’re more concerned that climate change will harm them personally. In contrast, people from the U.S. and China—the world’s biggest greenhouse gas emitters—expressed much less concern.

“Overall, people in countries with high levels of carbon dioxide emissions per capita tend to express less anxiety about climate change than those in nations with lower per-capita emissions,” the 2015 Pew report said.

The political divide has nearly doubled in the last 15 years for people who “worry a great deal or fair amount about global warming.” (Credit: Gallup, Inc.)

The political divide has nearly doubled in the last 15 years for people who “worry a great deal or fair amount about global warming.” (Credit: Gallup, Inc.)

This probably won’t surprise you, but Lydia Saad and her fellow researchers at Gallup see a huge political divide among those who identify as “Republican” and “Democrat” when it comes to: how much people worry about global warming; whether they consider global warming a serious threat; believe the effects of global warming are already occurring; believe that there is a scientific consensus; and believe that global warming is caused by human activity.

The chasm widened after 2008—when President Obama took office—in spite of the fact that the Obama administration did almost nothing to address climate change until two years ago. (Saad didn’t say that; that’s me editorializing.)

The political gap has also widened for people who "think scientists believe global warming is occurring." (Credit: Gallup, Inc.)

The political gap has also widened for people who “think scientists believe global warming is occurring.” (Credit: Gallup, Inc.)

The 2015 Pew survey finds the people have similar political differences on: fracking, prioritizing wind and solar energy over fossil fuels, offshore drilling, and regulating power plant emissions.

And here’s the kicker: during an election year and following the warmest January on record, climate change currently ranks only #14 on the list of voters’ priorities, according to a Gallup poll this month. (The economy, jobs, and national security topped the list.) Nearly half of people surveyed considered climate change extremely or very important in their vote for president though, so we should still ask what the top presidential candidates have to say about these issues.

What do the presidential candidates think?

Now that the relentless, ceaseless, interminable, monotonous and tedious political campaign nears its end—with nine months to go before it gives birth to a fledgling president—it seems to be a good time to review the candidates’ positions on important issues relevant to science, especially climate change and energy policy. This takes on extra importance now, as the Supreme Court has complicated or delayed efforts to implement the Clean Power Plan. Depending on who replaces Scalia, completing this plan and building on it may be the charge of Obama’s successor.

I’ve ordered these candidates alphabetically by party and then by last name.

Hillary Clinton (Democrat, former Senator and Secretary of State)

Clinton says that she will expand clean energy, especially solar; create clean energy jobs; improve energy efficiency in homes and other buildings; increase fuel efficiency of cars and trucks; and since last fall she has expressed opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline. (She had not taken a position one way or the other before that.) Clinton also has a $30 billion plan to “revitalize coal communities” and help them transition toward an economy based on cleaner energy sources.

She has a modest goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 30% below 2005 levels by 2030. Note that, like Obama, Clinton has changed the goalposts, as they say, from the standard baseline: relative to 1990 emissions, this would amount to a reduction of less than 4%, which is tiny compared to plans proposed by European countries and Russia.

Bernie Sanders (Democrat, Senator)

Like Clinton, Sanders supports improving energy efficiency in buildings, electricity grids and cars; investing in renewable energies—especially solar and wind; and aims to create many green jobs. In contrast with Clinton, he opposes fracking and offshore drilling. He recently (in December) released a climate action plan, in which he advocates for a carbon tax and for steeper carbon emission cuts by 2030.

Dr. Jill Stein (Green, Physician)

Stein also has an ambitious climate action plan, and her stance on many energy and climate issues is similar to Sanders’s. Her plan includes a “Green New Deal” to promote the creation millions of green living-wage jobs by investing in clean energy infrastructure, public transit, and more sustainable agriculture. But unique among all the candidates, she aims to achieve 100% clean energy for the U.S. by 2030.

