More than surface level: Greenland is melting from the bottom up

We get fairly regular updates about ice melting in Greenland. From growing pools of water on top of the ice, to algae trapping heat and accelerating the melt – the news is pretty consistent, and pretty grim. The other side of that has been meltwater pouring down inside the ice, and unfortunately that process has been causing the ice to melt from underneath.

Each summer, thousands of meltwater lakes and streams form on the surface of the Greenland Ice Sheet as temperatures rise and daily sunlight increases. Many of these lakes quickly drain to the bottom of the ice sheet, falling through cracks and large fractures which form in the ice. With a continued supply of water from streams and rivers, connections between surface and bed often remain open.

As part of the EU-funded RESPONDER project, Professor Poul Christoffersen from Cambridge’s Scott Polar Research Institute has been studying these meltwater lakes, how and why they drain so quickly, and the effect that they have on the overall behaviour of the ice sheet as global temperatures continue to rise.

The current work, which includes researchers from Aberystwyth University, is the culmination of a seven-year study focused on Store Glacier, one of the largest outlets from the Greenland Ice Sheet.

“When studying basal melting of ice sheets and glaciers, we look at sources of heat like friction, geothermal energy, latent heat released where water freezes and heat losses into the ice above,” said Christoffersen. “But what we hadn’t really looked at was the heat generated by the draining meltwater itself. There’s a lot of gravitational energy stored in the water that forms on the surface and when it falls, the energy has to go somewhere.”

To measure basal melt rates, the researchers used phase-sensitive radio-echo sounding, a technique developed at the British Antarctic Survey and used previously on floating ice sheets in Antarctica.

“We weren’t sure that the technique would also work on a fast-flowing glacier in Greenland,” said first author Dr Tun Jan Young, who installed the radar system on Store Glacier as part of his PhD at Cambridge. “Compared to Antarctica, the ice deforms really fast and there is a lot of meltwater in summer, which complicates the work.”

The basal melt rates observed with radar were often as high as the melt rates measured on the surface with a weather station: however, the surface receives energy from the sun while the base does not. To explain the results, the Cambridge researchers teamed up with scientists at the University of California Santa Cruz and the Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland.

The researchers calculated that as much as 82 million cubic metres of meltwater was transferred to the bed of Store Glacier every day during the summer of 2014. They estimate the power produced by the falling water during peak melt periods was comparable to the power produced by the Three Gorges Dam in China, the world’s largest hydroelectric power station. With a melt area that expands to nearly a million square kilometres at the height of summer, the Greenland Ice Sheet produces more hydropower than the world’s ten largest hydroelectric power stations combined.

“Given what we are witnessing at the high latitudes in terms of climate change, this form of hydropower could easily double or triple, and we’re still not even including these numbers when we estimate the ice sheet’s contribution to sea-level rise,” said Christoffersen.

To verify the high basal melt rates recorded by the radar system, the team integrated independent temperature measurements from sensors installed in a nearby borehole. At the base, they found the temperature of water to be as high as +0.88 degrees Celsius, which is unexpectedly warm for an ice sheet base with a melting point of -0.40 degrees.

“The borehole observations confirmed that the meltwater heats up when it hits the bed,” said Christoffersen. “The reason is that the basal drainage system is a lot less efficient than the fractures and conduits that bring the water through the ice. The reduced drainage efficiency causes frictional heating within the water itself. When we took this heat source out of our calculations, the theoretical melt rate estimates were a full two orders of magnitude out. The heat generated by the falling water is melting the ice from the bottom up, and the melt rate we are reporting is completely unprecedented.”

The study presents the first concrete evidence of an ice-sheet mass-loss mechanism, which is not yet included in projections of global sea-level rise. While the high melt rates are specific to heat produced in subglacial drainage paths carrying surface water, the volume of surface water produced in Greenland is huge and growing, and nearly all of it drains to the bed.

That closing paragraph is a doozy, especially considering the recent NOAA report predicting a foot of sea level rise by 2050. I’ve been making climate communication a central part of my life for over a decade now, and the consistent theme throughout is that things seem to be moving faster than the scientists expect. This seems to be in keeping with that pattern. It may be that any contribution this melting is currently making is accounted for by the NOAA report, but it also seems likely to me that these findings will lead to some big headlines in the coming years as scientists work out exactly what this means for the future of ice melt.

