Sunday, March 18, 2012

As the tipping point looms we have to act

About 5 years ago, one of the top climate scientists, Jim Hanson, declared we have no more than 10 years left to mitigate the effects of global warming before we just have to take the consequences of our stupidity. He got some criticism from this even among climate scientists, but the gist of his warning is valid: we have a limited time and it is NOW, like RIGHT NOW that we have to deal with this crisis.

Since he made his warning, the pace of global warming has only accelerated. So we might even have LESS time than Jim Hanson suggested. Which means we have about 5 years.

Is this excessively precise? Yeah, in a way it is. We can't know precisely how much time we have left, but I don't think it is far off. We are in 2012. Arctic ice volume is expected (at current rate of decline) to reach zero (ice free Arctic Ocean) around 2015. As that happens we WILL reach a tipping point in approximately the same time frame.

Now I don't think the supposed tipping points mentioned are always valid. But there is one very clear, very frightening tipping point that will occur approximately the same time frame as an ice-free Arctic Ocean, which means around 2015. That is the release of methane that is frozen in the Arctic. From BBC News:

"In 2007, the water [off northern Siberia] warmed up to about 5C (41F) in summer, and this extends down to the sea bed, melting the offshore permafrost."

Among the issues this raises is whether the ice-free conditions will quicken release of methane currently trapped in the sea bed, especially in the shallow waters along the northern coast of Siberia, Canada and Alaska.

Methane is a much more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, though it does not last as long in the atmosphere...

"With 'business-as-usual' greenhouse gas emissions, we might have warming of 9-10C in the Arctic.

"That will cement in place the ice-free nature of the Arctic Ocean - it will release methane from offshore, and a lot of the methane on land as well."

This would - in turn - exacerbate warming, across the Arctic and the rest of the world.

The release of this much methane into the atmosphere is one of the more frightening things to me in our near future. And even if it isn't right at 2015 that it happens (I do agree these estimates are too precise) it WILL be this generation. And to prevent it we have to act right now. And we all have to act.

We look to government to solve major problems like this, and we definitely have to get governments around the world to act. Some have. Not enough. Lobbying your local, state and federal government reps to cut back on the carbon footprint of America is something we all should be doing. Writing letters to the editor as well. Public transportation and making driving inconvenient can do a lot...NYC residents have about a third the carbon footprint of most Americans because we don't drive so much (among other reasons). Plus such projects cut back on local pollution and create jobs. So lobbying for this kind of stuff helps us all.

But we all have individual, personal responsibilities to cut back our carbon footprints. We are consumers and creating the markets for energy efficiency and alternate energy should be top of our list for making decisions as consumers. We don't have any more time. The next dozen generations will depend on our personal, as well as national, decisions when it comes to energy use.

Energy use is part of everything we do. Every bite we eat, every purchase we make has an energy cost and hence a carbon footprint. Which means on the one hand everything we do adds to the problem. On the other hand it means we have a lot of ways we can make good decisions and reduce our footprint.

My wife is a climate scientist and I have been following this issue for some 25 years, so we have been deliberately reducing our carbon footprint for more than a decade. When Jim Hanson gave us our 10-year warning I took it a step further and started offsetting our carbon use even further. I owe it to my kids to do all I personally can to prevent this looming tipping point from happening.

What can we do as individuals other than letters to the editor and letters to our politicians? Well, LOTS of stuff. Some save money, some cost money. Some cost a LOT to start but save you even more in the long run.

Energy use is a huge deal and the thing you can do the most to reduce. And I usually start with that. But let me first discuss something I usually only refer to without details: food consumption. This is another large part of our carbon footprint.


I have intended to do a detailed article about how our eating choices affect our carbon and water footprints, but haven't gotten around to it. So let me just make a few basic suggestions to help everyone make good choices. Carbon use estimates from:

or from:

Buying local and organic are important, of course. Those are local solutions for which I can only really advise for NYC. But as a first approximation shopping at your local food co-op can be a great way to cut your carbon footprint a bit, save money, and eat a healthier diet. My wife and I joined our local food co-op some 6 years ago and though it has been a tad inconvenient (work requirements, long lines, etc.) we are eating much better, getting better quality produce and meat, shopping more locally, and overall saving some money. To find local food co-ops, try this directory, though it is incomplete and somewhat out of date.