Gary Johnson (Libertarian, former Governor of New Mexico)

Johnson, a leading Libertarian candidate, does not appear to have a climate plan or a detailed energy policy. He accepts that climate change is human-caused. He favors natural gas and to some extent coal power plants, and he emphasizes a free-market approach and opposes cap-and-trade systems.

Ted Cruz (Republican, Senator)

Cruz, like all of the leading Republican candidates but unlike candidates from any other party, does not believe that climate change is happening. He opposes “climate change alarmism.” He is the chairman of the Senate subcommittee on Space, Science, and Competitiveness, and he believes that there is no consensus among scientists about climate change. Cruz supports fracking, the Keystone pipeline, and increasing offshore drilling.

Marco Rubio (Republican, Senator)

Rubio’s positions appear to be similar to Cruz’s. It’s not clear to me whether he believes climate change is occurring, but he has clearly stated that it is not human-caused. Like Cruz, he supports fracking, the Keystone pipeline, and increasing offshore drilling, and he opposes cap-and-trade programs.

Donald Trump (Republican, Businessman)

Trump does not have a climate or energy policy. He believes that climate change is not happening; it’s just the weather.

How Does Pope Francis’s Encyclical Affect the Climate Change Debate?

In a bold and surprising move, Pope Francis waded into the global climate change debate last month. He did not mince words or make a few minor remarks about these contentious issues; he wrote a lengthy and widely circulated encyclical discussing the “gravity of the ecological crisis.” Even before the official document, Laudato Si, came out, the Italian magazine L’Espresso leaked a draft of it (and it’s been translated into English; Wired wrote a good summary), generating considerable media attention, applause from environmental organizations, and criticism from climate-denying religious conservatives. Throughout the document, the Pope unequivocally calls for major lifestyle, economic and societal changes while condemning the “exploitation of the planet” and “excessive consumption” of energy and water especially by “wealthier sectors of society.”

Pope Francis at the Vatican, 17 June 2015 (Reuters)

Pope Francis at the Vatican, 17 June 2015 (Reuters)

While this did not come completely out of the blue—Francis has spoken about environmental stewardship, sustainability, and solidarity in the past and he describes environmental degradation in theological language—the Pope’s strong words and detailed discussion of wide-ranging issues from agriculture to biodiversity to economic liberalism surprised some. The “gravity of the ecological crisis” has clearly concerned him for some time, and he felt it was important to take a stand as the leader of the world’s Catholics.

What implications can we draw from these developments? Firstly, it increases pressure on political officials preparing for the UN climate talks in Paris in December to develop ambitious binding commitments. China and India have yet to submit their proposed commitments, and the US’s (except for California’s) commitments remain weak. “I applaud the forthright climate statement of Pope Francis, currently our most visible champion for mitigating climate change, and lament the vacuum in political leadership in the United States,” says Marcia McNutt, editor-in-chief of Science journals. According to some climate scientists, current pledges by 36 countries insufficiently cut carbon emissions: they will only delay dangerous global warming (2 degrees C above pre-industrial levels) by two years. In addition, some governments of countries with large Catholic populations, such as Brazil, now have cover to take stronger action.

Secondly, the Pope has weighed in and entered the domain of science. He may not be a scientist but he has clearly done his homework. He recognizes that the problems of climate change involve scientific analysis and assessments, but science plays just one part in a global conversation involving social, economic, and political issues as well. This pressing problem is not only a scientific one, and its solutions will not be either.

US conservatives have adopted the refrain, “I am not a scientist,” as a cop-out to cast doubt on climate change and avoid taking action. But no more. The fact that the Pope—an important figure in an inherently conservative position—has now taken an unambiguous stance on human-caused climate change and the need for a global response, shows that conservative climate deniers are out of touch and should concede that it is time to work together to face this challenge. As much as 25% of US evangelicals approve of the pope but deny the science; I hope that they will listen to him and consider changing their minds.

