Category Archives: Environment

It Would Be Simpler If We Would All Just Die

Time magazine recently designated Greta Thunberg, the Swedish teenage wokescold, their Person of the Year for 2019.  It really isn’t surprising: the title seems to have always been based on notoriety rather than merit: past designees have included Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin, and the Ayatollah Khomeini.

Watching Greta’s speech at the United Nations, I could barely get through twenty seconds without bursting out in laughter.  Perhaps she meant to be deadly serious, but it came across as overwrought and silly.

I’ve always been a bit skeptical about global warming, or climate change, or whatever they’re calling it this week.  The basic premise—that human activity is putting more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than natural systems can take out—is beyond controversy.

But I’m skeptical about the effects.  I can’t observe climate around the world, but I am aware of long-term trends where I live.  I’m writing this on Christmas week, in New York City.  The temperature outside is 48 degrees Fahrenheit, a little warmer than it has been in the past few days.  Last week was right around freezing.  About 15-20 years ago, it was warmer, with milder winters and several days each summer with high temperatures over 100 degrees Fahrenheit.  But in more recent years, the weather has become more like I remember it, with over-100-degree days being genuinely rare, every winter bringing snow and at least a week or two of temperatures close to zero, and mid- to late-December being right around freezing, like it is this month.

Nevertheless, it’s always fair to check one’s premises, and when my professional society made a presentation on the subject available, I checked it out.  You can review it for yourself here.

My essential question for Greta Thunberg and all those who go around screaming about the ‘climate emergency’ is: what do you propose to do about it?  Part of my skepticism is that climate change seems to be a pretext for Draconian government control of our lives.

The presentation had some useful insights, but they were very grim.

  • Exxon, in the early 1980s, had endeavored to project future levels of carbon dioxide and global temperatures.  Their projections have turned out to be accurate, nearly 40 years later.  This answers another of my points of skepticism: there were many predictions in the 1980s that low-lying Pacific islands would be underwater today, but that hasn’t happened.  But here is a prediction from the 1980s, by an entity with a business interest in accurate results (what will be the future market for their product?), that is coming to pass.
  • Carbon emissions and global GDP (is it really a ‘domestic’ product when one is considering the entire world?) have moved in lock step for the last 50 years.
  • Even on the level of households, there is a strong relationship between energy consumption and income.
  • To meet the goals of the Paris climate accords, the world will have to reduce its carbon dioxide emissions by 7.6% per year in the short term.
  • Doing so will mean that global GDP will have to necessarily shrink.

My wife and I could reasonably reduce our household’s emissions by 7.6%.  This would mean (as a quick approximation) not only using 7.6% less energy at home, but traveling 7.6% fewer miles and eating 7.6% less.  But if we must do it again and again over successive years, we will ultimately be starving in the dark!

And we’re doing pretty well in the world: for many, even a slight reduction in consumption would be a real hardship.  Some countries and peoples simply can’t reduce consumption; others won’t.

It would be simpler if we would all just die.

In the recent Democratic debate, the candidates all insisted they would do something about climate change, although exactly what was still very fuzzy.  But what will they do, if elected?  What can they do?

Remediating the effects of climate change will be a vast project: it will entail implementing new sources of energy, building infrastructure to hold off flooding, and possibly relocating whole populations.  Can our government do those things competently and even-handedly? 

And if not, as seems likely, what would they do instead?

Plastic Bags

A while back, I was at the Trader Joe’s, buying groceries.  I had brought a reusable bag.

“Oh, aren’t you saving the planet!” the cashier said.

No, I’m just trying not to be wasteful.

She enthusiastically told me that the store had stopped providing plastic bags, and that it was wonderful ‘for the planet.’  The store now had only paper bags for carrying things home, unless you wanted to buy a reusable bag.

I’m skeptical:

  • Paper bags are bigger and heavier, and require more energy (i.e. fossil fuels) to produce and transport than plastic bags.
  • Plastic bags are more readily reusable.  They come in handy anytime one has extra items to carry.  Paper bags are good for covering school textbooks, but my need for that went away quite some time ago.
  • Paper bags can be a home for bugs.  When I moved out to my first apartment, I had a bug problem.  I sprayed under the kitchen sink, but the bugs migrated to the stack of paper bags I stuck between the wall and the refrigerator.

Beyond that, plastic bags don’t get soggy in the rain.  The one real environmental downside to plastic bags that I’m aware of is that if they are not disposed of properly or recycled, they can become litter and foul waterways.

But it really isn’t, or shouldn’t be, a big deal.  I’m not going to stop shopping in a store, or go out of my way to visit a store, because of bags.  If a store wants to provide only paper bags, or indeed only plastic bags, that should be their choice.

Alas, not anymore, not in New York.

Starting next March, it will be illegal for stores to pass out single-use plastic bags for carrying things home.  Smaller bags for meat or deli items will still be legal.  It will also be legal for restaurants to use plastic bags for takeout items.  As for paper bags, each county has the option of applying a five-cent fee for each bag, the proceeds to go to a state environmental fund.

