Grace for Creation: free!

We have a great tradition of holding classes for parishioners in Lent, but once Easter comes, and Spring springs, we tend to focus on other things. But, what would happen if we tried an Easter class – like a Lent class, but later?

Have I got a deal for you:

In 2011, the Episcopal Church House of Bishops issued a pastoral letter on the environment. In response, a five-week study course titled A Life of Grace for the Whole World has been created. The curriculum follows the five sections of this letter.

via Curriculum – Grace for Creation

This is the result of work done by the Episcopal Church in New England, spearheaded by Bishop Tom Ely and two incredibly talented priests, Stephanie Johnson and Jerry Cappel. It’s a perfect fit for a springtime course, and it’s basically turn-key. Download it and go. The only thing we ask is that if downloadbutton.jpgyou use it, you let us know how it went. What could be easier?

Bill Nye contra climate change deniers

Bill Nye, the Science Guy, is releasing a new book on the science behind Climate Change and the implications – in the short and long term – for all us.

When asked about the myths that have come to surround the whole topic he speaks very plainly:

The biggest myth is that scientific uncertainty, plus or minus so many percent, is the same as doubt about the whole thing. And that’s wrong; that’s patently wrong. And that’s a dangerous confusion. This is one of the big reasons I wrote the book.

The full interview is here: Bill Nye demolishes climate deniers: “The single most important thing we can do now is talk about climate change.” –

Former Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori says something very similar in a video we and others did on the Catechism of Creation (that ought be out and available for parish and small group use any day now…)

Thorium based energy economy?

Here’s an interesting idea. Apparently there’s a company in the US that is about to release a small power generating device capable of providing up to 250 megawatts of power in a 500 pound unit small enough to fit in the engine compartment of a car.

The device uses Thorium, a relatively common rare-earth element. The US leads the world in thorium reserves.

“The key to the system developed by inventor Charles Stevens, CEO and chairman of Connecticut-based Laser Power Systems, is that when silvery metal thorium is heated by an external source, it becomes so dense its molecules give off considerable heat.

Small blocks of thorium generate heat surges that are configured as a thorium-based laser, Stevens tells Ward’s. These create steam from water within mini-turbines, generating electricity to drive a car.

[…]Because thorium is so dense, similar to uranium, it stores considerable potential energy: 1 gm of thorium equals the energy of 7,500 gallons (28,391 L) of gasoline Stevens says. So, using just 8 gm of thorium in a car should mean it would never need refueling.”

More here.

Assuming this is plausible and economically viable, this is kind of a big deal.

The power of a 747 jet at take off is about 100 megawatts. This would generate more than twice that. Imagine how much more a jet could carry without needed to lift all that fuel… Or imagine buying a car that would never need to be refueled. (A few grams of thorium would easily power it for the useable life time. 1 gram of thorium has the energy equivalent of 7500 gallons of gasoline.)

Or, think what you could do with powering houses off grid with a fuel station like this. Actually, forget houses. A small 500 lb generator could supply everything a small city needs.

The big issue with this would be managing exhaust heat. Thorium and uranium decay are the chief cause of the the planetary interior heating. It’s where the lava comes from.

The upshot is energy for all. The downside is this would accelerate heat-death due to the second law of thermodynamics.

Reevaluating some global warming claims (polar bears probably not going to drown)

There’s a group that’s been looking at driftwood dispersal as a measure of the historic extent of the ice sheets in the northern hemisphere. It’s interesting right now because there’s been a series of claims that we’re close to or have crossed the tipping point where we are about to lose all of the northern ice cap.

That would create a huge problem as the oceans suddenly receive a huge supply of cold fresh water from the melt. It’s thought that such an infusion might slow down, or even stop, the conveyor effect – which is the driver behind the Gulf Stream current. Stopping that current would have a huge climatological effect on northern Europe.

But a team, looking at the best data we’ve go right now says, maybe we should all calm down:

“Dr Funder and his team say their data shows a clear connection between temperature and the amount of sea ice. The researchers concluded that for about 3,000 years, during a period called the Holocene Climate Optimum, there was more open water and far less ice than today – probably less than 50% of the minimum Arctic sea ice recorded in 2007.

But the researcher says that even with a loss of this size, the sea ice will not reach a point of no return.

“I think we can say that with the loss of 50% of the current ice, the tipping point wasn’t reached.””

More here.

Global “cooling” due in large part to coal plant increase

Why is the Earth so different than Venus? Both planets are roughly the same size, and both exist within what is known as the “Life Zone” in the solar system. (The Life Zone is the region of solar space where it’s possible for liquid water to be found on the surface of a planet.)

I used to ask that question every semester when I got to the section on planetology in an Astronomy course, and I never had a good answer.

