Sunday, November 30, 2014

Olympic National Park


Today I continue my series highlighting interesting open access Flickr photos of all 59 U.S. National Parks. In this post we go to Olympic National Park in Washington. 

I'll run through all 59 National Parks in alphabetical order. If you have any photos that you would like to share from any national park that I could post, please send them along. Following the photos, you'll find links to previous On the Brink posts of the National Parks. Check them out to see the beauty of the U.S. National Parks as captured by visitors.

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Lassen Volcanic National Park
Mammoth Cave National Park
Mesa Verde National Park
Mount Rainier National Park
North Cascades National Park

Saturday, November 29, 2014

20 of 100 or so Panthers Killed by Cars in Florida

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There are an estimated 100-180 Florida panthers living in south Florida.  This year, 20 of them were killed by cars.  You do the math.

Check out this article from the Tampa Bay Times that reviews the current situation.

The Florida state animal is clearly in trouble this year.  The total numbers of panthers living in the wild have been slowly decreasing, but the increase in roadway deaths is certainly troubling.  Losing 20 of them by cars is a record.

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.


---

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.

-

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.



--

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.


Monday, November 17, 2014

Global Production of Nuclear Energy

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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?

Today:  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.

Friday:  Debate redux.  My reaction to the debate.

--

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Today's post is all about the amount and distribution of nuclear power produced around the world.

Globally, about 13% of all electricity is produced by nuclear power plants.  In the United States, this amounts to 20% of our electrical generation.

The list below, ranks the top ten producers of nuclear energy by gross electrical output in GW:

United States 99.1
France 63.1
Japan 42.4
Russia 23.6
South Korea 20.7
China 18.0
Canada 13.5
Ukraine 13.1
Germany 12.1
Sweden 9.5

Given this list, it is clear that the US, France, and Japan are the largest producers of nuclear energy in the world.  Their total production is significantly higher than the production of all other countries on this list.  Indeed, the US produced 10 times the total nuclear energy produced by Sweden.

The importance of the nuclear energy to the total electricity consumed by a nation can be examined by looking at the overall percentage of nuclear energy used in the nation's electricity budget.  

The list below ranks the top ten countries listed above by the percent of nuclear used in their overall electricity production:

France 73%
Ukraine 44%
Sweden 43%
South Korea 28%
United States 20%
Russia 18%
Japan 17%
Canada 16%
Germany 15%
China 2%

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It should be noted that some of the smaller energy consumers, like Hungary and Slovakia get about half of their electricity from nuclear energy and would be higher than Ukraine on this list.  

What is fascinating about this list is that there are some countries, particularly France, that get very large percentages of their electricity from nuclear energy, while some of the other big producers, like Canada and the United States, have a more diversified energy profile.  

What this means is that countries like France, Ukraine, Sweden, Hungary, and Slovakia are vulnerable to energy problems should issues emerge with nuclear energy. Nations with more diversified energy profiles are able to modify production of energy over time as conditions change. 

However, diversification in some areas is very difficult due to the lack of natural energy resources, lack of funds to import energy, or political challenges (for example, France has banned hydraulic fracturing--fracking--to extract natural gas).  


Sunday, November 16, 2014

What Is Nuclear Energy and How Is It Produced in Power Plants?

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As I mentioned in yesterday'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's what to expect:

Today:  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.

Thursday:  Introduction of the debaters.

Friday:  Debate redux.  My reaction to the debate.

---

Today's post focuses on the details about how we get nuclear energy from atoms and how nuclear power plants work to produce electricity.

Enrico Fermi developed the first self-sustaining
nuclear chain reaction.  This led to the development
of nuclear power plants.
Image courtesy of the Argonne National Laboratory.
Most of the nuclear power plants in the world work through nuclear fission.  What happens in these reactors, is that a high atomic mass isotope (usually uranium-235) is bombarded with a neutron.  The neutron is absorbed to create a new isotope (usually uranium-236) that is unstable.  The unstable element splits into lighter elements, thereby releasing tremendous amounts of energy.   In a nuclear power plant, this chain reaction can be controlled to produce a steady, reliable source of energy.  However, this same reaction is used to create nuclear weapons in an uncontrolled environment.

What makes nuclear energy so attractive as an energy source is that on a per mass or volume basis, nuclear energy produces millions of times more energy than conventional energy sources.  In other words, a small amount of nuclear fuel goes a very long way.

