Fresh hot reality: acid and ice

November 28, 2012

“This is not speculation,” said Bill Ruckelshaus. “This is chemistry.”

Yesterday, a blue ribbon panel appointed by Governor Chris Gregoire and co-chaired by Ruckelshaus and Jay Manning released a far-reaching assessment and action plan on ocean acidification (or “OA,” which has been called “global warming’s evil twin” since they share a primary root cause – CO2 emissions from burning fossil fuels.)  The Washington Post covers it here.

It was the oysters that blew the whistle. “Between 2005 and 2009, disastrous production failures at Pacific Northwest oyster hatcheries signaled a shift in ocean chemistry that has profound implications for Washington’s marine environment,” begins the report’s executive summary.  “The problem, in a nutshell, was ocean acidification.”

The declining pH (rising acidity) of the ocean can affect a wide range of organisms and life processes, including photosynthesis, growth, respiration, and reproduction.   The most dramatic effects so far appear to be on the “calcifiers” – organsims that use calcium carbonate to make shells, skeletons, and other body parts.   These include delicious favorites – scallops, mussels, clams, oysters, kelp, and such.  But more disturbingly for the whole marine food web, acidification is also threatening pteropds – tiny sea snails that play a vital primary role in marine food supplies.  Rising acidity is literally eating away at the foundations of the ocean food pyramid.

The panel’s recommendations include a variety of measures to reduce local sources of pollution that contribute to acidification, including wastewater discharges and nutrient runoff.  This adds powerful new impetus to the already-vital work of the Puget Sound Partnership.

But to the panel and the Governor’s credit, neither the report nor the Executive Order implementing its recommendations shy away from the biggest driver:  global emissions of carbon dioxide.  These emissions are changing the chemistry of the oceans as dramatically as they’re changing the chemistry of the atmosphere.  Average acidity (measure by hydrogen ion concentration) has already increased 30%.

State government could have balked, claiming little jurisdiction over the global energy investment decisions that drive carbon dioxide emissions.    But the Governor, in classic Gregoire style, came with her sleeves rolled up. “Let’s get to work,” she told the high-powered audience assembled for the release. “Let’s lead the world in addressing this global challenge.”

Critics might charge that Washington State is such a small part of the emissions problem that any state action is a futile gesture.   In an increasingly cynical political culture, this brand of irresponsible defeatism may be the most potent strategy for those determined to prolong fossil fuel dependence and undermine clean energy solutions.  But Washington’s not having any of it.

The sound of the truth alone – in an era of pathological denial about the dimensions of the climate (and OA) challenge – is a potent change agent.  And while of course no jurisdiction can solve it unilaterally, every step forward improves the prospects for other solutions.  Especially now, as political will for climate action rebuilds, this sharp focus on science and solutions is a breath of fresh air.

Meanwhile, the film Chasing Ice is puncturing denial with the overwhelming power of spectacular, visual images of the Artic melting.  The long, slow, breathtaking sequences of massive ice collapses create a space where all the yapping and equivocating and denial fade and ultimately disappear.  The effect is like being left alone with your conscience.

Check out the powerful impact it seems to have had on a former climate denier in this video:

Shocks of recognition, jolts of reality, are coursing through our information stream.  Can they defibrillate the body politic before it slips toward terminal climate unconsciousness?

Blazing a Path Ahead (BPA) for the next 75

November 17, 2012

.. originally published in Clearing Up

I drove through Eastern Washington last June, when the Columbia ran high.  I remember rounding a corner to a vista of Bonneville Dam, with water pouring over the spillways and mist rising on a bright windy day.  It took my breath away.  I remember how my 19-year-old son stood quiet and tall when he caught sight of Grand Coulee from the overlook.  “Damn!” I heard myself say, not intending the pun. “Look at that!”

Now, I’m a former river guide and an avid nature lover, so dams are a mixed bag for me.  But however you tally their costs and benefits, those bad boys are impressive.  I think what hit me was the sheer scale of ambition and collective human determination they represent.  They speak of a time and an ethos when we did big, great things together. 

That spirit seems sadly remote now.  We spend more time quibbling about how to divvy up the big juicy pie our grandparents baked than figuring out how to bake more, for our kids and grandkids.

You have to wonder, if we had to do something big and great together now, could we do it?  Turns out, it’s not a hypothetical question.

We actually do have a defining, existential challenge on our hands:  building a clean energy economy to stabilize the climate before we trigger catastrophic disruption.  These words sound edgy, “extreme” in relation to the political dialogue about these issues.  Yet they accurately represent our best scientific understanding of our actual circumstances…and the reality on the ground in New York and New Jersey in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, in the Farm Belt and Texas after this summer’s epic drought, in the dying forests of the Eastern Cascades.

Imagine that climate disruption presented itself not as a political football, but as the crisis that it is – the way Pearl Harbor turned a vague global threat into a national emergency overnight (or the way Sandy slammed into the East Coast).  Suppose we stop all the politicking and yapping and just deal with it.  Now what?

As we gather ourselves for the challenge, we’ll discover that one place has a uniquely powerful set of attributes that make it a natural proving ground for the transition to a clean energy era.  That place already has a vast, public infrastructure for producing and delivering carbon-free energy.   It is blessed with extraordinary natural and human resources and a culture of innovation, having played pioneering roles in the aviation, software, and internet revolutions.  It has a distant but still powerful memory of how ambitious collective investment in energy infrastructure cleared the path to broadly-shared prosperity.  That place is here.

Starting with these huge advantages, what could the Northwest do to lead the transition to a fossil fuel-free energy era, and how could BPA help us do it?  How can these assets be deployed to facilitate replacement of our aging coal plants with clean energy (and very little gas as a bridge) – effectively ending the use of fossil fuels to serve regional power needs in time for BPA’s 100th anniversary?  How can BPA help the region squeeze more work out of our low-cost power – meeting ALL foreseeable load growth by wasting less of the valuable resources we already have?  How could BPA accelerate deployment of new technologies that store energy, manage loads, and integrate more intermittent renewables? How could BPA help create a table where we end the perpetual cycle of litigation and hammer out a durable, comprehensive salmon recovery strategy?

I pose these as questions.   I’m not proposing a blueprint.  I’m suggesting we take this opportunity to step back and think hard about what’s right, what’s necessary, what’s possible.  What’s our job, in the big picture, and how can we use our assets and our history to help us step up and do it?

Think even bigger – as big as the climate challenge:  How could we leverage our low-cost, low-carbon electricity infrastructure to replace the high-cost, high-carbon petroleum that dominates our transportation system?  How could BPA anchor a regional strategy to capture the economic advantages of global leadership in clean energy technologies and systems?     How could BPA empower and assist local communities in implementing the clean energy and carbon reduction initiatives that work for them?

These questions may seem to stray outside BPA’s current scope – but not nearly as far as building tanks was outside the scope of the auto industry on December 6, 1941.  And if we are to have any hope of preventing catastrophic climate disruption, we’ll have to get into a December 7 state of mind.  It’s a state of mind and a spirit that’s radically out of step with the cynical, sniping, “can’t do” politics of the moment.  But it’s a spirit that represents the best of BPA’s legacy – the ambition, the collective will, the profound commitment to a better future – that built the nation’s best power system.

Let’s renew it.