On Monday, Oct. 18, I wrote my federal elected officials regarding the climate crisis. If U.S. Senators Chuck Grassley or Joni Ernst, or Representative Mariannette Miller-Meeks respond, I will copy the response below the text.
I hope you will support Democratic proposals to address the climate crisis.
As you well know, global warming is a crisis in Iowa.
I witnessed the effects of climate change multiple times since moving to our home near Solon.
The flood in 1993 delayed progress building our home as we moved from Indiana.
We experienced multiple straight line wind events that damaged the house, uprooted trees, blew down large branches, and tore through our neighborhood.
In 2008 there was record flooding that filled much of the Iowa and Cedar River basins, backing up water into the Lake Macbride watershed to within 100 yards of our home. It made roads around us impassible, and devastated Cedar Rapids, Iowa City and other nearby places.
In 2012 there was record drought which made life outdoors difficult and negatively impacted crops. In Johnson County corn yield decreased from 171.9 bushels per acre in 2011 to 132.4 in 2012, a 23 percent drop.
On Aug. 10, 2020 there was a derecho which took down one tree and damaged several others on our property. My greenhouse lifted in the air like Dorothy’s farmhouse in the Wizard of Oz. Winds up to 140 miles per hour destroyed 70 percent of the tree canopy in Cedar Rapids.
I know about climate change from living it as do most Iowans.
I don’t expect you to agree with everything Democrats propose. We both know that’s not how legislation works. I urge you to find common ground with other members of the Congress and take needed action to prevent and mitigate the worst effects of our warming planet.
I signed up to be a mentor for the Climate Reality Leadership Corps virtual, global training this month. There are more than 500 mentors this time. It’s a chance to meet new people who are taking climate action. The training is also a form of renewal.
I attended the Chicago training in 2013. Since then I mentored groups in Cedar Rapids, and twice virtually. It is a unique kind of work. It is based upon Vice President Al Gore’s slideshow, An Inconvenient Truth. Gore updates the slides continuously and presents it so attendees get a current and terrifying picture of the state of climate change on Earth. It is a crisis.
Sleep came slowly after viewing the first half of the presentation last night.
I wasn’t terrified by the terrifying information Mr. Gore presented. I witnessed the effects of climate change multiple times since moving to Big Grove. The flood in 1993 delayed progress building our home as we moved from Indiana. We experienced multiple straight line wind events that damaged the house, uprooted trees, blew down large branches, and tore through our neighborhood. In 2008 there was record flooding that filled much of the Iowa and Cedar River basins, backing up water into the Lake Macbride watershed to within 100 yards of our home. It made roads around us impassible, and devastated Cedar Rapids, Iowa City and other nearby places. In 2012 there was record drought which made life outdoors difficult and reduced corn yields significantly. On Aug. 10, 2020 there was a derecho which took down one tree and damaged several others on our property. My greenhouse lifted in the air like Dorothy’s farm house in the Wizard of Oz. Winds up to 140 miles per hour destroyed 70 percent of the tree canopy in Cedar Rapids. I know about climate change from living it.
What kept me up late was a newfound sense of hope. There was cause to re-engage in preventing the worst effects of the climate crisis and in mitigating its damage. I couldn’t sleep while the prospect of making a difference surged through me.
The Climate Reality Project rightly focuses on the change in society that most affects global warming: increased burning of fossil fuels. We must find alternative, renewable sources of energy, stop burning fossil fuels, and keep them the ground. We must find and adopt breakthrough technologies for electricity generation to use them to electrify transportation, buildings and industry. Agriculture must play its part by reducing emissions and sequestering carbon in the soil. Let’s put new technologies to work releasing energy for the economy in a way that will improve our quality of life. We must stop using the sky as if it were an open sewer.
I ask myself, how can I make a difference where I live? Personal change is part of solving the climate crisis. We must reduce our personal reliance on burning fossil fuels. Collective action is needed more and that means finding and organizing like-minded people in our area who are inspired to take climate action.
