Don’t do it, assholes.

Saying that the Orlando shooting is an attack on America feels like saying that an attack on tribal lands is an attack on America. This is a group of people that have been continually attacked by American policy and culture from day one, and those of us who are not part of the LGBTQ community do not have the right to claim their pain as our own. It has been less than a year since the right to marry was granted by the Supreme Court, for fuck’s sake, and in a majority of the country it’s legal to fire someone for their gender identity.

Empathy is great. It’s a huge part of who we are as a species, but pretending that someone else’s pain and grief are your own is not empathy. That’s going to a stranger’s funeral and shouting down the bereaved by saying you’re in more pain than them.

I may have more to say on this later in the week, but for the time being, I just wanted to tell my fellow people outside the LGBTQ community – when you do this, you’re basically saying that anybody who’s not heterosexual and cisgender belongs to you, and only you get to decide what to do with them. Fuck that. Don’t do that.

Sci-fi Saturday

Sun, Moon, and Stars
by Abe Drayton
Originally published in Abyss and Apex

“Sun, Moon, and Stars.”

Lena wiped rain off her face and skimmed her fingertips over the damp, faded graffiti. She glanced up at the ruddy clouds above the skyscrapers, and stepped quietly into the derelict building, shedding her poncho. Walking along the dripping support beams, she brushed past spiderwebs as their swarming creators retreated from so large an intruder. She reached her destination, and pulled a large duffel from an alcove, shaking off one stubborn spider, which hit the ground with a heavy thud, lay stunned for a moment, and scuttled off into deeper shadows, away from her light.

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Rape culture and systemic racism

There are a number of reasons why I care about climate change, but the biggest one is that I care about humanity. I like us, as a species, and I want us to continue to exist for as long as we can, and I’d like for there to be as much human happiness as possible during that existence. Climate change is one of the biggest large-scale threats to that, but it’s far from the only threat. I realize that as small as my platform currently is, it still feels irresponsible to block exclusively about climate change, and to ignore the other problems in human society.

Bigotry – both individual and institutional – also represents a massive threat, and one that has done a huge amount of damage throughout recorded human history. With every form of bigotry, there seems to be a group of people who insist that it doesn’t exist, and right now in the U.S. that denial seems to be strongest for rape culture and racism.

I’m sure you’ll all be just shocked to discover that this post centers on the absurdly light sentence of convicted rapist Brock Turner. This is less of an essay than it is the result of the thoughts that have been going through my head on this over the last few days.

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Conversations with strangers: Accelerating sea level rise

This is from a Huffington Post article about the watery fate of a number of NYC neighborhoods. There are a lot of people there making various arguments about why we don’t need to worry about climate change or sea level rise, but this one was repeated often enough I figured I’d take some time to answer it. This is the “but the historical records show a slow, constant rate of sea level rise! The acceleration is only in the projections!” argument:

Stranger says:

Interesting that the past, measured sea level rise appears constant, rising at the same rate for the last 130 years. It is the projected sea level rise which is accelerating.

There are plenty of reasons for that.

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Small comfort

One of the scariest parts of climate science is that various amplifying feedback effects that have come into play, and will do so more as the planet continues to warm. These feedbacks are almost certain to both accelerate the warming of the planet, and to make it continue long after humans have reduced or eliminated our societal carbon emissions. These amplifying feedbacks are why we know that barring nigh-miraculous new technology to pull carbon out of the atmosphere, the planet will continue warming for generations to come.

Fortunately, amplifying feedbacks are not the only responses to a warming climate. One suppressing feedback I heard about a while back is from the increasing number of icebergs breaking off the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets as they melt into the ocean. The icebergs have a fertilizing effect on the water around them, increasing algal growth, and pulling CO2 out of the atmosphere. It’s not much, but as long as we’ve got ice sheets falling into the ocean, it’s going to keep capturing just a little more CO2 than would be captured without them.

New materials from NASA indicate that, as expected, the warming of the Arctic has had a “greening effect” on northern land masses. This means more photosynthesis, which means more CO2 being captured and stored as plant matter. It’s not clear how big of an effect this will end up being, or how it will compare to loss of primary productivity in other areas due to drought, but it will be some help in slowing the increase in greenhouse gas levels from a thawing, rotting permafrost, and so it will buy us just a little bit more time to get our act together.

Image shows a satellite representation of Canada and Alaska, with some areas shaded in green, particularly in northern Canada. Some areas are also shaded brown. The green indicates an increase in plant growth, and the brown indicates a decrease.