Most of the fuel used in nuclear reactors is uranium-235.  It is estimated that there are about 100 years of uranium available if used at the present rate and with no new discoveries.  However, it must be noted that uranium-235 is used in older reactors.  New reactors use other fuels or reprocessed uranium.  This new breed of power plants has enough fuel for hundreds of years.

As we will see in tomorrow's post, many countries of the world rely heavily on nuclear energy to produce the majority of their power.  In the United State's we get roughly 20% of our electricity from nuclear power plants.

While nuclear energy may seem like a very high-tech operation, the electrical generation is relatively conventional.  The fission chain reaction is used to produce heat.  This heat is used to boil water to create steam.  The steam is then used to turn a turbine which in turn produces electricity.  In conventional power plants, oil, natural gas, and coal are used as the energy sources.

There are emerging technologies (fusion and fision fusion power plants) that improve the efficiency of nuclear energy and reduce waste.  It must be noted that, at least in the United States, nuclear power plants are not built that often.  The last one was built in 1996.  As we will see tomorrow, many countries are moving forward rapidly to develop conventional fission nuclear power plants and some of the newer technologies.


Saturday, November 15, 2014

Nuclear Energy Week on On the Brink

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 have argued that nuclear energy should be rapidly expanded to get us off of fossil fuels.  Others argue that nuclear energy is too dangerous and costly.

In the coming week, I will have several posts on this issue.  Here's what to expect:

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.

Thursday:  Introduction of the debaters.

Friday:  Debate redux.  My reaction to the debate.

Hofstra hosted very important presidential debates in the past.  Each year, the university also hosts a marquee Pride and Purpose Debate that takes on important issues in our society.  Last year the debate focused on genetically modified (GMO) food.  You can see that debate here.

This year's debate on nuclear energy will be streamed live at 4:30 pm Eastern Time on Thursday.  If you are not in the Long Island area, please turn in to watch!  I'll post a link for the Webcast later this week.

For more information about the debate, please click here.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

How I spent my summer vacation...

Hello again! It's been quite a few months since I've guest-blogged on Bob's site here, but I'm back. And I just wanted to share a bit of what I've been up to in the meantime: my colleague Bret Bennington and I co-edited a book and co-wrote two of the chapters. The book is called "Learning from the Impacts of Superstorm Sandy" and it is now available from Elsevier (there is an electronic version of the book, that link should be up there soon too).

Here is a photo of Bret and Steve Leone, taken while we were collecting some of the sediment cores that are analyzed in the book. You can see them standing on Sandy overwash sediments, which are analyzed in the book. Steve was our student a few years ago, and he was the one who inspired the session at the Geological Society of America in 2013 that evolved into this book. Thanks, Steve! And thanks also to Bret, all of our co-authors, and the great folks at Elsevier!

Important U.S./China Climate Deal in Beijing

I was stunned to read this New York Times article last night about a new U.S./China climate deal in Beijing.  It is a very big deal.
Photo by Bob Brinkmann.

I'll explain why in a moment, but here's a bit of background on this development.

In 1997, the United Nations forged an international agreement called the Kyoto Protocol to reduce greenhouse gases around the planet.  This effort was undertaken after the successful effort to reduce chlorofluorocarbons that impacted the ozonosphere.  

The agreement is complex, but in a nutshell, it required developed nations to reduce greenhouse gases while allowing developing nations to continue to produce them.  The difference between policy for developing and developed nations is at the heart of the challenge for international agreements.  

The developed countries have been producing greenhouse gases historically for many many decades at levels far higher than the developing countries.  Since energy is key to development, the developing countries argue that limiting their greenhouse gases output stagnates their potential development and gives historic preferential treatment to developed countries that caused the problem in the first place.

The argument is particularly problematic because China and India which today are 1st and 3rd in greenhouse gas production (the U.S. is #2) were classified as developing nations and did not have any limits on greenhouse gas emissions.  They have been hesitant to agree to any limits to greenhouse gas production.  

The U.S. Congress felt that this was not a fair system and did not ratify the Kyoto treaty.  Since 1997, the U.S. government stagnated on climate change policy, leaving individual states and cities to develop policy.  I've written quite a bit about this on this blog.  You can see some of this here and here.

Photo by Bob Brinkmann.
Because the U.S. did not ratify the treaty, many in the developing world, particularly those nations that are already seeing the impacts of climate change or are vulnerable to long-term impacts, have seen the U.S. in a bad light.  The lack of movement on any international agreement or U.S. national policy hurt our reputation across the planet.

At the same time, China has been elevating its position by forging strong national climate change policies and agreements with developing nations.  For example China is developing a new cap and trade program.  I wrote about this here.  Because of these initiatives, China has made significant inroads around the developing world and the U.S. has become less influential and more isolated.  