Fourthly, Pope Francis remains very conservative on population issues such as contraception and birth control. In his encyclical, he avoided these issues as part of the solution, even though overpopulation will continue to strain the planet’s resources and will result in increased energy consumption. However, in my opinion, too many people focus too much on population, perhaps because it’s an explanation that makes sense: since the time of Thomas Malthus, many assumed that if N people consume x, then if the population grows to a larger N, more will be consumed. But the problem is more complex than this. Focusing on places with growing populations puts the burden on the world’s poor, while rich countries are primarily responsible for the bulk of carbon emissions. Moreover, with a fairer distribution of wealth and increased access to education and employment, population growth will likely decrease, but if billions were to consume like Americans, the planet would not have long to survive. A focus on consumption and emissions per capita is warranted and puts the responsibility where it belongs.

Finally, as before, Pope Francis made strong statements about economic inequality, social justice, excessive consumerism among the rich, and solidarity with the poor. After all, he chose his name after Saint Francis of Assisi, “the man of the poor.” According to Bill McKibben, environmentalist and co-founder of, environmental degradation is leading to climate change that is harming the poor. “The people who have done the least to cause this suffer the most.”

We may not agree with everything the pope says or writes, but he has begun a dialogue between religion and science. “Any technical solution which science claims to offer will be powerless to solve the serious problems of our world if humanity loses its compass, if we lose sight of the great motivations which make it possible for us to live in harmony, to make sacrifices and to treat others well.” As Francis eloquently put it, humanity must maintain its moral compass, and we all—believers and nonbelievers alike—need to find a way to bridge our differences and take action now to protect our planet and its inhabitants.

Geoengineering and Climate Interventions: Too Risky or Needs More Research?

At the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) meeting in San Jose in February, scientists from the US National Research Council released two high-profile reports on climate interventions and geoengineering techniques. The most thorough evaluation of its kind, this pair of studies assesses proposed climate intervention approaches including their cost, technological capacities, uncertainties, impacts, challenges, and risks. As the Earth and its inhabitants experience a changing climate nothing like any in recorded human history, and as concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere continue to rise, scientists are interested in considering all possible responses.

The research committee consists of an impressive array of experts from a variety of institutions and universities, including Ken Caldeira (Carnegie Inst. for Science), Lynn Russell (Scripps Inst. of Oceanography) and David Titley (Penn State), and it is chaired by Marcia McNutt, editor-in-chief of Science and former director of the US Geological Survey, and they are informed by numerous analysts and staff. The National Academy of Sciences (NAS), the US intelligence community, NASA, NOAA, and the Dept. of Energy sponsored the studies. One can access both full reports and a 4-page summary at the NAS website.

Photograph: Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press/Associated Press

Photograph: Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press/Associated Press

The authors avoid the more commonly-used term “geoengineering,” which they also used in previous reports, because they consider the atmosphere and not just the Earth and because engineering “implies a greater degree of precision and control than might be possible.” Instead, they propose the term “intervention,” with its connotation of “an action intended to improve a situation.”

Through these reports, the committee makes three main recommendations and conclusions. First, the authors argue that there is no substitute for climate change mitigation and adaptation. Second, they recommend research and development investment to improve methods of carbon dioxide removal and disposal at scales that would have a significant global climate impact. Third, they oppose deployment of albedo-modification techniques but recommend further research.

Carbon dioxide removal and sequestration

NAS report: "Climate Intervention: Carbon Dioxide Removal and Reliable Sequestration"

NAS report: “Climate Intervention: Carbon Dioxide Removal and Reliable Sequestration”

Carbon dioxide removal (CDR) strategies involve capturing carbon in the terrestrial biosphere or the ocean after it’s been emitted. These approaches are intended to mimic or accelerate processes that are already occurring as part of the natural carbon cycle. The authors consider five types of CDR techniques: land-management approaches such as forest restoration; accelerated weathering techniques (allowing the oceans to absorb more CO2 than normal); ocean iron fertilization (so that more microorganisms such as plankton consume CO2, like a “biological pump”); bioenergy (using biomass) followed by CO2 capture and sequestration; and direct air capture of carbon.