But short of buying from your next door farm, generally your choices are going to be more what kinds of food you eat. Here are some guidelines based on the carbon estimates above.

BEEF: 13-19 kilograms of carbon dioxide for every kg of beef. And I think the actual impact would be higher if you include the methane from waste products.

CHEESE: 8.5 kg carbon emissions per kg hard cheese. Soft cheeses are better

PORK: 3.25-4.8 kg carbon emission per kg meat (not sure this takes into account the methane release from the waste which is quite high and can actually be a major source of fuel for energy production!)

CHICKEN: 3.5 kg carbon emission per kg meat

EGGS: 2 kg carbon emissions per kg eggs

YOGURT: 1.2 kg carbon emissions per kg of yogurt

MILK: 900 g carbon emission per kg milk

Vegan diets are, in general, the lowest in terms of carbon emissions. But just looking at meat, replacing beef with chicken can significantly cut your family's carbon foot print. And what strikes me is, coincidentally, the lower carbon emission meats tend also to be healthier and cheaper. So with chicken you cut the carbon footprint by about 75%, lower cholesterol, and at least where I shop save a fair amount of money. Leave out the cheese and bacon from your egg sandwich in the morning. Or better yet have a yogurt.

Now I eat beef from time to time (LOVE a good burger), but I stopped cooking it at home. I do pork (from a local farm!) or chicken as pretty much the only meat I use. When I use meat I use less of it, more like a flavoring than a major ingredient. And honestly about half the dinners I make are more or less vegetarian.

Let me add here that for ANY meat you get, please choose ones that are LABELED as being raised without antibiotics. This is another issue but one of almost equal importance.

Another more fun source for calculating the carbon impact of a meal can be found here:

Some lessons from that site: a chicken and cheese burrito has half the carbon footprint of a beef and cheese burrito. A burrito with rice, cheese and beans is even less.

An individual cheese pizza is about half the carbon footprint of a cheeseburger.

A chicken sandwich or turkey burger is even half of carbon footprint of the pizza.

And a falafel even half the carbon footprint of a chicken sandwich.

When ordering sushi salmon has a lower foot print than tuna which has a lower footprint than shrimp

And again I think in terms of health many of the lower carbon emission foods are healthier and often cheaper.

What you eat affects the climate, plain and simple. And you don't have to be vegan to significantly cut back your carbon footprint, though even a meat lover like me admits they generally are doing better in cutting back their carbon than I am.


Oil, coal and gas industries are telling us renewable energy CAN'T meet global energy demands. They each tell us that only THEY can fuel our needs. Well, the world's top climate scientists beg to differ. Simply put, starting now we can use renewable energy to fuel our increasing energy needs, in the process mitigating many environmental problems, including global warming and urban pollution. And what is often left out is the fact that many of these solutions create local jobs. If we just listen to the scientists and tell the oil, gas and coal advocates to shut up, we can do it.

From BBC News:

Renewables can fuel society, say world climate advisers

Renewable technologies could supply 80% of the world's energy needs by mid-century, says the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

In a report, it says that almost half of current investment in electricity generation is going into renewables.

But growth will depend on having the right policies in place, it says...

The report analysed 164 "scenarios" of future energy development; and the ones in which renewables were most aggressively pursued resulted in a cut in global greenhouse gas emissions of about one-third compared with business-as-usual projections by 2050...

And from a Spanish organization, REVE:

Renewable energy can exceed global demand, according to IPCC

“The report clearly demonstrates that renewable technologies could supply the world with more energy than it would ever need, and at a highly competitive cost,” said Steve Sawyer, Secretary General of the Global Wind Energy Council.

The IPCC studied six renewable energy sectors – bioenergy, direct solar energy, geothermal, hydropower, ocean energy and wind energy. Renewable energy sources are expected to contribute up to 80% of global energy supply by 2050, according to a new report published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Following a review of 164 scenarios, the IPCC found that renewables will play the major role in any successful plan to combat climate change...

Renewable energy sources and technologies considered in this report

Bioenergy can be produced from a variety of biomass feedstocks, including forest, agricultural and livestock residues; short-rotation forest plantations; energy crops; the organic component of municipal solid waste; and other organic waste streams. Through a variety of processes, these feedstocks can be directly used to produce electricity or heat, or can be used to create gaseous, liquid, or solid fuels. The range of bioenergy technologies is broad and the technical maturity varies substantially. Some examples of commercially available technologies include small- and large-scale boilers, domestic pellet-based heating systems, and ethanol production from sugar and starch.