Video: Post-Satire Capitalism

I don’t know if satire is dead, but a lot of this video gets at how I’ve been feeling for a while now. Life has a sort of surreal quality, with the cheerleaders of capitalism becoming ever more cartoonish in their praises for murderous profiteers. How is it that these people have so much power? How is this supposed to be the best the world can be?

How can this possibly last?

It can’t.

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Agrovoltaics 101: A synergetic relationship between food production and power generation

I’ve written before about the need for us to change how we do agriculture, to protect crops from climate change. A lot of where I think our focus should be is on moving food production indoors, but it’s unlikely that’s going to happen as quickly as I’d like, and doing what we can to protect existing farmland is also a good idea. Retrofitting is almost always going to be cheaper than building entirely new facilities. One of the approaches to climate-proofing I’ve seen discussed is “agrovoltaics” – the practice of using a piece of land for power generation and food production simultaneously. As with everything else, this isn’t going to be “the” solution for our power problems or our food problems, but it’s an interesting idea, and I’m glad to see people experimenting with it. I think this is a good introduction to the topic:

Video: Science says understanding evolution makes you less likely to be a bigot

I admit that I’m biased, but I feel that the contents of this video make a great deal of intuitive sense. The more I’ve understood about evolution, and about my literal kinship with all other life on this planet, the more I’ve felt that kinship, including with my fellow humans. That said, there are definitely people (Richard Dawkins come to mind) who almost certainly know more about evolution than I do, and yet manage to persevere with their bigotry anyway. As always, we’re talking about statistical likelihood, not a universal truth. You’ll find the video and the transcript at the link above, or you can watch the video here:

Let’s try not to curse the land: Climate, war, and nuclear power

I recently started re-reading The Wheel of Time, because I enjoyed the first season of the new TV adaptation. I read some of it when I was a kid. My friend John had the series, and loaned me the books (I think I damaged one and had to replace it). At the time, the main problem I noticed with the books is Robert Jordan’s bizarre views on gender and on relationships between men and women. In researching for this post, another thing occurred to me.

The basic premise of the series is that there’s a Supreme Good and a Supreme Evil, and there’s an eternal war being waged as Mr. Evil tries to take over and do Evil things. The eternal nature of the war is complicated by the fact that reincarnation is a definite, confirmed reality in this universe, and so specific people involved in that war keep being reborn and fighting each other in successive lives. Combine this with the fact that powerfully magical or powerfully good or evil events can leave lasting magical effects, and you get a landscape littered with old ruins and buried temples and whatnot, half of which could destroy the world if some person happens to knock over a particular pile of rocks, or insult the wrong ghost. More that that, it’s clear that another one of these “magical exclusion zones” could pop up pretty much anywhere, any time. I think this is a pretty good metaphor for nuclear power, because I’m not particularly worried about Chernobyl or Fukushima-style meltdowns, but I still think there’s reason to be afraid of nuclear power.

I also, as I’ve said, think that there’s reason to continue the development and use of nuclear power, that’s just not what I’m getting into today.

Right now, Russia is in the process of invading Ukraine, which has highlighted the “security” angle of my fear:

Ukraine is home to 15 nuclear power reactors across four plants that supply about half of its energy needs—if struck, they could release radioactive waste that would contaminate the area for thousands of years. Among these facilities is the largest nuclear plant in Europe, the Zaporizhzhia power plant, which sits around 125 miles west of the Donbas combat zone and could soon find itself directly on the front line of conflict. This would cause unknowable environmental damage, and would also threaten the country’s energy security (the plant provides around a quarter of the country’s overall electricity supply.)

I’ll start by saying that the world has suffered a great deal of harm from military activity around fossil fuel infrastructure, and while the exact nature of that damage is different, the death toll, through climate change and air pollution, is much higher than the death toll of nuclear power. That said, there are two complicating factors that dramatically increase the danger I see from nuclear power. The first is that if we do replace a large portion of coal, oil, and gas power plants with nuclear reactors, that will mean multiplying the number of active reactors around the world that could become targets for terrorist or military action (to whatever degree those two are separate). It will also mean an increase both in waste storage sites, and in the volume of waste being stored. Use of nuclear weapons is not required for a war to create radioactive fallout, and the more nuclear power we have around the world, the more true that will be.