A solution is not evident today. I’m hopeful over the next eight days, along with my colleagues, we’ll discover and take a path forward. I’m okay with losing a little sleep from excitement about our collective future for now.
It’s easy to write a post on social media that says we should reduce greenhouse gas emissions then add a hashtag like #ActOnClimate. What’s harder is knowing what greenhouse gases are at work across the economy and the steps required to reduce them. The upcoming book by Michael Lenox and Rebecca Duff is here to help.
The Decarbonization Imperative: Transforming the Global Economy by 2050 takes “a deep dive into the challenge of climate change and the need to effectively reduce net greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2050.”
When the authors say “deep dive” that means the book doesn’t read like your parent’s latest mystery novel. It is packed with details and examples, along with questions about whether society can make the transition to a decarbonized economy effectively and in time to avert the worst effects of climate change. The authors remain positive about the prospects even if their narrative presents a bleak answer to both questions. The book welcomes a reader already engaged in how to combat climate change. It takes them beyond generalities.
“The challenge before the world is overwhelming, requiring a profound shift in so many large economic sectors over the course of a few decades. But try we must,” wrote Lenox and Duff. They present five sectors of the economy for review: Energy, Transportation, Industrials, Buildings and Agriculture.
Running throughout the book is the theme of electrification as a way of economic decarbonization. Energy, or electricity generation more specifically, is a key consideration. The other four sectors depend to varying extents upon the energy sector, according to the authors.
Lenox and Duff name all the carbon-free operating methods for generating electricity and point to solar as the one with the most promising capability to disrupt current patterns toward decarbonization of the economy. The narrative is familiar: solar technology is effective, it is currently inexpensive, and costs continue to decline. “Utility-scale solar is now competitive with fossil fuels,” wrote the authors.
Nuclear power is mentioned multiple times in the book as a potential solution to decarbonize electricity generation. Readers of this blog know my skepticism about building new nuclear power generating stations. Like many, I point to the failures at Three Mile Island (1979), Chernobyl (1986) and Fukushima (2011). According to the nuclear regulatory commission, “Today, the Three Mile Island-2 reactor is permanently shut down and 99 percent of its fuel has been removed. The reactor coolant system is fully drained and the radioactive water decontaminated and evaporated.” The other two disasters remain ongoing.
Lenox and Duff acknowledge the high cost of current nuclear reactor technology. They also mention Bill Gates’ nuclear project. In his 2021 book How to Avoid a Climate Disaster: The Solutions We Have and the Breakthroughs We Need, Gates wrote, “I put several hundred million dollars into starting a company to design a next-generation nuclear plant that would generate clean electricity and very little nuclear waste.” While Lenox and Duff acknowledge new nuclear power is too expensive for economically disruptive potential by 2050, Gates’ investment is of the kind for which they advocate throughout the book. If Gates’ company resolves issues with nuclear power, as is its stated goal, it may be worth another look.
The authors emphasize no sector of the economy is without challenges in getting to decarbonization. The benefit of reading the book is its broad overview of these challenges.
There is a lot to absorb in The Decarbonization Imperative. Unless advocates are willing to do the work to understand this narrative, what’s the point? I recommend the book for its analysis by sector and for the ways each sector is connected with others. Climate advocates often focus on electricity generation and electrification of transportation yet to decarbonize the economy, all sectors must be addressed. Zero emissions will be a tough nut to crack, especially when zero means zero.
Michael Lenox is the Tayloe Murphy Professor of Business Administration at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. He is the coauthor of Can Business Save the Earth? Innovating Our Way to Sustainability (Stanford, 2018) and The Strategist’s Toolkit (Darden, 2013).
Rebecca Duff is Senior Research Associate with the Batten Institute at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. She also serves as the managing director for Darden’s Business Innovation and Climate Change Initiative.
We had good rain a couple of days this week with predictable results: garden tomatoes are swelling and cracking, the lawn is turning green, and there are more mosquitoes buzzing around the garden.