Using 29 years of data from Landsat satellites, researchers at NASA have found extensive greening in the vegetation across Alaska and Canada. Rapidly increasing temperatures in the Arctic have led to longer growing seasons and changing soils for the plants. Scientists have observed grassy tundras changing to scrublands, and shrub growing bigger and denser. From 1984-2012, extensive greening has occurred in the tundra of Western Alaska, the northern coast of Canada, and the tundra of Quebec and Labrador.
Credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/Cindy Starr

Sins of the father…

In many ways, we seem to be entering the era of cleaning up after our predecessors. I think there’s a degree to which every generation has to cope with the mistakes of their forebearers, but I believe the youth of today, and of generations to come, will face unique challenges in that arena. There’s climate change, of course. Our climate is headed to a hotter planetary temperature than our species has ever encountered. This could have been avoided, but it wasn’t, and now those of us alive today, and those still to come, will have to figure out how to deal with it. But that’s not all we’ll have to deal with

Climate Progress recently published an article about the start of a pollution cleanup effort in Nigeria. In the U.S., we tend to hear about things like oil spills when they’re big, sensational events, and usually only when they happen on our shores. In some ways, Nigeria has had one long oil spill around the Niger Delta that has never really been cleaned up, and it hasn’t gotten much attention in the media.

The Climate Progress article says that the cleanup and ecosystem restoration effort is expected to take “up to 25 years”, but I have to say that seems optimistic to me. They’re focusing on one part of the Niger delta, and it’s not as if the oil industry has just left Nigeria, or even the delta region. Even when they do leave, and all the wells are capped, and no new ones are being drilled, what then? It seems unlikely that an industry that has been so willing to risk environmental and human devastation for a bit more profit will suddenly have a change of heart and do a proper job cleaning up after themselves. That brings us to my concern for the future.

An abandoned oil well is not empty, and there’s no guarantee that whatever has been used to seal such a well won’t break down in the future. There are 27,000 such wells in the Gulf of Mexico alone, not counting active wells (the Deepwater Horizon well was about to be categorized as “temporarily abandoned” and was being sealed when it blew). I don’t know how many active and inactive wells there are Nigeria, or other locations around the world, but it seems unlikely that as the climate changes, the ocean becomes more acidic, and the oil industry begins to fade, the abandoned extraction sites will just stay solid and safe. I could be mistaken, of course, but my guess is that we’ll see oil spills and oil leaks long after we stop using oil to run our society.

And that’s just the oil wells. Three years ago, NOAA published a risk assessment warning about pollution from ships that sank during the 20th century. According to them, it could be worse – there are only 36 ships on our coast that they consider a serious risk – but again, that’s just in the waters off of the United States. Around the world, there are sunken ships, oil wells, coal mines, natural gas fields, and other places where the energy infrastructure that drove the 20th century will sit, long after renewable energy has become the dominate power source (probably along with some form of nuclear power). I don’t know whether we have the resources to deal with all of that while also transitioning to a new energy system and coping with a rapidly changing climate. Whether it’s in a few years, or generations down the road, humanity will have to deal with the refuse of our predecessors. I only hope it won’t be by coping with unexpected spills, leaks, and other disasters during a time when we’ve got more problems than we can handle already.

Renewables on the rise

One of the realities of a warming world is that for the rest of our lifetimes (barring big, big changes in our priorities as a species), we will see records broken for the hottest month, year, and decade on record, both at a local and at a global level. A related, but more pleasant reality, is that we are now on an inevitable road to the end of fossil fuel use. That means that pretty much every year, at least for a while, we’re going to see records broken in renewable energy capacity as we shift away from coal, oil, and natural gas. This is a good thing, and the steady release of articles about some town or country breaking a record for renewable energy has helped me keep my spirits up over the last few years.

While I’ll probably share more articles about this sort of thing, one in particular caught my attention this week.

Overall, more than twice as much money was spent on renewables than on coal and gas-fired power generation ($130bn in 2015), the REN21 global status report found.

Christine Lins, REN21’s chief, said: “What is truly remarkable about these results is that they were achieved at a time when fossil fuel prices were at historic lows, and renewables remained at a significant disadvantage in terms of government subsidies. For every dollar spent boosting renewables, nearly four dollars were spent to maintain our dependence on fossil fuels.”

For the first time, emerging economies outspent richer nations in the green energy race, with China accounting for a third of the global total. Jamaica, Honduras, Uruguay and Mauritania were among the highest investors, relative to their GDP.

This means that while the United States remains a substantial obstacle to the progress we need on this issue, other nations are moving forward without us. That’s a good thing for humanity as a whole. This also means that there is less cause for concern over what will happen as poorer nations strive for a higher standard of living. For a long time, it was assumed that all nations that achieved a “high standard of living” in terms of technology and energy use would do so by mimicking the development of places like the United States and Western Europe. Doing so would mean rapid development of high-pollution energy sources, much as we’ve seen in China. Instead, we’re now looking at a future in which the path to a high standard of living bypasses fossil fuels altogether, and focuses instead on renewable energy as a safer, cheaper, and more scalable alternative.