The second part of this is that climate change has long been considered a “threat multiplier”, because it will create refugees, resource shortages, and other material problems that historically drive an increase in conflict, as we saw recently in the Syrian civil war. That means more political violence of all kinds. If Putin’s invasion of Ukraine doesn’t result in any radioactive contamination, that will probably be because there’s not much benefit in having control over a fallout zone. That will not be a concern for every group involved in political violence. It’s not hard to imagine either governments or non-government forces deciding that deliberately causing fallout would either “send a message”, or would be a convenient way to keep people out of a particular region.

And again, the risk of that happening goes up as global temperatures increase, and as the number of reactors and waste disposal sites increase.

The other big risk factor is the climate itself. In 2020, a wildfire broke out near Chernobyl, which got a lot of people worried– wildfire smoke is bad enough, without adding radiation to it. Rising sea levels, strengthening storms, and droughts all also pose potential risks, as they do with the other forms of pollution that litter the landscape.

We’re entering an era in which conditions in ten years will almost certain be different from what we’re dealing with now, not just because politics are volatile, but because the planet itself is now going through a major transition to a new, much hotter, stable state. One might assume that it would be possible to avoid at least some of these problems by burying the waste in a geologically stable area, but unfortunately the rising temperature is likely to also cause changes in seismic and volcanic activity.

I don’t think that means nuclear power needs to be erased from human society, but it does mean that we have to be proactive in both plant design, and in disposal of waste. The reality is that we need to begin actively cleaning the planet as soon as we’ve stopped actively making the problem worse.

I think the proposal I’ve heard most often for dealing with spent fuel is to recycle and re-use it, since the high level of radioactivity demonstrates there’s still power to be used, if we can figure out how. Unfortunately, spent fuel “contains about half the periodic table“, meaning we have to either invest a huge amount of energy removing contaminants, or we have to develop a way to safely use un-refined radioactive material. There is at least one working theory for how to go about doing this that I find appealing:

In the early 1990s, Carlo Rubbia, Nobel prize winner in physics (1984) and then CERN’s director general, launched a small experiment applying cutting-edge accelerator technologies toward energy production. The First Energy Amplifier Test (FEAT), funded by the European Commission, successfully demonstrated the principles of a clean and inherently safe process of energy production, based on widely available thorium. Since then, numerous experiments have demonstrated the feasibility of a large scale-up for industrial use. They also demonstrated that existing long-term (240,000 years or more) nuclear waste can be “burned up” in the thorium reactor to become a much more manageable short-term (less than 500 years) nuclear waste.

An Accelerator-Driven System (ADS), as the process is called, comprises an assembly of key technologies developed at CERN: an accelerated proton beam focuses on a metal target, usually lead, in a process called spallation. This spawns neutrons that in turn convert thorium into fissile uranium233, producing heat by way of nuclear fission. The heavy uranium233 nuclei divides into smaller nucleus such as zirconium (think Shopping Channel jewellery) or xenon (used in camera flash bulbs), with only minimal radioactive waste produced.

The advantages of an ADS over other energy production process are many:

Clean: No emissions are produced (CO2, nitrogen or sulphur oxides particles, among others), unlike with fossil fuel. Heat is generated from the transmutation of thorium into the highly radioactive uranium233 and its subsequent fission into smaller particles.

Feasible: ADS technology development has been proven to be a bounded problem with a realistic development timeline. In comparison, fusion is an unbounded problem that does not have a constrained development timeline.

Transmutation of nuclear waste: the ADS process has been proven to transmute long-term nuclear waste, harmful for 240,000 years or more, into short-term radioactivity waste of less than 500 years toxicity. The technology would solve the intractable problem of very long-term radioactive waste storage.

No military usage: The International Atomic Energy Agency has repeatedly stated that the technology is “intrinsically proliferation resistant.”

Large thorium reserves: enough for 20 centuries at 2018 level of global electricity consumption. Thorium is well distributed around the globe, with no nation having a monopoly.

High energy density: 1 tonne of thorium would provide the energy equivalent of 3 million tonnes of coal, or 200 tonnes of natural uranium enriched for use in a nuclear reactor.

Inherent safety: the process operates at atmospheric pressure therefore the plant can’t explode (unlike Chernobyl). The reaction is also stops immediately when the proton beam is interrupted, providing inherent safety.

Smart grid friendly: Immediate ON/OFF capability would make ADS power plants ideal for base load energy production for smart grids.

Small footprint: A 500MW ADS plant would only be as large as a medium size factory, compared to 26 km2 (10 mi2) for the 550MW Topaz solar farm in the sunny California desert. In the wintery north-west, an equivalent solar farm would be almost three times larger, approximately 62 km2. Wind turbines require even more space.