The authors describe ocean fertilization and direct air capture as “immature technologies,” while land management and weathering processes have only been carried out on a limited scale, and bioenergy is limited by the availability of land for biomass and by the need to transport it to processing facilities. The barriers to CDR deployment involve slow implementation, limited capacity, policy considerations, and high costs of currently available technologies. The committee concludes the report with the following recommendation:

Recommendation 2: The Committee recommends research and development investment to improve methods of carbon dioxide removal and disposal at scales that would have a global impact on reducing greenhouse warming, in particular to minimize energy and materials consumption, identify and quantify risks, lower costs, and develop reliable sequestration and monitoring.

Albedo-modification research

NAS report: "Climate Intervention: Reflecting Sunlight to Cool Earth"

NAS report: “Climate Intervention: Reflecting Sunlight to Cool Earth”

Albedo-modification techniques ignore the greenhouse gases and instead seek to avoid global warming by blocking the sun to prevent light from reaching the Earth’s surface. Such methods could lower average global temperatures in a couple years, like the effects of volcano eruptions, such as Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines in 1991. The authors mainly consider two methods for scattering sunlight: injecting millions of tons of aerosol-forming gases into the stratosphere; or marine cloud brightening, increasing the efficiency with which the ocean clouds reflect sunlight. They also briefly consider other techniques including: space-based methods, placing scatterers or reflectors in the atmosphere; and cirrus cloud modification, such that more long-wave radiation can flow up into space.

The authors acknowledge that albedo-modification techniques only temporarily mask the warming effect of greenhouse gases and would be needed to be sustained indefinitely. In addition, there could be unanticipated and unmanageable risks and consequences, “including political, social, legal, economic, and ethical dimensions.” Therefore, the committee comes to the following simple conclusion:

Recommendation 3: Albedo modification at scales sufficient to alter climate should not be deployed at this time.

Media Response

It’s interesting that with the same pair of reports, journalists at different media outlets present the study’s results in a variety of ways, demonstrating the many perspectives with which people approach these issues. For example, journalists and editors at the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Science, and National Geographic point to the need for more research, primarily on carbon dioxide removal techniques. On the other hand, Suzanne Goldenberg at The Guardian writes that the consideration of planetary-scale interventions shows how concerned scientists have become about advancing climate change, while Alexandra Witze at Nature writes about how these reports legitimize geoengineering, though many of the climate intervention approaches are deemed too risky.

I would argue that most of these journalists describe the study correctly, but since the study has multiple recommendations that are somewhat at odds with each other and since the committee includes people with different views and backgrounds, it’s inevitable that some people would be more responsive to some aspects of the report over others. You may also be interested in critical responses by people blogging with the Union of Concerned Scientists and the National Association of Science Writers.

Moving Ahead

Finally, I’ll end with my view of this study and of climate interventions. I’m not sure that the term “climate interventions” itself is an improvement over “geoengineering”: I think that the former amounts to re-branding the issue and that it sounds less serious. Make no mistake, what scientists consider in these reports are serious stuff indeed. And as some have mentioned before, such a scheme has been imagined before—by “The Simpsons” villain Mr. Burns.

The study’s authors state that there is no substitute for climate mitigation and that we should focus on the root cause of climate change, which is the carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere. However, the carbon emissions are themselves caused by human society’s growing energy demand and the widespread use of fossil fuels: coal, oil, and gas.

The authors point out that most geoengineering schemes are too risky, involve immature technologies, have high costs, and could have unknown consequences on a planet-wide scale. Is it really worthwhile to invest in more research of them? The only exception is forest restoration and other land management methods, which would help when combined with reduced carbon emissions, and I wouldn’t group them with these other carbon-capture climate interventions.