The best answer seems to be that life evolved on the surface of the Earth and it didn’t on the surface of Venus. Because of life, much of the carbon CO2 in the early atmosphere, which was created by volcanic outgassing on both planets and was primarily CO2 and methane, both major greenhouse gasses, was sequestered out of the atmosphere and stored in giants rafts of bacteria on the Earth’s surface. As the CO2 was scrubbed, the greenhouse effect diminished and the surface temp dropped. Eventually the temperature dropped to a point where liquid water could collect on the surface, in which even more CO2 could be dissolved, which accelerated the process.

(Key point this. For people who argue that life can not drive global warming (of which the anthropogenic idea is a part), then they have to come up with a different explanation for the primordial cooling of the Earth and otherwise explain the wildly different surface temps between the Earth and Venus.)

Venus, where we have not found life, is still so hot on the surface that the ground has the consistency of stiff oatmeal – it’s not cooled enough to lose its plasticity.

So what happens if we reload the atmosphere with CO2? Temps should rise until the extra CO2 can be absorbed in the water or sequestered by biological processes (like stored in limestone). That assumes that ocean isn’t saturated CO2 (which it appears to be) and can absorb the additional gas. (Bio processes take a very long time, and they can contribute to CO2 just as they can act to sequester it.)

So, if we’re putting more CO2 in the air (which we are) at an increasing rate (which we are), then why isn’t the temperature rising right now? That’s been the biggest criticism of anthropogenic global warming. Temps increased for a while in the early 20th cent. and then started to level off.

A group of scientists think they’ve found the answer.

“”The masking of CO2-induced global warming by short term sulphur emissions is well known – it’s believed that the flattening off of global mean temperatures in the 1950s was due to European and US coal burning, and just such a mechanism could be operating today from Chinese coal,” he told BBC News.

“Other natural fluctuations in the Sun’s output, volcanoes and water vapour have also been proposed for causing the non-warming ‘noughties’, and may have contributed to a degree.

“It needs to be emphasised that any masking is short-lived, and the increased CO2 from the same coal will remain in the atmosphere for many decades and dominate the long-term warming over the next decades.”

Since the end of the study period, in 2007, China’s coal consumption has risen again by about 30%.”

More here.

So this is basically a form of the old Nuclear Winter idea that was thought to be a consequence of an unrestrained global nuclear war (back in the days when we were worried about such things). The problem here is that there’s not enough junk being put into the atmosphere to overcome the greenhouse effect longterm. And since we’re not going to mask it, the system will very quickly and exponentially begin to be driven by the greenhouse warming.

We talk about Venus as a place of run-away greenhouse effect. If we don’t get a handle on things here on Earth, at some point, just in the way that the existence of life on the surface of Earth had the long term effect of cooling the planet, so too will life restore it to a closer resemblance to our sister planet.

Climate change God’s judgement not Man’s fault?

The BBC has a report this morning on a growing sentiment in parts of the developing world that the climate change that they are witnessing is not due to the actions of humankind. They are a result of God’s judgement upon us. And as such, there is nothing we can change that will have any effect on the situation other than pray for help.

From the end of the article:

“Climate change is a global issue transcending national boundaries, but impacting first on those who can least afford to cope with the consequences.

The ‘God not man’ cry from the lady in Kenya’s northern reaches illustrates a common problem relating to understanding the underlying causes, and underscores the incapability of people in such situations to deal with the crisis that has impacted so severely on their communities.

As Wangari Maathai, the Nobel Peace Prize winner, notes:

‘Climate change will bring massive ecological and economic challenges… therefore, alleviating dehumanising poverty will become even more difficult.'”

Read the full article here.

The point the article is trying to make, but doesn’t really in the end, is that attributing the climate changes to God leads us to think that God is going to be the one who’s going to reverse them. It’s the very definition of magical thinking and is not likely to be very effective.

It doesn’t seem all that different, to me at least, than the line of thought attributed to people like the former Secretary of the Interior, James Watt, who believed the rapture was so imminent that there was no reason for Christians to conserve natural resources. Instead, the reasoning went, profligate use of the resources was a sign of strong faith that God was coming soon and would remake the earth and effectively restore everything we had used.

Not unlike using the ever-increasing equity in our homes to pay off our ever increasing credit card debt…

The BBC article really doesn’t suggest any solutions to the problem of magical thinking among the poor in the developing world other than to “harness the power of youth”. But as the sixties remind all of us who grew up in them, that doesn’t really guarantee anything. Youth can act destructively as likely as they might act constructively. Such is the way of mankind.

