Thursday, November 27, 2014

5 Reasons for American Environmentalists to Be Thankful

Photo by Mario Gomez
Happy Thanksgiving everyone!  In honor of the holiday, I put together a list of 5 reasons for American environmentalists to be thankful.

1.  Energy Independence.  In the U.S. we are very close to being energy independent.  This is driven, in part, by a surge in the development of renewable energy sources like solar and wind.  Greater energy efficiency and technology (like electric hybrid cars) also helps considerably.  We are also significantly increasing our traditional energy production of oil and natural gas.  The reason that we should celebrate this is that we are no longer exporting the impacts of our high energy consumption to countries that do not have strict environmental rules.  For decades, our high energy use and concomitant environmental impacts, were felt in places all over the world.  From an international environmental justice perspective it is appropriate that we feel the impact of our high energy consumption locally.  Don't like mountaintop removal?  Let's build wind farms!  Don't like fracking?  Let's build solar arrays!  In other words, as we start to feel the impacts of our own energy consumption, we will likely move more quickly to renewables.  American energy independence is a win for the global environmental movement in that our consumption is not being felt in places with few environmental protection rules.

2.  Wind and Solar Energy.  The U.S. is now the leading producer of wind energy in the world and we are increasing that production more and more every day.  At the same time, there are now more people working in the solar energy field than in the coal energy field.  In Long Island, hundreds and hundreds of homes have converted to solar energy production.  That number is repeated in urban and suburban regions all over the country.  The last decade has seen a revolution in local renewable energy production and there is no end in site to the growth in renewables.

3.  Successful Non-Profit Organizations.  In the last several years, we have seen many successful initiatives put forward by a number of non-profit groups.  The Center for Biological Diversity, for example, has been a strident defender of the environment and forced a number of policy initiatives related to global climate change and ecosystem protection via their efforts.  The noted group 350.org--one of the newer players in the environmental non-profit world--works tirelessly on issues related to global climate change.  They were the leading organizer of the successful People's Climate March in New York City that saw over 400,000 in attendance.  Other organizations, like the U.S. Green Building Council, the Sierra Club, and the American Association for Sustainability in Higher Education, continue to do great work and advance the cause of sustainability.

4.  Sustainable Food Initiatives.  There is no doubt that there is a growing sustainable food movement in the United States.  Once thought elitist, the green food movement is expanding to all regions and all social groups.  Organic and sustainably grown food is becoming much more affordable and we are seeing many urban areas improve rules to allow and promote small farms, bee keeping, chickens, and farmers' markets.  One of the fastest growing jobs among young people around the country is agriculture--many of these jobs are in the production of sustainable food.

5.  Science.  The scientific community continues to help us understand and improve our environment.  There have been many advances in the last few years on understanding global climate change--particularly the storage of heat in oceans and the puzzling out of ancient climate records stored in caves, sediment, and ice.  At the same time, engineers are seeking improvements in resource efficiency--especially water and energy--and in technology to make our homes, electronics, and vehicles more efficient.  Science is also helping to find ways to improve the lives of others around the world by creating affordable water purification and by developing greener and affordable materials.

While there are many environmental challenges we face, it is worthwhile to celebrate and be thankful of the successes and advances we are making in creating a greener country and a more sustainable world.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Tweeting Da Vinci

In the midst of last week's nuclear-paloozza on campus and on this blog, I had the opportunity to attend a talk by Ann C. Pizzorusso, a geologist who is also an Italian Renaissance scholar.  She gave a talk with the same title as her book, Tweeting da Vinci.

The talk was fascinating in that it linked the field of geology with that of Renaissance art.  She demonstrated how the Italian artists knew a great deal about the natural history of Italy and how the natural landscape influenced the "look" of art of the Renaissance.

I was particularly struck by her description of caves and karst landscapes and how caves and sinkholes were important aspects of art of the era.  The noted grottoes of Italy, and their reproduction in villas and public spaces, continue to be used and admired.

Pizzorusso also has influenced the art world by calling out a noted da Vinci forgery based on the geologic rendering.  The master painted was a student of the natural world.  If you look closely at his work, you will see many details in rocks and plants.  Forgeries often miss these details.

