Give it a try – Don’t fly

I’m waiting for tomorrow’s climate strike with great anticipation. My generation has failed the planet. A younger generation is demanding the action that their parents and grandparents were too ignorant, too fearful, too complacent, too wedded to lives of wealth and convenience, to take. I can only pray that they succeed.

Too be sure, all of us have contributed to the problem by asking more of the Earth than the planet can deliver. According to The Uninhabitable Earth: Life after Warming by David Wallace-Wells, “More than half of the carbon exhaled into the atmosphere by the burning of fossil fuels has been emitted in just the past three decades.” This fact is enough to tell me that the way I have conducted my life, and indeed, the way all of us in the energy-intensive first world have conducted our lives, has been a disaster for life on Earth, both now and in the future.

So how do we turn things around? Unfortunately, there is no simple answer, no single path, that will return the greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere to anything that might be considered safe. We must find multiple solutions on multiple scales. We must demand that governments muster the collective will necessary for broad, binding changes. An end to fossil fuel subsidies? A carbon tax? A requirement for renewable energy? All this, and more. And yet, we must also shoulder the burden for change as individuals.

Consumer choices – what we consume, how much we consume, what we invest in and what we demand in return for those investments – all have an impact on greenhouse gas emissions. The easy choice is to stick with the familiar and convenient, but “business as usual” is exactly the problem. Do we dare to live our lives in new ways?

Consider air travel. Let me quote from “Contrails threaten climate” (Science, “News in Brief”, 5 July 2019, p. 11), “Carbon emissions from aviation are a well-known contributor to climate warming. But another byproduct of planes – the white contrails they paint across the sky – has an even bigger effect.

The obvious solution? Don’t fly. At very least, give up non-essential flying. But there’s the rub. The availability of relatively cheap, fast, air travel has created a culture in which separations over long distance are considered only minor inconveniences, rather than life-changing events. Do your parents in Boston want you to come home for the holidays, or to attend your cousin’s wedding, or your uncle’s retirement party? No problem. Hop on a jet and you’re there. Two days later hop on another jet and you’re back at school. You might not even miss a single class. And yet the damage has been done.

A bit of math. One website claims that the average American family drives its car about 15,000 miles a year. Give or take a few thousand miles, it’s probably right. However, a round-trip jet flight from Portland to Boston covers over 5,000 miles even by the most direct route and flying burns far more fossil fuel per mile than driving a car does. Add in the multiplying effect of contrails mentioned above, and suddenly the carbon footprint of a weekend trip to Boston outstrips that of an entire family’s car travel for a year. So, as we strike tomorrow, let’s ask ourselves this question: Do we dare to live our lives in new ways? Because only a “yes” can save us.

Flying is just one of life’s many planet-ruining conveniences, but it offers a clear target for living differently. For more encouragement on giving up non-essential air travel, see Climate Scientists Say No to Flying (Science 17 May 2019, p. 621) and No Fly Climate Sci.

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Mobilize for the Climate, Global Strike, F, 9/20

People all across the globe will join together on Friday, Sept 20 for a Climate Strike. Individually, we can do a lot. Together, we can do so much more. Join in.

For more info about Portland events go to Climate Strike Oregon. And help spread the word. Here’s a link to their Outreach Toolkit. Put up a poster. Talk to your friends and classmates. Talk to your family. Spread the word.

We can’t afford to run our lives according to the same old “business as usual”! If we don’t begin to live and work in a new way, we soon won’t be living and working at all. Young people seem to understand this much better than my generation does.

Want to get involved? Check out some of these groups. Find the one that welcomes you and feels like a good fit.

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Freakin’ Farmers

I spend a lot of time at tea shops and I’ve noticed that public sharing of words starting in “f” (well, certain f-words) feels more frequent today than in times past. Fantasy? Or fact?

According to How farming reshaped our smiles and our speech (Science, 15 Mar 2019, p. 1131) , f- (and v-) sounds entered into human speech after the invention of agriculture several thousand years ago. The theory is that as our food became easier to eat, evolution gave us adults with the overbites more typical of children. And, as the article says, “within a few thousand years, those slight overbites made it easy for people in farming cultures to fire off sounds like ‘f’ and ‘v'”.