Better, for Christians at least, would be to emphasize the meaning of stewardship among the Christian people in the developing world. We should be encouraging them to expect their governments to find ways to live gently in their environment, to do their collective best to steward the natural riches of the nations in which they live. I remember when I was in Swaziland, talking with local farmers who had begun to realize the toll that western style, petrochemical based agriculture was taking on their tribal lands. The old style tradition of small gardens, compost and regular crop rotation was much more effective at producing enough to eat, and was sustainable.

Of course that will require those of us who live in the developed world to put our money where our mouth is first. Otherwise why should anyone listen to us? We’d be like the Pharisees who bind others with burdens too great to bear while finding loopholes to excuse ourselves.

It will probably require us to downsize the homes we live in, move back into the cities closer to the places we work and shop, buy smaller cars, etc. In other words, live more like European society has been living for years. It’s really not an awful thing to contemplate if we put it into that context is it?

Will our actions make a difference? There’s a legitimate disagreement going on about whether the climate change we are observing is caused by human actions or not. But if not, it makes sense to act conservatively so as to try our best not hasten the rate of the change. Plus living as if it were will help us to start focusing our attention on what might be needed to survive what might come.

It’s not all that bad really. Imagine living in a small German, French or Italian city, or in one of the villages that surround them. What’s to fear in that future?

Climategate and the Irish Church scandal

Last week, while most of us here in the states were busy spending time with family and friends, the ongoing scandal of “Climategate” took a couple of new turns.

Climategate is the popular term referring to the release by a computer hacker of a large body of private emails written by climate researchers. As people have combed through the emails they’ve found a number of questionable statements regarding the data the researchers have been citing to support their contention that Earth is growing warmer.

Note that there’s a variety of terms and causes that are typically included under the popular phrase “Global Warming”. People use that term to imply that human beings, by using fossil fuels, are causing a global rise in temperatures that will have deleterious, even catastrophic effects on our climates.

But, more accurately people can speak of climate change (which means that some places are getting warmer and others are getting colder), anthropogenic change (which means human caused change), global warming in general (which means a rise in average temperatures on the surface of the earth), and rising Carbon levels (which can both be of natural cause and/or human origin) that can contribute to global warming.

How these different things lead to one another, or even interact is not well understood. It’s not even clear that there’s anything we as humans can do to change the system or that we’re driving whatever change is being observed. But all of those questions are dependent on what has, until now, been a broadly accepted set of data that show that whatever the cause or mechanism, global temperatures are getting higher.

But that data is being called into question because of some references within the emails referred to above. These references have caused broad calls that the raw data about the temperature rise be fully published. Until last week, these calls were being rejected.

That changed over the weekend:

“The U-turn by the university follows a week of controversy after the emergence of hundreds of leaked emails, ‘stolen’ by hackers and published online, triggered claims that the academics had massaged statistics.

In a statement welcomed by climate change sceptics, the university said it would make all the data accessible as soon as possible, once its Climatic Research Unit (CRU) had negotiated its release from a range of non-publication agreements.”

From here.

This is critically important, and frankly should have happened long ago. The scientific method fundamentally depends upon transparency. The worst sin a scientist can commit is to fake data. Data points need to be published, and the methods used to obtain them fully disclosed so that the data can be verified and if not, errors can be identified.

The fact that there are loud critics challenging results is no reason at all to hold back on the publication of raw data. If anything it all the more reason to be scrupulously honest. If there are errors, the opponents are going to be the most likely people to find them. And if they’re found, they can be corrected. Which will lead to better data, and better understanding of what is happening. Lather, rinse, repeat.

I can add that I believe the same thing to be true about pretty much any human endeavor, including theological thinking and church governance.

There’s been a great deal of human mischief done to people by the Church because of the sense that the institution needs to be protected from harsh questions. Take the situation in Ireland right now. A series of four archbishops have acted to cover up many many cases of sexual abuse by clergy inflicted upon children throughout that country. Their need to protect the church from “scandal” and not the children, has allowed the abusers to continue to have free access to more victims.

A transparent and public airing of the scandal from the very beginning would have been very embarrassing for the Church. But it would have saved the lives of many children. There’s no doubt what Jesus would do.

Global warming: no turning back?

So okay, the headline is a little alarmist. I should probably say “Rising C02 levels” rather than “global warming” and “rising in spite of any efforts to stop them” instead of “no turning back”. But that will hardly make people read about this new study.

Tim Garret, a physicist specializing in Atmospheric research, has created a new model predicting the amount of C02 that civilization produces. He models it on some specific and mostly obvious assumptions. Admittedly his first one, that conservation does not slow energy use, it accelerates it in overall terms is counterintuitive, but defensible.

Using these assumptions he’s created a mathematical model that attempts to predict the future effect of a number of possible changes we might make in response to a rise in C02 levels. In essence he’s created an economic model, but used typical physicist assumptions in that he’s views civilization as a heat engine rather than an ensemble of rational actors. Not all economists think his contribution has any value.