Advanced biomass integrated gasification combined-cycle power plants and lignocellulose-based transport fuels are examples of technologies that are at a pre-commercial stage, while liquid biofuel production from algae and some other biological conversion approaches are at the research and development (R&D) phase. Bioenergy technologies have applications in centralized and decentralized settings, with the traditional use of biomass in developing countries being the most widespread current application.

Bioenergy typically offers constant or controllable output. Bioenergy projects usually depend on local and regional fuel supply availability, but recent developments show that solid biomass and liquid biofuels are increasingly traded internationally.

Direct solar energy technologies harness the energy of solar irradiance to produce electricity using photovoltaics (PV) and concentrating solar power (CSP), to produce thermal energy (heating or cooling, either through passive or active means), to meet direct lighting needs and, potentially, to produce fuels that might be used for transport and other purposes. The technology maturity of solar applications ranges from R&D (e.g., fuels produced from solar energy), to relatively mature (e.g., concentrated solar energy), to mature (e.g. passive and active solar heating, and wafer-based silicon PV).

Many but not all of the technologies are modular in nature, allowing their use in both centralized and decentralized energy systems. Solar energy is variable and, to some degree, unpredictable, though the temporal profile of solar energy output in some circumstances correlates relatively well with energy demands. Thermal energy storage offers the option to improve output control for some technologies such as CSP and direct solar heating.

Geothermal energy utilizes the accessible thermal energy from the Earth’s interior. Heat is extracted from geothermal reservoirs using wells or other means. Reservoirs that are naturally sufficiently hot and permeable are called hydrothermal reservoirs, whereas reservoirs that are sufficiently hot but that are improved with hydraulic stimulation are called enhanced geothermal systems (EGS). Once at the surface, fluids of various temperatures can be used to generate electricity or can be used more directly for applications that require thermal energy, including district heating or the use of lower-temperature heat from shallow wells for geothermal heat pumps used in heating or cooling applications. Hydrothermal power plants and thermal applications of geothermal energy are mature technologies, whereas EGS projects are in the demonstration and pilot phase while also undergoing R&D. When used to generate electricity, geothermal power plants typically offer constant output.

Hydropower harnesses the energy of water moving from higher to lower elevations, primarily to generate electricity. Hydropower projects encompass dam projects with reservoirs, run-of-river and in-stream projects and cover a continuum in project scale. This variety gives hydropower the ability to meet large centralized urban needs as well as decentralized rural needs. Hydropower technologies are mature. Hydropower projects exploit a resource that varies temporally. However, the controllable output provided by hydropower facilities that have reservoirs can be used to meet peak electricity demands and help to balance electricity systems that have large amounts of variable RE drinking water, irrigation, flood and drought control, and navigation, as well as energy supply.

Ocean energy derives from the potential, kinetic, thermal and chemical energy of seawater, which can be transformed to provide electricity, thermal energy, or potable water. A wide range of technologies are possible, such as barrages for tidal range, submarine turbines for tidal and ocean currents, heat exchangers for ocean thermal energy conversion, and a variety of devices to harness the energy of waves and salinity gradients. Ocean technologies, with the exception of tidal barrages, are at the demonstration and pilot project phases and many require additional R&D. Some of the technologies have variable energy output profiles with differing levels of predictability (e.g., wave, tidal range and current), while others may be capable of near-constant or even controllable operation (e.g., ocean thermal and salinity gradient).

Wind energy harnesses the kinetic energy of moving air. The primary application of relevance to climate change mitigation is to produce electricity from large wind turbines located on land (onshore) or in sea- or freshwater (offshore). Onshore wind energy technologies are already being manufactured and deployed on a large scale. Offshore wind power technologies have greater potential for continued technical advancement. Wind electricity is both variable and, to some degree, unpredictable, but experience and detailed studies from many regions have shown that the integration of wind energy generally poses no insurmountable technical barriers.