The county public health department identified a pool of mosquitoes that tested positive for West Nile virus. They issued this press release:
Mosquito Surveillance Program Reveals West Nile Virus Risk
The Johnson County Public Health Mosquito Surveillance Program, in collaboration with testing from Iowa State University and the University of Iowa Hygienic Lab, have identified a pool of mosquitoes testing positive for West Nile virus (WNV). Mosquito samples from a trap located in Hickory Hill Park recently tested positive, suggesting mosquitoes with the potential to carry West Nile virus are likely present in the community.
This is the first pool of mosquitoes to test positive for West Nile virus in Johnson County, since the surveillance program was re-instituted in 2017. No human cases have been reported this season. “Historically, we are near the peak season for mosquito activity and potential WNV transmission, “said James Lacina, Environmental Health Manager at Johnson County Public Health. “Avoiding mosquito bites is the best way to limit the risk of transmission, along with reducing habitat, such as areas of standing water where mosquitoes may breed.”
People can take simple precautions to protect themselves against mosquito bites. • Use an effective, EPA-registered insect repellent. • Wear long sleeves, long pants, and socks when outdoors. • Limit time outside from dusk to dawn, when mosquitoes are most active. • Mosquito-proof your home by installing or repairing screens on windows and doors to keep mosquitos outside. • Eliminate mosquito-breeding areas by disposing of standing water from flowerpots, gutters, buckets, pool covers, pet water dishes, discarded tires, and birdbaths.
Email from Johnson County Public Health, Aug. 26, 2021
We don’t live near the park where West Nile virus was found yet I forwarded the notice to some friends who do. It is great to have a functioning public health department.
In other Thursday news, the Washington Post reported on release of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration report “State of the Climate in 2020.” I haven’t read the 481-page document yet the news is not good, it is bad.
Contrary to some news stories about decreased greenhouse gas emissions during the coronavirus pandemic, an associated drop in carbon emissions was all but undetectable to scientists studying our air.
While humanity grappled with the deadliest pandemic in a century many metrics of the planet’s health showed catastrophic decline in 2020. Average global temperatures rivaled the hottest. Mysterious sources of methane sent atmospheric concentrations of the gas spiking to unprecedented highs. Sea levels were the highest on record; fires ravaged the American West; and locusts swarmed across East Africa.
Many measures of Earth’s health are at worst levels on record, NOAA finds by Sarah Kaplan, Washington Post Aug. 26, 2021.
We live in Biblical times with plague, locusts, drought, hurricanes, floods, rising sea levels and wildfires. The planet is literally burning up. While some hope for the rapture to take us from the problems of a deteriorating environment, the rest of us have to cope with the challenges of a planet whose atmosphere traps too much warmth.
Without consistent, concerted efforts to reduce emissions from burning fossil fuels and other human activities, scientists warn, Earth’s condition will continue to deteriorate.
Many measures of Earth’s health are at worst levels on record, NOAA finds by Sarah Kaplan, Washington Post Aug. 26, 2021.
The food system is in transition and I believe the local food movement will come along with it.
The way Americans produce and consume food, with centralized growing operations at a distance from markets, is being forced to change because of a new and different climate. I believe changes will be positive over time, although they will take adaptation which will not be pleasant. The local food movement will focus on three types of operations: specialty growers, more complex farm operations centered around key individuals or a small group, and more kitchen gardens like mine. To some extent that structure already exists.
The ongoing, long-term drought made worse by climate change is taking a toll. The water shortage is acute in the Western U.S. because there has not been enough snow melt or rain. It should be called aridification rather than drought, because the changes are likely permanent. With the continuing water crisis, reservoirs and lakes across the west are at record low levels. A reckoning is coming and it means, among other things, higher prices and disrupted food supplies.
It’s not much better in Florida, Texas and Mexico. We long recognized growing lettuce and other produce in California and Arizona, and shipping it to the Midwest and East Coast, made little sense and was expensive in multiple ways. Have you ever tasted a Florida tomato? There are better alternatives. Because vegetables are grown with shipping in mind, taste has taken a back seat.