I worry that this report would pave the way for wasting large investments of funding and effort researching these schemes, rather than focusing on the goal of slowing and eventually stopping climate change by transitioning to a low-carbon economy. Moreover, if people believe that a technological solution is possible in the distant future, they will not strive so hard to reduce carbon emissions today and will continue with business-as-usual. Above all, we should be focusing on expanding climate mitigation efforts. We should also work on climate adaptation, since the carbon already in the atmosphere will cause some warming in the coming decades no matter what.

People’s Climate March in San Diego

Yesterday afternoon was hot, sunny, and dry in southern California, and it was as great a time as any to draw attention to climate change and demand action on it. I was one of 1,500 people who participated in the People’s Climate March and rally in San Diego, which started at City Hall and the Civic Center, went down Broadway past the train station, and ended at the County Administration Park.


It was exciting and inspiring to be involved in what may have been the largest climate protest in history. At least 300,000 people participated in the march in New York, where the UN climate summit is taking place. According to a speaker for SanDiego350, which was one of the groups organizing the local events, there were marches and rallies in over 3000 cities around the world. They were also widely reported in the media, for example in the New York Times, LA Times, Guardian, and Democracy Now. I’m not a good photographer, so I grabbed the photo above from the SD Reader and the NYC photo below came from the Guardian. I’m sure there were a few differences between the people participating in the SD and NYC protests, as I saw many people wearing flip-flops, heard chants of “¡Si Se Puede!”, and saw a few Mexican wrestler masks too.


From what I could see, it was a very diverse crowd in terms of gender, race, class, and age. Climate change is now more than just an environmental issue—many people from unions, religious groups, and students and teachers attended too. People held signs and yelled chants saying a variety of things: demands for clean energy, green jobs, climate justice, and an end to fracking were common. As I mentioned in my previous post, many Californians are concerned about drought and water policies too, and I saw a few signs about these issues as well. Although we can see widespread support for action on climate change, it’s clear that conservatives and Republicans didn’t show up; climate change has become an increasingly partisan issue in the US over the past few years.

Organizers had great speakers and musicians at the beginning, middle, and end of the march. Many political leaders attended, including Rep. Susan Davis, the Congressional representative for our district. Speakers included: Todd Gloria, City Council president and former interim mayor, who gave a rousing speech to kick off the march; Nicole Capretz, Director of Environmental Policy for the city, who cited labor, women’s rights, and civil rights movements as inspiration; Monique Lopez, Environmental Health Coalition advocate, and City Council member David Alvarez. (More details about the speakers are here.)

Capretz and Gloria outlined their Climate Action Plan, which includes ambitious goals in five areas: energy and water efficient buildings; clean and renewable energy; biking, walking, and transit; zero waste; and climate resiliency. From what I can tell, their emphasis is on the first three prongs. The plan would cut San Diego’s greenhouse gas emissions by 15% by 2020 and nearly half by 2035. More than half of San Diego’s GHG emissions come from transportation, which is why investment in public transit, bike- and pedestrian-friendly areas, incentives for car-pooling, and other related measures are important. However, the plan already faces some resistance from business groups, who only approve of voluntary, incentive-based programs (but not mandatory measures) to get property owners to pursue upgrades to improve buildings’ water and energy efficiency. Mayor Kevin Faulconer is preparing to release his own version of the plan. If it’s watered down, I think he can expect San Diegans to organize more climate marches in the future.

[Although I’m a scientist and always try to lay out the facts in my blog posts, I want to be clear that I’m speaking my personal opinions here.]

Will Climate Change Embolden the Environmental Justice Movement?

[I’m cross-posting this, which was originally posted on the Union of Concerned Scientists blog. Thanks to Melissa Varga for editing assistance.]

We are at an historic anniversary: the Civil Rights Act was enacted fifty years ago on the 2nd of July, 1964. According to the legislation, all persons “shall be entitled to the full and equal enjoyment of…any place of public accommodation, as defined in this section, without discrimination” based on race, color, religion, or national origin. It ended unequal application of voter registration requirements and racial segregation in schools, at the workplace and by facilities that served the general public. (Another milestone, Brown v. Board of Education, occurred sixty years ago.) The Civil Rights Act was initially about the important symbolism of inclusion. But what does this have to do with climate change?