And from the Union of Concerned Scientists:

If the full range of renewable technologies were to be deployed, levels of heat-trapping emissions could be kept to concentrations lower than 450 parts per million. This level could help keep global temperatures from rising more than 2°F from current levels, the temperature beyond which scientists have predicted would likely lead to the most serious consequences of climate change.

The report points out that the renewable energy transition is already underway. Nearly half of new electric generating capacity added globally in both 2008 and 2009 was from renewable sources. The same was true in the United States, with wind, solar, and other renewable technologies providing more than 40 percent of the new generating capacity.

"This IPCC report makes it clear that renewable energy has tremendous potential to meet our energy needs and confront the challenge of climate change. But we must do much more to scale up clean energy sources," said Rachel Cleetus, UCS climate economist. "Many renewables are already economically competitive with fossil fuels and nuclear energy, especially when you take into account all the hidden costs of conventional energy—such as public health risks, air and water pollution, global warming emissions, and security risks."

In a 2009 analysis titled “Climate 2030: A National Blueprint for a Clean Energy Economy,” UCS concluded that by adopting a comprehensive package of climate and clean energy policies in the U.S., renewable sources could provide 25 percent of the nation’s energy supply and 50 percent of electricity generation by 2030. When combined with investments in energy efficiency, renewable energy, according to the UCS analysis, could help reduce heat-trapping emissions in 2030 by 56 percent from 2005 levels and save consumers money in every region of the country.

“To reach a low-carbon global economy by 2050 requires making smart policy choices and investments today,” said Steve Clemmer, UCS Director of Energy Research and Analysis. “Here in the U.S. we can make serious progress by building on what the states have already done and adopt strong national renewable electricity and energy efficiency standards, and a price on carbon. That’s a sure way to transition to a clean energy economy while driving down costs and significantly reducing emissions.”

One problem with the info from the coal, oil and gas industries is that they only tend to take into account two or three renewable sources. Most places can take advantage of multiple sources which complement each other, at least largely addressing the issues of variable availability of sources like solar and wind.

Now is the time. The report focuses on policy makers, and this is critical. But we, as consumers, also have to step up to the plate. YOU can make a difference and if you do it right, you can save money in the process. There are three basic actions you can take that together will greatly help the environment while saving you money.

First, get a home energy audit. This is the best way to find ways to save energy and save money. The US Department of Energy has suggestions for a do-it-yourself (cheaper but not as effective) audit as well as how to get a professional audit (costs money but will find more effective ways of saving you money in the long run).

You should also switch your light bulbs from the old, inefficient incandescent bulbs to new, cleaner, MUCH more efficient compact fluorescent bulbs. When my wife and I did this our energy bill went down by 30% immediately. We saved a huge amount by making the switch. Compact fluorescents are a bit more expensive than incandescent, but they last MUCH longer and use MUCH less energy so you save a lot in the long run. It is important, however, to dispose of them properly. Could be an excuse to go to your local IKEA and have some Swedish, I mean some chicken while disposing of your CFLs.

At the same time that we switched to compact fluorescent bulbs, we also switched to all green energy (in our case all wind). This cost a tiny bit (a few pennies) more per kilowatt-hour of energy usage, but this was way offset by the savings using compact fluorescents. Together we went all green energy and saved money. You can find out about 100% Green Energy Plans or click here for other options. To see what green pricing options are available in New York through Con Ed click here.

Take these three steps to saving money and going green. You can be part of the solution, reducing pollution AND creating American jobs.


There is some controversy here, largely because there have been some scams associated with carbon offsets. And also there is no question that cutting back your carbon usage to start (see above suggestions) than offsetting, but I do some offsets as well.

Best carbon offset program according to GreenAmerica (formerly Co-op America, a group I have had dealings with for many years and I trust): (other ones listed there don't seem to be available anymore)

NativeEnergy takes an innovative approach to selling green tags as offsets. Instead of offering them from existing green energy facilities, it sells green tags from facilities that are yet to be built, representing the environmental benefits these future projects will generate. In this way, green tag and offset purchases through NativeEnergy help fund construction of new wind turbines and other projects. Better still, these green energy projects are all owned and operated by Native American tribes and small-scale farmers in the US, providing economic benefits to these populations.

In short, NativeEnergy’s model makes new green energy facilities financially viable that would have otherwise lacked the capital to go forward, increasing clean energy generation capacity and building the infrastructure for a low-carbon future.

