Unanswered Questions for Geoengineers & Reed College

“The Paris agreement aims to limit the global temperature rise to 1.5 to 2C above preindustrial temperature, but achieving this goal requires much higher levels of mitigation than currently planned. [emphasis added]” So begins an editorial, “How to govern geoengineering,” appearing on p. 231 of the 21 July 2017 issue of Science magazine.

The 3 authors, all of whom work at the Carnegie Climate Geoengineering Governance (C2G2) Initiative, describe the two most talked-about versions of “geoengineering” (human actions designed to intentionally change the climate): carbon dioxide removal (CDR) and solar radiation management (SRM). Both approaches currently run aground on unsolved technical problems, and, as the authors point out, “geoengineering does not obviate the need for radical reductions in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to zero, combined with adaptation to inevitable climate impacts. [emphasis added]”

To put it in straightforward terms, we can talk all we want about technical ‘engineering + adaptation’ fixes for the planet, but we still need to stop producing greenhouse gases. This means halting the burning of fossil fuels, something that will happen only when Reed College, and other shareholders in fossil fuel companies, stop clinging to a narrowly defined view of “fiduciary responsibility” that says short-term profit is a viable option even if it leads to long-term disaster.

I have 34 years of college teaching at 3 different institutions under my belt, and I know that what we do is worthwhile, but I cannot identify a single college program that would justify financial transactions that will ultimately make refugees out of the millions who live in coastal communities, and threaten the global food supply, to name just two likely consequences of climate change (“The Uninhabitable Earth,” New York Magazine, 9 July 2017 and “Are We as Doomed as That New York Magazine Article Says?” The Atlantic, 10 July 2017).

Our institution’s approach to the fossil fuel industry needs to change, and yet, even as I try to picture the necessary changes I know that these will need to be managed carefully and thoughtfully. Overnight divestment is not a viable option. Unfortunately, what concerns me is that the College’s leaders have so far denied that there is even a problem here worthy of their attention. They find it easier to blow the dust off of documents written for a bygone age, and point to phrases like “fiduciary responsibility” and “protecting academic freedom,” phrases that will almost certainly lose all meaning in the world that is now appearing all around us.

Sometimes it helps to look at the data. Here are globally averaged CO2 levels (measured at the ocean’s surface as reported by the U.S. National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration, NOAA) taken from the last 27 years of my Reed career:

  • April, 1990 (my first Reed Thesis Parade) – 355.4 ppm
  • April, 2013 (class of ’17 clicks ‘yes’ on Reed’s admission offer) – 396.5 ppm
  • April, 2017 (class of ’17 celebrates Thesis Parade) – 406.7 ppm

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CO2 emissions melting sea ice

Portland temperatures topped 90F on Monday reminding us that summer is, if not yet here officially, right around the corner. And summer brings big questions for climate scientists like, “how much ice will remain in the Arctic when summer is over?”

As these some recent articles make clear, this past winter was a bad one for the Arctic so sea ice is already weakened, and to make things worse, rising CO2 emissions spell even more trouble:

If you don’t have time to read these articles, these quotes from the Cornwall article puts the American lifestyle in perspective,

“The jet fuel you burned on that flight from New York City to London? Say goodbye to 1 square meter of Arctic sea ice. … The average annual carbon emissions from a U.S. family of four would claim nearly 200 square meters of sea ice. Over 3 decades, that family would be responsible for destroying more than an American football field’s worth of ice … Each person in the United States is responsible for the destruction of 10 times as much ice each year as someone in India.”

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People’s Climate March – Portland

Tomorrow’s march is titled “Climate Action Rooted in Justice.” It starts at 12 pm in Dawson Park in NE Portland and winds for over a mile through NE Portland. The park is located between N Williams and N Vancouver adjacent to Legacy Emanuel Hospital.

Getting there:

  • Bike. N Williams is a N-bound bike boulevard that starts at the Rose quarter (N end of Eastbank Esplanade).
  • Bus. Trimet bus #4 takes riders from SE Division to N Williams & N Morris. 30 min ride.

For more details go this link. A statement from the organizers:  Continue reading

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Climate says, “Science is not a hoax!”

There are those (Trump, Tillerson, Pruitt, …) who pretend that the scientific evidence on changes in global climate is a hoax, but we know better. Science has the facts. Those deny the science are guided by one overriding concern: sticking to business as usual so that they can line their pockets. (The Rockefeller Family Fund vs. Exxon, Kaiser & Wasserman, NY Review of Books, 8 Dec 2016).

Well, guess what? Science is taking to the streets in the next few days. Come join us! Science is not a hoax.

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Bright Times for Computational Chemistry

I can still remember when computational chemistry was considered a special, esoteric (some would have said “useless”) sub-specialty within physical chemistry. Three recent articles in scientific journals show that the times have changed. Future research will have a computational component almost out of necessity because computation-based models are not only tools for rationalizing experimental results, they are increasingly the go-to tools for planning which experiments to perform. These research trends also point the way for education: chemistry instruction will become more reliant on computation-based models.

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Jury Says DuPont Must Pay for Harm Caused by Spilled Chemical

An Ohio jury has awarded $10.5 million in punitive damages to a man who claimed that his testicular cancer was caused by exposure to water that a Dupont factory had contaminated with perfluorooctanoic acid (also known as PFOA or C-8 because the molecule contains 8 carbon atoms). C-8 is used to make teflon, the perfluorocarbon polymer that has many uses ranging from Gore Tex raincoats to the coating on non-stick frying pans. PFOA exposure has been linked to at least six diseases so far, including testicular and kidney cancer.