Proximity: inherent safety and small size make ADS ideally suited for any use, industrial or urban, and able to be located in remote regions, including high latitudes with little sunshine.

Decarbonized hydrogen production: reactors could be set close to abundant freshwater at high latitudes for clean hydrogen production, allowing the conversion of electrons into a green gas used for transport, heating and industrial processes.

We’ve known for some time that it’s possible to literally transmute matter in the alchemical sense, as long as you have enough energy, and you don’t mind the finished product being radioactive. In this case, the point is to start with something radioactive, and burn off that energy to run a generator, while generating waste that’s both smaller in volume, and less dangerous. That said, 500 years is still far longer than we’ve even had nuclear technology, and it’s the kind of timespan that has seen entire civilizations collapse. What we also need is a way to take that less-radioactive waste and render it inert. There’s promising research into using bacteria to do this, but it seems like we’re farther behind on that than we are on the ADS thing, as the bacteria involved are good at eating the sorts of things that might be used to contain them for industrial use.

So. Where does that leave us?

Well, I still think that we’re likely to need the “energy density” of nuclear power to survive climate change, and I’m still very concerned about the dangers posed by a dramatic increase in the amount of radioactive material out in the world. I’m under no illusions about how much influence I have. My actual readership is absolutely dwarfed by the number of people who accidentally clicked on one of my recent low-effort posts because it had the words “sexy video” in the title. That said, just as I think we should going beyond a “WW2-scale” response to climate change with renewable energy and agricultural changes, I also think we should be investing heavily in things like ADS technology and radiation-munching bacteria, as part of our broader effort to figure out how to clean up the mess we’ve made.

Ideally, I’d like to see those new disposal methods in place and functioning before any massive increase in reactors. It won’t eliminate problems. Nothing will, and that’s true for everything we do. To get back to my opening reference, we’ve learned enough to avoid “cursing” random bits of the planet, we just need to put that knowledge into action. As with so many things these days, I think a lot of the reason that we’re not doing that is that our political and economic systems (to whatever degree those are separate things) aren’t set up to encourage responsible behavior by those in power. Basically, there are so many ways in which we could drive ourselves to extinction in the next couple centuries that revolutionary change seems like our only hope of survival. It all comes back to politics.

Thank you for reading. If you find my work interesting, useful, or entertaining, please share it with others, and please consider joining the group of lovely people who support me at Life costs money, alas, and owing to my immigration status in Ireland, this is likely to be my only form of income for the foreseeable future, so if you are able to help out, I’d greatly appreciate it. The beauty of crowdfunding is that even as little as $1 per month (that’s like three pennies a day!) ends up helping a great deal if enough people do it. You’d be supporting both my nonfiction and my science fiction writing, and you’d get early access to some of the fiction and some other content.

An Educational Series: It’s Black History Month and We Whites Are All Going to STFU and Listen

One of the most important lessons I learned growing up was the importance of listening to people whose experience is different from my own. It’s not a lesson I can remember learning one day, nor is it one I learned particularly quickly. I like to think I’ve gotten the hang of it now, but I have no doubt I’ve still got a long way to go.

Either way, it’s helpful to be reminded to listen, from time to time, and to have people who take the time to make it easier to do so. My fellow blogger Iris Vander Pluym, of Death to Squirrels is one such person, and I’d like to draw your attention to the series she has been working on this month: It’s Black History Month and We Whites Are All Going to STFU and Listen.

The series touches on black history and activism, and while a lot of it is focused on the United States, it also touches on global issues. I particularly appreciated this talk by Mallence Bart-Williams


Of course the West needs Africa’s resources, most desperately, to power airplanes, cell phones, computers and engines. And the gold and diamonds of course: a status symbol, to determine their powers by decor, and to give value to their currencies. One thing that keeps me puzzled, despite having studied finance and economics at the world’s best universities, the following question remains unanswered:

Why is it that 5,000 units of our currency is worth one unit of your currency, when we are the ones with the actual gold reserves?

It’s quite evident that the aid is in fact not coming from the West to Africa, but from Africa to the Western world. The Western world depends on Africa in every possible way, since alternative resources are scarce out here.

So how does the West ensure that the free aid keeps coming?

By systematically destabilizing the wealthiest African nations and their systems, and all that backed by huge PR campaigns, leaving the entire world under the impression that Africa is poor and dying, and merely surviving on the mercy of the West.