Better living through government, I guess.  Thank you, Emperor Cuomo.

We’ll still go to the Trader Joe’s: they have good stuff at reasonable prices.  But my wife is on the lookout for plastic bags from stores that still have them.

When the ban goes into effect next year, I’ll still be able to get bags from the Chinese takeout.  But while I do enjoy Chinese takeout, I don’t enjoy it that much.

What about a lifetime buy?  How many bags would my wife and I need for the rest of our lives?  If I posit 200 bags a year for 40 years (I’ll be 97 then, and probably beyond caring about bags), that’s 8,000 bags.  Amazon sells a case of 1,000 bags for under $20.  For under $200, I could buy myself peace of mind on the plastic bag front.

In fairness, that’s still a bit silly, as buying bags in bulk will still be legal: how would the Chinese takeout get their bags?  Then again, I’m sure that this year’s initiative is just a start, and Emperor Cuomo or his successors will come up with cleverer ideas.

To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

Snowstorm Recovery

A couple of thoughts about the snowstorm that arrived Sunday and dumped about two feet of snow on the city:

  • The storm tied for sixth place among all-time snowfalls recorded in New York City in the past 150 years or so.  Among these seven greatest storms, four of them were in the past eight years, while the fifth was in 1996.  It’s definitely gotten snowier since I was a kid.  I don’t know if it’s global warming at work, or the coming of a new ice age, or God knows what.  But then, since I don’t drive, I actually like the snow.
  • Everyone’s moaning about how long it is taking to clean up afterward.  The F train was out for a day and a half (and it usually keeps running), and even now, three days later, there are a lot of unplowed streets out there.  It’s funny: those other storms in recent years took place under the same mayor we have now.  And it surprised me at the time how quickly the streets were cleared.  What happened?

Superfund

One of the failures in my life that I sometimes fret over is that I’ve never owned my house or apartment.  My parents rented all through my upbringing, and only bought a house after they retired.  For my part, my first wife spent like a maniac; I got divorced, which left me thoroughly broke; then the price of real estate skyrocketed, such that it would take me 10 years to assemble a down payment, and would then have to spend the next 30 years turning what was left after taxes to the bank.  Basically, I missed my shot.

Since 2003, I’ve rented an apartment in Carroll Gardens, near the Gowanus Canal.  A couple of times, the owners of the building contemplated turning it into a co-op, but the plans were never completed.  It would still have been preposterously expensive to buy the apartment, but I would have been interested.

But now I’m relieved that it never happened: I dodged a bullet.  Last week, the federal Environmental Protection Administration declared the Gowanus Canal a toxic Superfund site.

It’s not as if the canal, and the surrounding area, was a secret.  It’s common knowledge that the industries that used to be located along the canal left all sorts of toxic waste on the site.  But the city, working with private developers, was working on it.  Some years ago, the city repaired the flushing tunnel that kept water flowing through the canal, cleaning up the water, and private developers were starting to clean up the land in anticipation of new construction.

But now that’s all over.  The Superfund designation means that lenders won’t be willing to provide mortgages.  So the developers have dropped the place like a hot rock.  The city had plans to further improve the canal; those are dropped, as well.

Now the Feds are going to chase after everyone who owned land in the area for the last 150 years and sue them for the money to clean up the place.  They’ll draw up the plans, hire the contractors, and clean it up.  Note that, despite the name, a Superfund site isn’t cleaned up with taxpayer money.  It’s whatever the EPA can sue from the former owners.

The EPA estimates the process will take 10-12 years, which seems overly optimistic.  They’ve already indicated it will take 2-4 years just to draw up plans for the cleanup.

So if I had bought my apartment, its market value would have dropped at least 25%.  Since it’s within 3000′ of the canal, I would have to declare the Superfund designation when selling the apartment, and the buyer’s bank would take that into consideration when determining whether to grant a mortgage.

Now note that the site itself hasn’t changed from two weeks ago.   But since the Feds now say it’s toxic–so thoroughly toxic that the Feds must manage the cleanup–we have to take their word for it.

Global Warming

I’ve wanted to write something about ‘global warming’ or ‘climate change’ or whatever it is that we’re supposed to call it.  Is it a threat to human existence, or a fraudulent scheme to separate us from our industrial civilization?

Parts of the issue are beyond doubt: we, as humans, are putting more carbon dioxide in the air than natural systems can remove, leading to rising levels in the atmosphere.  And carbon dioxide functions to trap heat.

In the 1960s and early 1970s, it was thought that air pollution might cool the planet rather than heat it, chiefly through particulates and other specific forms of pollution that would reflect solar radiation back into space.  But that view was in the minority back then, although a couple of examples made it to the popular press at the time, which are waved today about by the opponents of global warming.  Moreover, the Clean Air Act and other similar law and regulation worldwide substantially limited particulates and other pollutants, although not carbon dioxide, substantially abating whatever cooling effects our industrial activities might have.