The agreement provides and opportunity for the United States to regain some leadership on the international issues associated with climate change.  

Photo by Bob Brinkmann.
I thought it would be worthwhile to comment a bit on the nuts and bolts of this new agreement.  There are two ways to think about greenhouse gas emissions at the national level.  First, one can look at total national production.  This is a raw number that places China as #1 emitter and U.S. as #2 emitter.  However, that is not the full story.  It is important to look deeper into the data by examining per capita emissions.  When one does this, one finds that the U.S. per capita emissions of carbon dioxide are three times as high as China's.  China's per capita emissions are more in line with a nation like Serbia or Thailand than a major industrial nation like the U.S.  Indeed, if one looks at a list of per capita nations there are very few that have higher per capital emissions than the U.S.  Even the industrial European powerhouse Germany has per capita emissions that are half of those of the U.S.

The agreement that was signed in Beijing requires the U.S. to reduce carbon emissions by 28% by 2030 when compared with 2005 levels.  I think this is a very modest number and quite doable.  We are well on our way.  At the same time, China has agreed to reach peak emissions by 2030.  What this means is that the agreement gives China 15 years to continue to grow per capita emissions.  At this time, it will decrease emissions.  Again, I think this is very doable given China's aggressive move into renewable energy and greenhouse gas policy.

In many ways, this agreement is a reset button that allows the United States to reenter the international stage on climate policy.  It also provides an opportunity for the major greenhouse gas polluters to transform discussions on international climate change policy which have been stuck for decades.

(note, if you are interested in other issues related to China and climate change policy, you can search this blog by putting in "China" in the search box at the top of the page)

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Publishes Climate Change and Strategic Sustainability Plans

Today is Veteran's Day and I thought I would highlight some of the work of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on the environmental front.  They recently released new climate change and strategic sustainability plans that highlight some of the engineering and strategic challenges associated with the environmental change the world is currently experiencing.  You can read about this here.
Click for photo credit.

Many have discussed the international issues associated with global climate change.  Some countries will literally disappear under water, while others will become more vulnerable to coastal storms and flooding.  This poses particular challenges for the United States, particularly because we are seen as one of the major causes of global climate change due to our heavy per capita use of fossil fuels.  The report from the Corps highlights some of these challenges and puts into context some the real-world engineering issues will will face in the coming decades.  

You can read these plans here and here.  For those who teach sustainability or environmental planning, these would be good additions to the reading lists.







Monday, November 10, 2014

Should Nuclear Energy Be Expanded to Help Create a More Sustainable Future?

As many of you know, Hofstra University is known for hosting presidential debates.  However, it also hosts debates on major issues of the day called Pride and Purpose Debates.  This year's debate is, "Should Nuclear Energy Be Expanded to Help Create a More Sustainable Future?".  The debate will include experts from both sides of the issue.

The discussion is a worthy one.  The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change tells us that we are in deep trouble unless we significantly reduce our use of fossil fuels as soon as possible.  That is unlikely to happen unless we very quickly ramp up renewable energy globally while also finding new carbon-free sources of energy.

However, many reasonable people involved with sustainable energy and global climate change believe that nuclear energy is the best alternative for moving ahead with trying to get off of carbon energy.  Those who disagree point to concerns over waste and safety.

I hope you can join us for this interesting debate.  It will be held on the Hofstra Campus on November 20th, 2014 from 4:30-6:00.  The debaters include Paul Wilson from the American Nuclear Society, Arnie Gundersen from Fairewinds Energy Education, Heidi Hutner from Stony Brook University, and our own Bret Bennington.

Friday, November 7, 2014

New Storm Surge Map Shows Coastal Risk

This is the closest view I could get on the map.  The scenario is for a
Category 4 storm.  You can see areas of the Bronx and Pelham Park across
 to the west and northwest across Long Island Sound from the Long Island
peninsulas.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has released a new online map product that provides storm surge potential for the entire east coast for different hurricane category strengths.  Check out the map here.  The map is very different from evacuation maps in that the focus is solely on how deep the storm surge could be.  It's a great product, but it does not allow one to zoom in to the neighborhood level.

Since I live on the coast, I looked at my own neighborhood and I was unable to go beyond a regional county scale view.  I also noted that based on my own neighborhood, the levels were very unrealistic.  We've been through some bad storm surges since we've moved here and the extent of the surge was not ever as high as mapped.  However, it is worth noting that the map is meant to be a worst case scenario.