Well done, Oxfam, UNICEF, Red Cross, Life Aid, and all the other organizations that continuously run multimillion-dollar advertisement campaigns depicting charity porn, to sustain that image of Africa, globally. Ad campaigns paid for by innocent people under the impression to help with their donations. While one hand gives under the flashing lights of cameras, the other takes, in the shadows. We all know the dollar is worthless, while the euro is merely charged with German intellect and technology, and maybe some Italian pasta. How can one expect donations from nations that have so little?

It’s super sweet of you to come with your colored paper in exchange for our gold and diamonds.

But instead, you should come empty-handed, filled with integrity and honor. We want to share with you our wealth and invite you to share with us.

The perception is that a healthy and striving Africa would not disperse its resources as freely and cheaply, which is logical. Of course. It would instead sell its resources at world market prices, which in turn would destabilize and weaken Western economies, established on the post-colonial free-meal system. Last year, the IMF reports that six out of ten of the world’s fastest growing economies are in Africa, measured by their GDP growth. The French treasury, for example, is receiving about 500 billion dollars, year in, year out, in foreign exchange reserves from African countries based on colonial debt they forced them to pay. Former French president Jacques Chirac stated in an interview recently that we have to be honest and acknowledge that a big part of the money in our banks comes precisely from the exploitation of the African continent.

In 2008, he stated that without Africa, France will slide down in the rank of a Third World power.


I’ve mentioned before how war, espionage, assassination, and debt are all used to maintain the so-called poverty of Africa, while enriching the “former” colonial powers. Those of us in wealthy nations who do talk about this stuff naturally focus on the crimes being committed by our nations. It’s an important aspect of what’s going on, particularly because I feel it’s our duty to do what we can at our end to stop these injustices from which we benefit.

Bart-Williams describes Sierra Leone as the richest country on Earth, and she makes a powerful case to support this claim, and ties it directly to the people of Sierra Leone, and to the artists she has worked with. Understanding is a prerequisite for real justice, and as Iris says, that often means we need to STFU and listen. Check out the video at the link above, or if you prefer a transcript with images, Iris has provided that as well.

This series has one post for each day through February, and each has links to those that came before. That means that in addition to checking out everything else Iris has posted this month, you should also revisit Death to Squirrels for the rest of this month to make sure you’ve seen the whole series.


Tegan Tuesday: The National Black Doll Museum needs your help!

“The National Black Doll Museum has a three-fold mission: to nurture self-esteem, to promote cultural diversity, and to preserve the history of black dolls by educating the public on their significance.” – Mission statement of The National Black Doll Museum of History and Culture

I only recently learned about this interesting museum, The National Black Doll Museum, that used to be housed in Mansfield, MA. For all I lived in Massachusetts for 12 years, I rarely explored the many small and unusual museums in the area. The NBDMHC has a collection of over 7000 Black dolls, and the oldest dolls are from the late 18th century. This isn’t just about the past, however, as these dolls are equally loved and displayed with Black Panther action figures. Although many doll museums include Black dolls in their collections, prior to 2020, this museum was the only physical museum in the US dedicated to Black dolls specifically.

The museum got its start from the personal collection of the founder, Debra Britt, who used to take her private doll collection on tours to women’s shelters or community centers to share the history and communal heritage as the Doll E Daze Project. The museum, which is a 501(c) 3 non-profit, still supports this community outreach as well as a number of workshops and educational resources. The workshop on the Power of Play looks at the impact of Black dolls on the self-pride and explores the stories of Black activists post-Reconstruction through today; The workshop on African wrap dolls works to preserve this important cultural handcraft; and the museum offers support and assistance for geneology research as well. For a project focused around children’s toys, the staff involved have found ways to connect with many aspects of the Black community at all stages of life.

But, unfortunately for the project, 2020 was a difficult year for them, like so many others. With the lack of school engagements, workshops, or in-person celebrations, the museum lost their space in Mansfield due to lack of funding. However, all is not lost! Attleboro, MA has set aside land for cultural development and is interested in working with the National Black Doll Museum to relocate to the new area. But they need funding to do so. The current phase of fundraising has a goal of $100,000 and a deadline at the end of the month — February is Black History Month after all! So I hope that you, much like myself, find the concept exciting and the project worthwhile, and will help to make the new location a reality. Let’s let this understudied aspect of history have a chance to shine again!