So now we have excess carbon dioxide, without particulates, and global warming.  But how much?  At this point, not very much: perhaps a fraction of a degree Celsius.  It’s still small relative to variations in climate related to solar activity, which is why the opponents of global warming have been able to seize upon a drop in temperatures in recent years as evidence that the phenomenon is not real.

But the small magnitude of the change to date doesn’t mean that it can be ignored.  As a simple example, consider a block of ice at the freezing point.  It takes a certain amount of energy to melt the ice and turn it to water, still at the freezing point.  If that same amount of energy is then applied to the liquid water, it will be heated most of the way to the boiling point.  In other words, ice must absorb a considerable amount of energy before it melts.  There are many elements in our world that work similarly to absorb the excess energy trapped in our atmosphere and limit actual warming.  But if the excess energy continues, ultimately it will have to result in warming, and the ice will melt.

So global warming is real, although the effects of it aren’t clearly apparent yet.  It is the sort of problem where government regulation is actually useful: when the effects of global warming are clearly apparent, it will be too late, so we need rules now to limit the future damage.  But what should those rules consist of?  Should we strangle our industrial civilization and go back to the 19th Century?

Probably not.  Besides the obvious impracticality and popular resistance to such a plan, there are other, longer term, reasons why such drastic measures are not necessary:

  1. The runup in carbon dioxide levels was caused by burning fossil fuels.  But these are finite, and we’ve consumed a decent fraction of them.  Eventually they will become too valuable to simply burn.
  2. It would be a stretch for 2010 technology, but still possible, to provide a technological solution to the problem by reflecting a portion of the sunlight reaching the Earth back into space.  But technology marches on, and such a solution will be practical soon enough to be relevant.

In the meantime, we should do the obvious: take practical measures to limit our consumption of fossil fuels, and develop new sources of energy.  I’d like to believe that this could be accomplished through the market, without need of government regulation, but I know that isn’t practical.  Money, alas, is lazy.

But what the government regulations should consist of is a subject for another day.

Another Hurricane

For the past few weeks, I’ve been writing very irregularly, and blaming it on my flaky Internet connection.  It was true: if I felt like writing, I’d look at the lights on the cable modem, and if the connection was down, I’d simply give up.  But late last week, I changed out the cable modem, so now I have no excuse.

Friday was the calm after the storm at work, having gotten a proposal out the door the night before, so I went home early and watched the tube.  The History Channel was showing a series of documentaries about New Orleans and its flood control system on the third anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.

It was perhaps ironic that they were showing us about the levees as Hurricane Gustav is now churning through the Gulf of Mexico and, like Katrina three years ago, is taking aim at New Orleans.  At least this time, the city seems to be taking it seriously, with plans underway for a massive evacuation.

Tilting at Windmills

A couple of days ago, I got a mailing from Con Ed, the local electric company, asking if I’d like to sign up to get wind power for my home.

One of the more inane things that have been inflicted on us in recent years is the idea of ‘choice in electric power.’  Once upon a time, electric utilities owned both the power plants for generating power, and the distribution network for delivering it.  Power companies tied their networks together with the goal of keeping the lights on for everyone, as far as possible,  It may have been a little boring, but it worked.

But more recently, the electric utilities divested themselves of their generating plants: power would be generated by ‘electric supply companies,’ and we, the consumers, have a choice of which company whould supply our power.  If you’re a big industrial customer, it probably makes sense: the cost of distribution is a small fraction of the cost of the power itself.

But for one’s home, most of the cost of electricity is the cost of distributing it.  If the power appeared on the grid through elfin magic, at no cost to anyone, my electric bills would not disappear.  And if I say that I want my power from this source or that, what actually happens? As far as I can tell, nothing: the electrons are still the same color when they come out of the socket.

I rail against the American oil habit: I haven’t written about it much here, as I just started last week, but I will.  Is this my chance to strike a blow for energy independence?

Well, wind power costs an extra 2.5 cents per kilowatthour: it’s about a 10% net increase in my electric bill.  (So much for elfin magic.)  And most of the electricity used in the New York area does not come from oil: it’s mostly hydroelectric, nuclear, and natural gas.  So if I pay more, what will it accomplish?

I’m skeptical….

Meanwhile, my fruitless PDA quest continues.  From my research, there’s one manufacturer (HTC) that makes something like what I want.  An HTC machine is sold by AT&T as the Tilt, so that’s my logical choice.  But when I finally found one at an AT&T store, I was bitterly disappointed.  The device has been shoehorned into someone’s arbitrary concept of ‘small,’ and the keyboard is so tiny and contorted as to be useless.

Still, I really need a PDA.  Maybe I should get an Asus EEE: with a 7″ screen, it’s not shirt-pocketable, but it’s small, and maybe it can replace my laptop for some tasks.  But it won’t really fit in my briefcase together with my laptop.  So what should I do?  Get a shoulder bag for it?

Maybe I can take apart my Revo and replace the batteries….