We still need to address what sociologists refer to as institutionalized inequality and injustice. Randall Kennedy in Harper’s magazine asks, why has the struggle against racism been more effective in public accommodations than in schooling, housing, employment, and the administration of criminal justice? “What is the value,” the civil rights activist Bayard Rustin once asked, “of winning access to public accommodations for those who lack money to use them?” To address structural injustices and inequities, more action is required.

“Environmental justice” is meant to address a critical area where such injustices remain. Attorney General Eric Holder said in a speech at the Environmental Protection Agency in 2011 that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “plant[ed] the seeds of the environmental justice movement” and that environmental justice is “a civil rights issue.” The EPA defines environmental justice (EJ) as the “fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.” EJ often refers to water and air pollution, soil contamination, toxic hazards, power plants, industrial facilities, and environmental degradation that preferentially affect residential areas and communities with people of a particular race, ethnicity, or economic status. It also refers to social movements that have, with some success, attempted to rectify this.

EJ is also particularly relevant to climate change. Issues of “equity, justice, and fairness” were referred to in the latest IPCC report, and as argued by Union of Concerned Scientists Senior Climate Economist Rachel Cleetus in an earlier post, EJ should be considered as a major factor in President Obama’s Climate Action Plan. We are already seeing extreme climate events, including heat waves, floods, wildfires, and droughts, and poor coastal communities are particularly vulnerable to storm surges, coastal flooding, and rising sea levels. Although dangerous weather events appear to occur randomly, some people are more vulnerable than others and some receive more effective aid during cleanup and recovery. (See the book “Race, Place, and Environmental Justice after Hurricane Katrina”, edited by Robert Bullard and Beverly Wright.) Sometimes environmental laws are insufficient and federal agencies don’t take sufficient steps to protect workers and residents, and certainly there is room for improvement.

A few weeks ago, I attended a meeting on Climate Change Resilience and Governance in Washington, DC, which was organized by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). The speakers included Jalonne White-Newsome, a former UCS Kendall Science Fellow now a policy analyst for WE ACT for Environmental Justice. She talked about how currently EJ communities are not engaged in the process, and the failure to mobilize the majority of Americans who want action on climate change is partly due to the fact that not everyone is part of the conversation. Many black, Latino, and Native American communities, as well as working class white communities, live closer to various polluting industries, landfills, fracking infrastructure, etc. than others, but they don’t have enough information about what they can do about it, how they can communicate with the authorities, or how to receive the aid they need. (For more on this meeting, see my blog post on it).

Scientists, activists, and policy analysts are now thinking about and addressing the causes and effects of climate change. Although we want to substantially reduce carbon dioxide emissions and avoid the worst of global warming, climate change is already happening. Throughout different regions of the US, we can expect more frequent and extreme droughts, floods, and heatwaves in the future (see the overview of the National Climate Assessment.

This is where climate adaptation and resilience come in, and this is what people are actively working on these days. For example, people on the top floors of poorly cooled buildings in dense urban areas are among the most vulnerable to heat waves, and simple solutions like white-painted roofs (see below) can save many lives. Scientists and medical experts are also studying the cumulative impact to the health of vulnerable populations, for example following natural disasters (such as hurricanes or floods) that also damage the social and physical infrastructure necessary for resilience and emergency response. Afterward, federal agencies need to be ready to help local organizations and communities with reconstruction. To address future water shortages and drought impacts, Congress authorized the National Integrated Drought Information System in 2006, which identifies drought-sensitive regions and manages drought-related risks and which involves the coordination of federal, state, local, regional, and tribal partners.


There is certainly plenty more work to do on climate mitigation and adaptation, and environmental justice should be a key element of it. As we look back on all we’ve accomplished since the Civil Rights Act was passed fifty years ago, let’s keep working to eliminate injustice and inequality as we prepare for the great challenge of the 21st century—climate change.