An interview about this absolute Tucker of a Carlson.

I regard Tucker Carlson as the most influential and dangerous fascist propagandist in the United States. He’s now well known for pushing white supremacist propaganda, and he’s developed a pattern of making almost-left criticisms of capitalism or corporations, and then taking a hard right into things like immigration an self-hating white people as the cause for those problems. I keep meaning to write more about him and his bullshit, but I find the man so insufferable that it’s hard to make myself do the research.

I think this discussion in two parts between David Doel of The Rational National and journalist Eoin Higgins is useful both in discussing Carlson, and a number of other relevant issues.

Good news! Urban forests are better carbon sinks than we realized!

I like cities.

It took me a while to admit that to myself. Throughout my teens, I lived in rural New Hampshire, and I spent a decent portion of my time doing stuff in the woods. Realizing that I actually do like living in cities was a bit of a blow to my identity. That said, there are ways in which I think city life could be made much, much better.

To begin with, every city I’ve lived in needed a better public transit system. A lot of modern cities are designed around cars, and I’d like to see that end. Ideally I’d want urban car traffic to be as close to zero as possible, not just because the roads have been reclaimed for pedestrians and other purposes, but also because getting around a city should be easier without them. That should include infrastructure to ensure full access for folks with disabilities. Another benefit of better public transit and few if any cars, is a dramatic decrease in urban air pollution, which in turn would mean a dramatic increase in the overall health of the urban population.

Another thing that I think should happen is a concerted effort to pack as much vegetation into cities as possible. I’m exaggerating slightly, but I do think that most urban roads, for example, should be converted into public parks with communal garden space, and/or communal greenhouses. I think this would go a long way toward improving people’s mental health in addition to their physical health. More greenery would also soak up some of the air pollution that can’t be avoided, and pull at least a little CO2 out of the atmosphere.

In fact, when it comes to that last bit, it turns out the news is better than expected:

“We think about forests as big landscapes, but really they are chopped up into all these little segments because of the human world,” says Hutyra, a BU College of Arts & Sciences professor of Earth and environment. Forests get cut into smaller parcels, as chunks are taken down to make space for roads, buildings, agriculture, and solar farms — one of the biggest drivers of forest loss in Massachusetts. These alterations to forests create more areas called forest edges — literally, the trees at the outermost edge of a forest.

It has long been assumed that these forest edges release and store carbon at similar rates as forest interiors, but Hutyra and researchers in her lab at BU have discovered this isn’t true. Soils and trees in temperate forest edges in the Northeast United States are acting differently than those farther away from people. In two recent research papers, Hutyra’s team found edge trees grow faster than their country cousins deep in the forest, and that soil in urban areas can hoard more carbon dioxide than previously thought. Their results can challenge current ideas about conservation and the value of urban forests as more than places for recreation.

Pretty much any scenario in which out civilization survives the next century will see that civilization change radically. In that time line, I’d expect to see us continue becoming an urban species, but also changing what urban life is like. Replacing streets with foot and bike paths and light rail would allow cities to pretty much be parks, and because the goal is an economy that lets need drive production, rather than greed, everyone would have to spend far less of our lives working, so we’d have time for stuff like growing food, and just hanging out.

Honestly, thinking about what cities could be like rekindles my irritation at mortality. If we did things right, cities could become some of the most fascinating ecosystems on the planet, with their own unique wildlife communities and crops. As the quoted article states, rising temperatures could reduce net CO2 uptake, but “greening” urban environments as I describe would also go at least some way toward combatting the urban heat island effect. I think there’s potential there for a feedback loop that actually works in our favor, which would be nice.

The last aspect of this I wanted to look at is the way it would affect more rural areas. Dedicating more of a city’s surface area to growing food would take some pressure off current farmland, especially if there’s a simultaneous effort to do large-scale indoor food production, which means more land can be either returned to wilderness, used for carbon capture and sequestration, or converted into things like food forests for less intensive food production.

Years ago, when I was part of a Quaker climate action group, I wanted to set up a “snowballing” climate fund. The basic idea would be that the New England Quaker community could pool some money, either regionally or at the local level. That money would be used to install things like rooftop solar, geothermal heat pumps, and insulation for the whole community, one house at a time. The money saved or even earned from that energy production would all go back to the fund, and once the whole community had gotten their “refit”, that fund could be turned towards other projects.