The book, Tweeting da Vinci, is a must read for anyone interested in geology and art.  The book is lovely and a perfect holiday gift.  It is available for purchase in the Amazon store on the right or at your favorite local bookstore.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Nuclear Debate Redux

As I mentioned in Saturday's post, Hofstra University hosted a debate as to whether or not nuclear energy should be expanded to create a more sustainable future.  Many in the sustainability field argue that nuclear energy should be rapidly expanded to get us off of fossil fuels.  Others counter that nuclear energy is too dangerous and costly.

This week I wrote several posts on this issue.  Here is what has been written.  Today, I give my reaction.

Monday:  The distribution of nuclear power plants around the world and the amount of nuclear energy produced.

Tuesday:  The pros of nuclear energy expansion.

Wednesday:  The cons of nuclear energy expansion.


Thursday:  Introduction of the debaters.


Today:  Debate redux.  My reaction to the debate.


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If you were not there for the Pride and Purpose Debate, you missed a great experience.

The debate question was, "Should Nuclear Energy Be Expanded to Create a More Sustainable Future?"

You can watch the full debate here.

The debate was fascinating.  The two sides made very compelling points and I was surprised by how much my thoughts changed around the issue while watching the arguments.  I felt drawn to each side as the speakers made their points.  The teams had compelling arguments why nuclear energy either should be expanded or should not be expanded.

Paul Wilson, a spokesperson for the American Nuclear Society and a Professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison spoke eloquently about the need to move quickly off of carbon.  He stated quite clearly and effectively that nuclear is one of the most efficient and reliable sources of energy that could move us away from carbon-based fuels.

Arnie Gundersen, a former nuclear power plant advocate and whistleblower about the safety of nuclear facilities, spoke about the high costs of nuclear and the challenges of ramping up nuclear power to meet the needs for a low-carbon future.  He argued that our energy demands could be met with a very rapid ramp up of renewable energy sources like wind and solar.  I was impressed by his experience and his personal journey in the nuclear industry.

Mr. Gundersen's counterpart, Heide Hutner, the Director of Sustainability Studies at Stony Brook University spoke about the risks associated with nuclear and gave several strong arguments about the dangers of nuclear energy based on health, waste, and local disasters.  She added a human dimension to the issues of nuclear energy production that resonated in the audience.

J Bret Bennington spoke about the need to do something, whether advancing nuclear or renewable energy, to get us off of carbon-based fuels.  We have released millions of years of carbon accumulation in geologic reserves in just 300 years.  As he argued that we need to get off of carbon before it is too late.  As a paleontologist, he has seen evidence of extinctions in the geologic record associated with major changes in carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere. Usually those changes occur over hundreds of thousands of years.  We are making these changes in a few hundred years.  This has never been seen in the history of our planet.

Each of the debaters did a great job in making their points.  Indeed, it was a refreshing experience to see opposite sides of an issue engage each other in potential compromises and solutions to a real-world problem.  While I do not think the debaters themselves were moved in any particular direction by the opposition, I do feel that the audience was impacted by the discourse.  Indeed, I had students talk to me after to tell me that they learned a great deal from the discussion and that their own position moved--some one way, some the other.

To me, the real winner of the debate was the issue of global climate change.  If you are a doubter on this issue, please see the discussion from Dr. Bennington on climate change between 33:48 and 42:27.  It's one of the best outlines of the issue I have ever seen from a geologic perspective.  Those of us trained in geology fully understand what is happening right now with our atmosphere and we have been ringing the clarion call for action for years.  Society has not listened.

So now, we are faced with a real dilemma.  Do we continue with things as they are and move toward a highly altered and unstable environment that will likely lead to significant social and economic upheaval or do we move very rapidly to a carbon-free future?

All of the debaters felt that we needed to move away from carbon.  There was, thankfully, no disagreement there.  However, the question is whether in our quest for a low carbon future we include nuclear energy in our portfolio.

Here's the reality.

By many estimates we have less than 50 years to get off of carbon before things start going very very bad with the geologic systems on our planet.  Right now, the rates of renewable energy installation and nuclear energy power plant construction are not going to get us to the point that we need to be at in order to prevent disaster.  We need to very quickly increase renewable or nuclear energy production--or both.

If not, we, or at least the next generation, will receive a big wake up call.