See also Human sound systems are shaped by post-Neolithic changes in bite configuration, D. E. Blasi et al., Science 363, eaav3218 (2019). DOI: 10.1126/science.aav3218

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Divestment = Politics or Morals?

Demands that Reed College divest its endowment funds from some dubious source of profit or another have percolated around campus for as long as I have taught here.

At my first convocation ceremony in the Reed gym (Aug. 1989) I sat on the stage with other new faculty while a group of student protesters silently stood by with signs and banners demanding that the College divest from companies located in then-apartheid South Africa. Leaping forward two decades, I added my support to the student voices demanding that the College divest from fossil fuel companies. Most recently, students campaigned for divestment from Wells Fargo, partly on the basis of Wells Fargo’s profiting from the private prison industry and partly because of Wells Fargo’s fraudulent business practices. Continue reading

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The Carbon Footprint of Academic Travel

The 18 January 2019 issue of Science contains a letter, Airborne in the era of climate change, written by two European scientists, Kévin Jean and Chris Wymant. They write, “The IPCC’s 2050 target of carbon neutrality is strongly challenged by sectors with unavoidable emissions, such as aviation (my emphasis).

They cite a forecast that the growth of the aviation sector could mean that aviation alone will by 2050 consume “up to one-quarter of the total global carbon budget for 1.5C.” They also contrast this forecast with travel behavior of academics: “air travel contributes substantially to the carbon footprint of academic communities, despite calls to travel less.”

Sadly, the necessity (and impact) of air travel for work or pleasure is almost never a topic of conversation on my campus (even on our college’s Sustainability committee). A decade ago I asked our college’s research office to help me estimate the number of miles students (just one part of our airborne population) must travel to get to and from campus. We based our estimates on the students’ home zip codes, and we assumed (because the college closes for winter break) that students would make at least two round-trips in a year that would cover the same distance that a crow would fly, i.e., no connecting flights or travel to hub airports. We also assumed that students who lived within a few hundred miles of Portland were unlikely to fly at all. Even with these conservative assumptions, it was clear that the carbon footprint of student air travel was large enough to make all other parts of the college’s carbon footprint pale by comparison. And, of course, we had only grabbed a piece of the true impact; a realistic calculation of the impact of Reed air travel would also have to include travel by faculty, staff, student families, campus visitors, and more.

Jean and Wymant finish their letter with these words, “including a carbon sobriety criterion [as part of the evaluation of scientists and research projects] could be a good way to reduce scientists’ carbon footprint … Institutions invariably have policies for preventing and reducing harm, which address problems such as physical safety and data security. Surely the protection of planetary health, through the dramatic carbon cuts that are now urgently required, has a place in institutional policy, too.”

A ‘carbon sobriety’ test is exactly what our institutions need. Why not include carbon footprints in college rankings? What use is a degree from an institution of higher education if that institution is undermining the health of the entire planet?

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The First Day of Spring

Was today the first day of Spring? How does one tell? In other parts of the country Spring’s heralds are sunshine, warmth that penetrates to your bones (not yet, Portland, not yet), a second robin, and daffodils in bloom. Portlanders often call on these, but we have another way to reckon the year’s progress, up here, west of the Cascades. We attend to our rain and its quality.

Which brings me back to my question. Was today, March 12, the first day of Spring 2019?

I ask because … returning from lunch I parked my car in the college’s North lot and stepped out into sunshine. 100 strides later, I stepped onto the Blue Bridge under gray clouds and the beginning of a fine rain. The storm intensified as I kept walking south across the Canyon, and as I left the Bridge behind and turned east I seriously considered opening my umbrella. But, barely had I begun to mull this possibility over when I found myself rounding Eliot Circle, back in sunshine and a fine mist that was the only memory of what had just come before. I entered the Chemistry building in full sunshine ready to put all thoughts of rain and umbrellas behind me. And yet, 90 seconds later, as I swung open my office door, the scene outside had been transformed once again. My office window was awash with the fierce gray tat-a-tat and dark skies of another Portland rain shower.

Such is Spring in Portland. And it lasts a full 3 months.