But, that aside, his model does make some depressing predictions:

“Garrett says often-discussed strategies for slowing carbon dioxide emissions and global warming include mention increased energy efficiency, reduced population growth and a switch to power sources that don’t emit carbon dioxide, including nuclear, wind and solar energy and underground storage of carbon dioxide from fossil fuel burning. Another strategy is rarely mentioned: a decreased standard of living, which would occur if energy supplies ran short and the economy collapsed, he adds.

‘Fundamentally, I believe the system is deterministic,’ says Garrett. ‘Changes in population and standard of living are only a function of the current energy efficiency. That leaves only switching to a non-carbon-dioxide-emitting power source as an available option.’

‘The problem is that, in order to stabilize emissions, not even reduce them, we have to switch to non-carbonized energy sources at a rate about 2.1 percent per year. That comes out to almost one new nuclear power plant per day.'”

Read the full article here.

The suggestion that we need to create that many new nuke plants is probably already moot given this news.

Overuse of natural resources ’caused Nazca collapse’

Back when I was in High School and the works of Eric Von Daniken were still new and popular, I was fascinated by the mysterious works of the Nazca people in Peru. Von Daniken claimed that the giant figures that the Nazca people carved into the plateaus of Peru were meant to be seen by alien spaceships. (A bit of a reach perhaps, but if you know Von Daniken’s work, exactly what you’d expect.)

But what made the lines so much more mysterious was the fact that the people who had made them apparently disappeared without a trace soon after. If Von Daniken was to be believed, something I was willing to do as a sophomore in High School, perhaps the alien arks had been in fact summoned and the people of the Plains of Nazca returned to the stars.

Turns out the explanation is much less poetic. But ultimately more important to us today. According to a new study, a team of archeologists have found that the civilization that created the enormous figures on the plains died off because they over consumed the limited natural resources they depended on.

A report on the BBC site explains:

“Analysing plant remains [the archeological team] reveal how the destruction of forests containing the huarango tree crossed a tipping point, causing ecological collapse.

The team have published their findings in the journal of Latin American Antiquity.

‘These were very special forests,’ says Dr David Beresford-Jones from the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, University of Cambridge, UK who led the team.

The huarango tree (Prosopis pallida) is a unique tree with many qualities and played a vital role in the habitat, protecting the fragile desert ecosystem, the scientists say.”

Read the full article here.

Over logging these trees destroyed the environmental balance that the people depended on to be able to live in the hostile environment.

One wonders how much longer we have until we reach a similar tipping point in regions of the earth that are carrying far more than the normal capacity because of our use of high-energy storage resources like oil and coal. Or until our over logging of forests too drastically reduces the environments ability to sequester sufficient carbon dioxide that might cause a runaway greenhouse effect.

More information on this story here on one of the Discovery Magazine’s blogs.

Study: Wealth buys rescue from urban heat island

News of a study linking death rates caused by the weather to the mean income of a neighborhood was just published here in Arizona:

“[The] link between money and the ability to cope with extreme weather emerged clearly in the research. Among the startling revelations: For every $10,000 an area’s income rises, the average outside temperature drops one-half degree Fahrenheit.

‘It’s an environmental-justice issue,’ said Darren Ruddell, a geographer who led the study. ‘The people who are most vulnerable are also living in the worst conditions. It’s a double whammy.'”

Read the full article here.

The study looked specifically at a heatwave back in 2005 during which something on the order of 31 people died here in Phoenix because of heat related stress.

The major finding is that wealthier neighborhoods are able to afford the sort of landscaping, grass, and shade trees that allow the overnight temperature to lower more quickly than it does in a neighborhood with mostly asphalt, concrete and dirt lots. Add to that the financial resources in the wealthier neighborhoods that allow the residents to use their air conditioners when it’s 100 degrees or higher outside. (Which in Phoenix can be our summertime overnight low temperature.)

Local people have reacted with programs like the water stations that are set up around town during heat advisories. Trinity Cathedral has a group of volunteers called our “Hotshots” that work with the Salvation Army in our neighborhood to staff one such site that serves the urban homeless during high heat days.

The interesting finding in the studies is that xeric landscaping (which is a design which attempts to create a local landscape as much like the original desert environment as possible) may be making things worse. The motivation behind xeric landscapes is water conservation. But by not using water on landscapes, we are losing the evaporative cooling that vegetation enables overnight.

Twenty years ago the area where I now live was pretty much just citrus orchards. I live about 3 miles from downtown Phoenix. I imagine that miles and miles and miles of trees right up against the urban setting of the city had a major effect on the temperatures. It was less the desert landscape that kept things cool and more the trees.

Perhaps it’s time to rethink what we do outside?