Best offset programs from Planet Green based on a Tufts University study (not sure how good a source they are, but some of their suggestions I know are goo):

Native Energy: ...offset a ton of carbon for only [$12]. They are the least expensive of the best.

Atmosfair (German company?) received a ranking of Excellent from Tufts. They will reduce one ton of CO2 for $17.30.

Climate Friendly (Australian company) also received the ranking of Excellent from Tufts. They will offset one ton of carbon for $14.50.

Carbon Fund and TerraPass are also ones I am familiar with and they seem good. They tend be cheaper than the above listed ones but don't get the same high marks from independent agencies. They are better than not doing it at all, but Native Energy sounds the best balance of price to effectiveness.

So there you have it. Eating, energy use and carbon offsets are ways you can become part of the solution and help put off or even prevent that looming tipping point. There is no more time to put it off. ANY positive change you can make is worthwhile. My wife and I use public transportation, CFLs, wind energy, shop at a food co-op, and offset. We do this for our kids more than anything else, but it also just feels right.

And don't forget to write your elected officials and media advocating for green energy and environmental policies that address global warming.

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Tuesday, March 13, 2012

East African Mystery Disease: Nodding Syndrome

I just heard about this recently, despite having considerable interest in East Africa and being a biologist. This is one of those medical mysteries that can take many years to solve and may well represent something new medically.

East African children, particularly in Uganda, Tanzania and South Sudan, are being hit with a devastating disease called "Nodding Syndrome" after one of its early symptoms. Stimuli like eating or cold seems to trigger an involuntary nodding motion of the head which often stop when the triggering stimulus stops. However, these motions can also be the precursor to much more severe seizures such as complete freezing or grand-mal seizures. Only familiar foods trigger the response. Children presented with unfamiliar foods do not go into seizures. The disorder leads to stunted brain development and atrophy and stunted overall growth and is usually ultimately fatal. Direct damage to the brain, injury during a seizure, as well as malnutrition due to difficulty in eating because of the seizures triggered by eating are main causes of death.

The cause is unknown and there is no treatment except to try and mitigate the symptoms.

This disease was first recognized in the 1960's by Dr. Louise Jilek-Aall in an isolated area of Tanzania. It got little attention until recently now that it has spread into a much wider area. In some ways the political focus on South Sudan has brought the disease wider attention and recent attempts by the CDC to identify the cause focused on South Sudan. This attempt found a high correlation between the disease and infection with a parasitic worm called Onchocerca volvulus, the nematode worm that causes "river blindness" disease. However in other villages there was no correlation between infection with this worm and nodding syndrome. To my eyes this sounds like an unlikely causative agent, but so far it remains the best candidate. If so it represents new evolution within the worm because it seems not to have caused this kind of disease before. So something in the host-parasite relationship has changed.

However, I also wonder if this might be a new manifestation of a prion disease, a type of disease (like "mad cow disease") that affects the nervous system and which can be incredibly hard to identify the causative agent. It is not clear to me if the brain pathologies have been tested for prions but it seems like it would be something that could be at least quickly ruled out. To me it sounds like it has some aspects in common, but this could easily be a superficial resemblance. I have seen prions brought up as a possible causative agent but I have seen no data related to this hypothesis. However, one aspect does not fit: most prion diseases are caused by people eating meat from an animal that had a prion disease. Since the prion protein is from another species, the change in the human nervous system is slower to develop and usually only manifests in old age. The fact that this mostly affects children suggests either that it is not a prion disease or that the source is from an animal whose prion protein is more similar to our own. Some have suggested the bushmeat trade as a source, but here why is it almost exclusively children? That is a question that all the hypotheses have trouble answering. No matter what the causative agent is it seems to mainly affect the DEVELOPING brain and not the adult brain. This is different from prion diseases and other seemingly similar disorders like Alzheimer's.

Viral causes that have been tested for have proven negative, but this probably is not an exhaustive study, so there may well be virus families that could be the causative agent.

The World Health Organization has these recommendations for treatment:

Recommendations so far made by the team include: Children with nodding syndrome be given antiepileptic drugs given that children with NS also have seizures that are responsive to antiepileptic medications. The current mass treatment program be supplemented in areas of apparent high Onchocerciasis endemnicity and Children with NS be psychologically and socially supported.

More info here:

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