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Lab Safety 10 Years After Sheri Sangji

C&E News has published an article, 10 years after Sheri Sangji’s death, are academic labs any safer? (Dec. 28, 2018), that is a must-read for all chemists who either go into labs themselves or are responsible for sending others into a lab. The lab accident that took Ms. Sangji’s life was clearly preventable. Nevertheless, the many steps, small and large, that need to be taken to make chemistry labs, especially academic research and training labs, safer remain a work in progress.

An accident is a failure to anticipate hazard and to take all all of the steps needed to keep it from happening. One might say that risk is always present in lab work so what is to be done? But this misses the larger point. The little bits of acid that etched holes in the blue jeans I always wore to lab in graduate school were never going to kill me, but those holes pointed to an uncomfortable fact that eluded me at the time: my daily lab work was exposing me to chemical reagents without my being aware of it. Had the reagents been something more toxic, mutagenic, or reactive, the effects might have been far more unpleasant than damaged clothing.

Those of us who work in the lab, or send others into the lab for research or instruction, have a duty to insist on a universal culture of lab safety that promotes awareness of risk, and creates incentives for lowering all imaginable risks to tolerable levels. Until then, we will either operate in the denial that Ian Tonks describes in “I thought it would never happen to me”, or with that “icy ball of fear” that Debbie Decker (Safety Manager, Dept. of Chemistry, UC Davis) refers to in her companion essay, “How we’re making compliance beneficial”.

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Church of England promises to divest from fossil fuels

Science magazine (13 July 2018) reports (News | In Brief, p. 114) that the Church of England has decided to divest itself from fossil fuel companies. The Church divested itself of £12 million in assets from tar sands and coal projects in 2015, but the next stage will be much larger, about £125 million in shares in large oil and gas companies. The Church’s efforts also include teaming up with the London School of Economics to create the Transition Pathway Initiative, an assessment tool that examines a company’s preparedness for a low carbon economy. Perhaps this would interest the Trustees of Reed College?

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PSU Chemists May Have Unlocked Juul’s Appeal

E-cigarettes are often promoted as a “healthy” alternative to cigarettes (“The Promise of Vaping and the Rise of Juul” New Yorker, 14 May 2018). The public health appeal of this is simple: nicotine is notoriously addictive (even without the flavorings that Juul adds), so vaping is offered as a way for smokers to self-administer nicotine without exposing themselves to tobacco and carcinogens.

If only life were that simple. Nicotine has its own toxicity problems. Juul has become the e-cigarette/addiction of choice among teens who had not been smokers or nicotine addicts previously, and there are very real concerns about Juul being a stepping stone to cigarettes, let alone an addiction that works on teenagers’ still-developing brain networks.

Now a team of chemists at Portland State University (Angela Duell, James Pankow, David Peyton) provides a possible reason why Juul’s brand of nicotine liquid might be unusually appealing and addictive. Juul adds more acid to its liquid to create more protonated nicotine than other brands, and this form of nicotine is more appealing when inhaled. (Background chemistry: The nicotine molecule contains 2 basic nitrogen atoms, and nicotine solutions contain a “free base” form in which both N are electrically neutral, and “protonated” form in which one N remains neutral and the other carries an extra proton as R3NH+.)

Earlier investigations of the free and protonated nicotine in Juul’s liquids had not given reliable results, but the PSU team found a way around this experimental hurdle. Links to the PSU research include: Chem. Res. Toxicol. 2018, DOI: 10.1021/acs.chemrestox.8b00097 | C&ENews, 2018, 96(22), 28 May

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Real News About the Climate

Here are two recent “real news” stories that should make you worried about the self-serving fools in charge of our government, corporations, and just about any other person or institution with a financial incentive to keep things as they are:

“Going Negative: Can carbon dioxide removal save the world?” by Elizabeth Kolbert (The New Yorker, 20 Nov 2017) Kolbert explains why we’re in dire straits (quote #1), why CO2 removal (so-called ‘negative emissions’) looks appealing (quote #2), and why it might not be possible to get there (quotes #3 & #4).

(#1) When the IPCC went looking for ways to hold the temperature increase under two degrees Celsius, it found the math punishing. Global emissions would have to fall rapidly and dramatically – pretty much down to zero by the middle of the century.

(#2) The IPCC considered more than a thousand possible scenarios. Of these, only a hundred and sixteen limit warming to below two degrees, and of these a hundred and eight involve negative emissions.

Continue reading

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