One of the reasons I like renewable energy so much – and photovoltaics in particular – is that if you don’t have the millions of dollars to build a central power plant generating tens to hundreds of megawatts, you can spend thousands, or even hundreds of dollars on distributed power sources that would be enough to bring light, or cell phone charge, or refrigeration to a community that needs it. There’s not even a need for transmission lines. In the long run, and inter-connected power grid brings more benefits, but in terms of short-term, affordable improvement of access to technology that runs on electricity, photovoltaics can’t be beat.

Advances in solar power

A team of researchers at the University of New South Wales has broken its own record for photovoltaic efficiency. This advance comes through use of what are called “multi-junction” solar cells that use prisms to split sunlight across its spectrum, to hit multiple receptors targeted at different wavelengths.

Image shows a beam of sunlight represented in multiple arrows of different colors. Left to right, they are blue, green, yellow, and red. The blue, green, and red arrows pass through an angled

A 2-D diagram of how the prism spectrum splitter mini-module works.

Multi-junction solar cells of this type are unlikely to find their way onto the rooftops of homes and offices soon, as they require more effort to manufacture and therefore cost more than standard crystalline silicon cells with a single junction. But the UNSW team is working on new techniques to reduce the manufacturing complexity, and create cheaper multi-junction cells.

However, the spectrum-splitting approach is perfect for solar towers, like those being developed by Australia’s RayGen Resources, which use mirrors to concentrate sunlight which is then converted directly into electricity.

So this is currently an advancement for centralized solar power, but for all I prefer distributed models, some centralized, high-output generators will certainly be needed if we’re to transition to a society that relies more heavily on electricity for things like transportation.

What does caring about climate change look like?

I recently came across an article titled “What will it take for people to care about climate change?“. There are a lot of articles like this, all of them focused on some disaster linked to climate change. This one touches on the current heat wave in India, which has seen the highest temperature ever recorded in that country. This is the second year in a row in which the country had a heat wave that caused roads to melt.

“What will it take?” is a fair question to ask, but I think it may be the wrong question, at least if asked by itself. I think if you polled the planet, most people would say they care about climate change. Even if you polled the United States – a country famous for its science denial, it seems a majority of people care about the issue, at least to some degree. The problem is what that actually means.

For one family I know, it means a few years back, they got a solar array and associated regulatory system that meets their power requirements, and feeds the excess to their neighbors. The whole setup cost them around $30k. For another friend it meant taking a lobster boat to block a massive shipment of coal from being delivered to a power plant for a day. For other people it’s getting rid of their cars and biking more, or buying an electric car, or making their homes more energy efficient, or changing their diet.

But the reality is that the list of actions that demonstrate “caring about climate change” seems to vary wildly depending on how scared of it someone is, and how much money they have, and whether they own their home, and so on. It also probably varies depending on whether you’re struggling to put food on the table, or to deal with illness and debt, or to fight for a country where your skin color or gender identity or sexuality won’t get you murdered.

I think people do care about climate change, at least to some degree, but the way they respond to that depends on their circumstances. For most of humanity, the options are limited. I think part of the reason why we see so little clear action on climate change is that it’s not really clear what any one of us can do about it. If my landlord puts solar panels on the roof, it’ll take some money away from coal, but the interstate highway a couple blocks north of here will still have cars backed up for miles every morning and every evening, and virtually all of them will still be emitting carbon dioxide.

There’s a lot about this that evokes a feeling of powerlessness and futility, especially given the fact that no matter what we do, at this point it’s going to keep warming for the rest of our lives. Whether or not you care about it, this story will still be ongoing long after you’re dead. That means it’s hard to know what to do, and it’s hard to feel that the actions you do take have any effect.

At this point, I think it’s a matter of saving civilization. As insane as it seems, one obstacle to rooftop solar has been that it won’t pay for itself fast enough – as if the cost of the panels and the power bills were the only things at issue. We need a society that’s willing to spend money to deal with problems, whether or not it will make a profit or break even.

What will it take for people to show that they care about climate change? It will take giving people a way to do something about it, be it subsidized renewable energy, or retirement portfolios without fossil fuels, or billionaires investing in renewable energy implimentation rather than more “research and development”. It will take real action from those with the power to act, and I’m afraid it will take significant changes in who is running our government, and in how they talk about the issue. Until people feel that some form of real action with real consequences is within their grasp, I think it’s unlikely that most will be willing or able to demonstrate that they care about climate change.

I guess the real question is, “what will it take for society to care about climate change?” and to be honest, I really don’t know.