I think that responding to climate change could work rather like that hypothetical fund. Some of what we do will have immediate results, and some might take decades or even centuries to fully pay off, but in pretty much all cases, the outcome is the same. Taking action to mitigate or adapt to climate change will make life better, and will make it easier to take more action. We’re in the middle of a massive systemic change that has built up a fair amount of momentum. The upside is that we have the capacity to influence that system in ways that will sap some of that momentum. We’re not just stuck on a scripted march towards doom. Everything we do, year by year, can change our trajectory.

We just have to do it.

Thank you for reading. If you find my work interesting, useful, or entertaining, please share it with others, and please consider joining the group of lovely people who support me at Life costs money, alas, and owing to my immigration status in Ireland, this is likely to be my only form of income for the foreseeable future, so if you are able to help out, I’d greatly appreciate it. The beauty of crowdfunding is that even as little as $1 per month (that’s like three pennies a day!) ends up helping a great deal if enough people do it. You’d be supporting both my nonfiction and my science fiction writing, and you’d get early access to some of the fiction and some other content.

A useful but somewhat frustrating video on nuclear power

Power production is a subject about which I’m not especially knowledgeable. I know a decent amount about what the options are, but a whole lot less about the exact mechanics of how they work. It’s something I’m trying to learn more about, but it’s far less of a priority to me than other aspects of climate change and the politics surrounding it. As I’ve said before, I think the primary obstacles are social and political, rather than technical. That is true for renewable energy, it’s true for agricultural changes, and it’s true for nuclear energy. I was looking through the youtube channel for Yale Climate Connections, and I came across this video, which I think serves as a good example of what I’m talking about:

Leaving aside my reflexive annoyance at having to listen to Bill Gates talk, I think there’s useful information in there. I also think there are parts of the video in which we can clearly see there are a couple limitations in perspective. The first one is the rather fatalistic take on whether new nuclear reactors will be cost-competitive with renewables, as though economics are just a force of nature, rather than the deliberate result of government policy. The idea that cost should be a primary concern in responding to climate change continues to be one of the most apocalyptic mind-viruses of our age, and it’s infuriating to see otherwise intelligent and well-educated people showing those symptoms.

The other thing I want to quibble with is this:

The first small modular reactor will be eight, ten years from now. We need to have pretty much solved the whole problem, and have overwhelming momentum to zero carbon electricity by that time

There’s one aspect of this that’s fine – Dr. Makhijani is absolutely correct about the scale of action needed within the next decade, if we want to keep the warming below two degrees Celsius over pre-industrial temperatures. We certainly should want that, but whether or not we actually achieve it, life will continue, and we’re going to need a lot of power generation. If we miss that mark, we’re going to need more power if we want to avoid mass death unlike anything our species has seen. I get why there has been so much focus on avoiding this crisis, but just because we’ve largely failed at that doesn’t mean it’s “game over”, and I think Makhijani’s framing there can do real harm.

A huge portion of this crisis was caused by a societal inability to make decisions based on long-term outcomes. We can’t afford to continue that. That’s why I think societal change is such an important element of this. It’s also why resilience needs to be the focus. My primary objection to nuclear power, over the last few years, has been something that’s mentioned in the video – all conventional nuclear power plants rely on a constant supply of water for cooling. Some of them are far more efficient in their use and re-use of water than others, but for all of them, things like drought, heat waves, and flooding are a concern for safety and for efficiency. That’s not a reason to discard the technology, but it is a reason to build with the assumption that our infrastructure will be subjected to conditions unlike anything we’ve seen before. That goes for everything we’re doing to deal with climate change. If, as seems increasingly likely, we miss the 2°C mark, then life is going to get a whole lot harder. We’re going to need to spend increasing amounts of energy cooling our homes and places of work, keeping crops alive, repairing infrastructure, and so on. Nuclear power – including the small, modular designs mentioned in the video – could be a powerful tool in that effort, but only if we’re clear-eyed about the conditions under which it will be used.

We don’t get to just give up if we haven’t solved everything in a decade, and that means we need to consider how technology like this can and cannot be used in a much hotter world. We’re at a point, horrific though it is, where we need to be planning for the scenarios we’d been hoping to avoid, and frankly people like the ones involved in this video need adjust their thinking to account for the passage of time. I think we should absolutely be continuing the momentum of wind and solar power. I also think that adherence to the focus on the two degree deadline, and the idea that this all has to be done via capitalist competition, are both perspectives that do more harm than good.

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