In Long Island, our sustainability plan seeks to double renewable energy by 2035.  Given that our current renewable energy production is 3%, this is very very modest and hardly a goal to get us to the point we need to be at to prevent problems--particularly since other areas of the world have goals of attaining 100% renewables or plans for significant reductions in carbon-based energy through a combination of nuclear and renewables.

What are our options for a low-carbon future?  What are the options in your community?  Renewables or nuclear?  Those are our only choices.

Hopefully, the debate and my posts on nuclear energy this week provided some frame of reference for future decisions as we try to address the global problem of climate change.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Introduction to Pride and Purpose Debaters on Nuclear Energy

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As I mentioned in Saturday's post, today, Hofstra University will host a debate as to whether or not nuclear energy should be expanded to create a more sustainable future.  Many in the sustainability field argue that nuclear energy should be rapidly expanded to get us off of fossil fuels.  Others counter that nuclear energy is too dangerous and costly.

In the coming week, I will have several posts on this issue.  Here is what has been written and what can be expected in the coming days:

Sunday:  What is nuclear energy and how is it produced in power plants?

Monday:  The distribution of nuclear power plants around the world and the amount of nuclear energy produced.

Tuesday:  The pros of nuclear energy expansion.
Wednesday:  The cons of nuclear energy expansion.

Today:  Introduction of the debaters.

Friday:  Debate redux.  My reaction to the debate.

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Well, the debate day has arrived!  The debate will be held today at 4:30 in the Cultural Center Theater on the beautiful Hofstra campus. 

For those of you not on campus, you can watch the debate live here:  Hofstra.edu/ccdebates 

Let me introduce the debaters:

Arnie Gundersen is a nuclear engineer who worked in the nuclear industry.  He is now a critic of the nuclear energy industry.  He is the chief engineer for Fairewinds Energy Education.  You can see this organization's site here.  

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Paul Wilson is a Professor of Engineering Physics as the University of Wisconsin.  He is a world expert on nuclear physics and engineering.  He is also a spokesperson for the American Nuclear Society.  You can see his bio here.

Heidi Hutner is the Director of Sustainability Studies at Stony Brook University.  She has written extensively on environmental issues including nuclear energy.  You can see her bio here.

J Bret Bennington is a Professor of Geology, Environment, and Sustainability.  As a broadly trained earth and environmental scientist, he has written on a number of earth science issues.  You can see his bio here.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The Cons of Nuclear Energy Expansion

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As I mentioned in Saturday's post, this coming Thursday, Hofstra will host a debate as to whether or not nuclear energy should be expanded to create a more sustainable future.  Many in the sustainability field argue that nuclear energy should be rapidly expanded to get us off of fossil fuels.  Others counter that nuclear energy is too dangerous and costly.

In the coming week, I will have several posts on this issue.  Here is what has been written and what can be expected in the coming days:

Sunday:  What is nuclear energy and how is it produced in power plants?

Monday:  The distribution of nuclear power plants around the world and the amount of nuclear energy produced.

Today:  The pros of nuclear energy expansion.

Today:  The cons of nuclear energy expansion.

Thursday:  Introduction of the debaters.

Friday:  Debate redux.  My reaction to the debate.

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Yesterday, I reviewed the pros of nuclear energy expansion and today I move to the cons.  The arguments against expanded nuclear fall largely within three main areas:  safety, waste, cost, and viable alternatives.  I will review each of these.

1.  Safety.  There is no doubt that there is strong concern about the safety of nuclear energy after the Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster that was caused by a Tsunami brought on by a major 9.0 earthquake that devastated parts of Japan in March of 2011.  The power plant released tremendous amounts of radiation during a several week period.  Clean up of the site is still problematic and many areas remain contaminated. There is also great concern over long-term contamination of groundwater.

The Fukushima disaster illustrated that nuclear power plants can pose a risk to surrounding communities.  Obviously, not all areas are prone to 8.0 earthquakes and tsunamis, but the other major nuclear disaster, Chernobyl, was most likely caused by human error.  The expansion of nuclear energy would put more areas at risk.