The jury’s decision is significant in several ways: 1) it is the 3rd and largest award made against DuPont for discharges of C-8 from its Parkersburg, W. Va, manufacturing plant (and there are many, many more cases pending against DuPont because of these discharges), and 2) the jury awarded punitive damages, i.e., they are not just payment for the harm experienced by the plaintiff. As the Free Legal Dictionary puts it, “The purposes of damages are to punish the defendant for outrageous misconduct and to deter the defendant and others from similar misbehavior in the future.”

To learn more about this case and the extent of PFOA contamination in U.S. waterways, read:

Feb 24, 2017 update – DuPont and Chemours have settled 3,550 lawsuits by agreeing to a payment of $670 million to plaintiffs. (“DuPont, Chemours settle PFOA suits” CENews, 20 Feb 2017 and “DuPont Settles Lawsuits Over Leak of Chemical Used to Make Teflon” NY Times, 13 Feb 2017)

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Young People Sue For Stable Climate

Can you sue the government to force it to take action on climate change? This question was put to federal magistrate judge Thomas Coffin in Eugene, Oregon in early 2015 in a lawsuit, Kelsey Cascadia Rose Juliana et al. v. United States of America et al. (“Kids Get Their Day in Court,” Sierra, Sept/Oct 2016 p. 42).

Just to set things up… On one side are the plaintiffs: 21 youths aged 8 to 19. The young people are represented by Our Children’s Trust, and an amicus brief has been filed in support of their position by The Global Catholic Climate Movement, an international network that includes Pope Francis. On the other side is the defendant: the United States government (and its traditional 😉 supporters, the American Petroleum Institute and the National Association of Manufacturers). The position taken by the plaintiffs is based on an ancient legal doctrine called the public trust doctrine which holds that “the government has a responsibility to steward for future generations shared resources such as ocean fisheries and navigable rivers.”

To learn more, and/or sign a petition in support of the plaintiffs, follow this link to Our Children’s Trust. The case is supposed to go to trial in early 2017.

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Jobs for Computational Chemists at BASF

Wikipedia says that the German chemical giant, BASF, is “the largest producer in the world, operating 390 production sites on 5 continents, and employing approximately 122,000 in 2015. This past summer a C&E News article (“More Rabbits from Fewer Hats,” 20 June 2016, p. 26) took a look at BASF’s research directions.

C&E News noted that BASF is “the only chemical firm in the world to have an R&D bill of more than $2 billion,” but they also reported a change in direction. According to BASF board member, Martin Brudermuller, “Our research commitment will not increase at the same rate as before, but our commitment to R&D will not go down. … In the future we will need more computational chemists than lab technicians.”

Curious about what computational chemists do, and how this might appeal to an industrial giant like BASF, come see me.

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What’s it like to be a scientist?

I’ve been reading Science magazine for years, but this only marks me as a nerd, not as a scientist. If you want to learn a little about the day-to-day experiences of working scientists, I recommend reading the Working Life feature on the back page of Science. I don’t agree with everything I read there, but a lot of it speaks to me (and it also tells me how much, and how little, science has changed over the past 4 decades since I left graduate school).

Here’s an article that I encourage every student and colleague to read: Rescuing my time from science (Dr. Luca Rinaldi, Science, 23 Dec 2016). Dr. Rinaldi, a postdoctoral research fellow, writes about an important personal discovery: he had unintentionally allowed his life to be shaped by the signals he adsorbed from “colleagues’ behavior and the cultural expectations of academic research.”

Leaving his research lab very late one night, after missing dinner with his life partner hours earlier, he realizes,

… I was living in a sort of time warp – which was particularly ironic given that I was studying how daily activities shape our sense of time. Now, though, after years of allowing my work to take over my life, I’m reclaiming my power to decide how to spend my time.

It’s an important discovery for everyone to make. And to make again, and again.

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Reed’s Climate Path under Trump

The election of Donald Trump to the presidency raises all sorts of questions about future US policy on greenhouse gases and climate change. An opinion piece by Robert Stavins (“Goodbye to the Climate,” NY Times, 9 Nov 2016) lists the promises that Trump made on the campaign trail: rescinding all actions by the Obama administration, stopping all US funding for all UN climate-related activities (this would include funding for the IPCC?), stopping all work on reducing greenhouse gases (including reversing EPA regulations to date), and restoring the US coal industry.

If this list sounds like a horrific prospect, consider this: the Obama administration’s regulations to date have not brought us anywhere near meeting our obligations under the Paris agreement. A recent analysis published in Nature Climate Change, and reported in Science magazine (26 Sept 2016), states, “Even if the United States implements all current and proposed [Obama administration] policies, it would miss its 2025 target by as much as 1.5 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide per year—roughly 20% of the nation’s total emissions.” 20% is a pretty big ‘miss,’ especially when we remember that it is 20% of the gases emitted by the world’s second largest producer of greenhouse gases. It is certainly not the kind of outcome that anyone who is concerned about climate change can tolerate.

Which raises this question: if a Trump administration fails to act on climate, or rolls back/looks the other way on existing regulations, what responsibility do institutions like Reed College have? Do we just close our eyes (as the Reed trustees have done in the past) and pursue whatever activities and investments the law allows because climate change is a ‘political’ issue? I sincerely hope not. Whether Reed’s trustees like it or not, we may be entering a period when conviction must finally translate into action.

Nov 22, 2016 update – Science magazine (14 Oct 2016, p. 154) reports401 – Lowest concentration of carbon dioxide, in ppm, measured for 2016 at Mauna Loa in Hawaii in late September, before values climb again. The site may now have passed the 400-ppm marked permanently.”

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