2.  Waste.  Nuclear waste is a vexing problem.  Some nuclear waste stays radioactive for thousands of
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years.  What do we do with it?  It is essentially a poison that can cause great harm to individuals upon short or long-term exposure (depending on the material).  In the United States, we had a plan to store nuclear waste in Yucca Mountain in Nevada.  However, for a number of reasons, that site was deemed inappropriate.  At the present time, waste from nuclear power plants is stored at the power plants themselves since there is nowhere for it to go.  The waste continues to increase and it must be monitored and guarded.  If nuclear energy were to expand, the waste issue would increase.

3.  Costs.  Nuclear power plants are among the most expensive power plants to be built.  The challenge with building them is that most of the major costs of operating a power plant are at the front end of construction.  Indeed, about 70% of the costs of producing energy over the lifespan of a nuclear power plant are in the initial construction and design.  To expand nuclear would utilize tremendous capital costs that could be used to improve and expand renewable power generation.

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4.  Viable Alternatives.  One of the most striking arguments against expanding nuclear for a carbon-free future is that there are many alternatives that could be explored.  Wind, solar, tide, and wave energy power plants all exist and could be expanded greatly with appropriate investment.  Plus, by improving energy efficiency of homes and electronics we could greatly reduce the need for electricity.

Americans have not been strongly in favor of nuclear power for quite some time.  We have not built a new nuclear power plant since the 1990s.   The anti-nuclear movement in the United States is very strong and vocal.  Plus, we have abundant fossil fuel resources that make nuclear seem like a distant necessity.  However, the challenges of global climate change are making many reevaluate the potential for nuclear energy in our current era.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The Pros of Nuclear Energy Expansion for a Sustainable Future

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As I mentioned in Saturday's post, this coming Thursday, Hofstra will host a debate as to whether or not nuclear energy should be expanded to create a more sustainable future.  Many in the sustainability field argue that nuclear energy should be rapidly expanded to get us off of fossil fuels.  Others counter that nuclear energy is too dangerous and costly.

In the coming week, I will have several posts on this issue.  Here is what has been written and what can be expected in the coming days:

Sunday:  What is nuclear energy and how is it produced in power plants?

Monday:  The distribution of nuclear power plants around the world and the amount of nuclear energy produced.

Today:  The pros of nuclear energy expansion.

Wednesday:  The cons of nuclear energy expansion.

Thursday:  Introduction of the debaters.

Friday:  Debate redux.  My reaction to the debate.



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Several sustainability experts, particularly those heavily focused on trying to save the world from catastrophic climate change as a result of greenhouse gas pollution, have come to the conclusion that rapidly increasing nuclear energy production is one of the few ways that we can quickly reduce greenhouse gases from the burning of fossil fuels to stave off disaster.

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Here is their argument in a nutshell:

1.  The world is currently utilizing tremendous amounts of carbon-based fuels.  Even with the growth of renewable energy sources like wind and solar, the use of carbon fuels is going to continue.  

2.  Renewables are not increasing at the rate needed to prevent global climate change based on existing models.  For example, even with the recent climate deal between the US and China, the decreases of greenhouse gases are modest and not sufficient to truly solve the climate change problem.  Renewable energy sources like wind and solar have a much larger footprint than nuclear power plants and thus have a greater opportunity to disrupt existing ecosystems.

3.  Nuclear energy is the only energy source that we can quickly ramp up to meet the demand for steady reliable energy in today's modern energy-intensive world.

This is a compelling argument, particularly given the fact that new technology provides opportunities to eliminate or reduce nuclear waste and improve safety of nuclear reactors.  We haven't completed the building of a new reactor since 1996, almost the pre-Internet age.  While some argue that we only have enough nuclear fuel for the next 100 years or so, new efficiency innovations in nuclear reactor technology suggest that this current amount of fuel could last for at least 1000 years and perhaps much longer.

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Proponents of nuclear also suggest that nuclear is far safer than most other conventional fuel sources like coal and oil.  We've all heard of the mining disasters and refinery explosions.  While there have been two well-known disasters (Fukushima and Chernobyl), they have not been as damaging as fossil fuel extraction and processing.  We've all seen what happened with Deep Water Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

To some, nuclear energy is already a green energy source.  The Brookings Institute, in their 2011 green jobs report, listed work in the nuclear field as a green job.

Of course, there are many who completely disagree with this argument.  Tomorrow, I will explore the cons of nuclear energy expansion.