Producing food more locally is a natural reaction to disruption in food supply. In the settler days, before we had all these fancy supply chains, it was called “making do.” More people will grow some of their own food in backyard gardens, on decks and patios, or in community gardens. Not only does the food taste better, we can control the inputs to eliminate worry about pesticides and fertilizers. In the pandemic people lost some control of external events and one way they regained it was to become more self sufficient. So many people are preserving food that it has become difficult to obtain canning jar lids.
Labor is a basic problem the local food movement cannot solve. By growing food ourselves, the labor element is removed as we each invest labor to support our garden. Labor is an assumed investment and we scale personal labor in food production to fit our ambitions and the size of our garden or farm. Produce grown like this will meet some of our nutritional needs.
53 percent of Iowa corn goes to producing ethanol. If the country moves to electric vehicles, ready or not, adaptation is coming. The simple truth is either farmers find new markets for all that corn or adapt to other crops. Expect agricultural interests to oppose elimination of ethanol. Folks have proposed some of those crop acres be devoted to different kinds of produce, the kind people eat at the dinner table. However, it’s now or never to effect mitigation of climate change. There will be no choice but to adapt and land use is only one aspect of adaptation.
Climate change is real, it is having an impact on our lives, and unless we do something to reduce greenhouse gas emissions — on a large scale — it is going to get worse. Local food production can be part of the solution.
Today, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released their sixth assessment report of the global climate. The news is not good.
Human kind must reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and fast, to avoid the worst effects of the climate crisis, according to the report. On tomorrow’s one-year anniversary of the derecho, Iowa’s latest extreme weather event, the Hawkeye State should pay attention to what scientists have to say. So should we all.
Climate change is affecting every region on earth, in multiple ways.
Increases in drought with continued increases going forward.
Projected increase in extreme precipitation.
Projected increase in river and pluvial flooding.
Projected increases in winter precipitation.
There is a lot of information in the report and rather than summarize it here, I’ll direct readers to the report itself. There are summaries and a wealth of information. It can be viewed and downloaded at this link: https://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar6/wg1/
“If we reduce emissions to net zero by 2050, we can keep temperatures close to 1.5C,” wrote Dr Valérie Masson-Delmotte, co-chair of the IPCC. Achieving that would help prevent climate change’s worst effects.
Nothing better illustrates what’s at stake in mitigating the worst effects of climate change than the debate between eliminating internal combustion cars, trucks and SUVs, and Iowa’s corn ethanol business which produces automotive fuel. Simply put, we must curtail greenhouse gas emissions to avert the worst effects of global warming. That means reducing, then eliminating, internal combustion engines in automotive transportation.
Last week’s events brought the debate into focus.
On Thursday, Aug. 5, President Biden signed an executive order intended to strengthen America’s leadership in clean cars and trucks. Biden set a goal “that 50 percent of all new passenger cars and light trucks sold in 2030 be zero-emission vehicles, including battery electric, plug-in hybrid electric, or fuel cell electric vehicles.” Biden also addressed tightening emissions standards, improving fuel economy, and fuel efficiency and emissions reductions for heavy duty trucks. If acted on, this executive order is a substantial government effort to reduce the number of polluting vehicles on American roads, a major source of greenhouse gas emissions. The folks at The Climate Reality Project reflect my view, “Now we are moving in the right direction.”
Not so fast, said Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds, whose state devotes significant corn acreage to producing ethanol for automotive use. She apparently heard this executive order was coming and had the following statement ready to go the same afternoon.
President Biden’s short-sighted stance on electric vehicles is undermining Iowa’s renewable fuel industry while simultaneously jeopardizing America’s energy independence. This announcement follows the Biden Administration’s failure to support renewable fuels in the infrastructure package currently being negotiated in Congress. It’s a harmful pattern that must be reversed.
With the policies we see coming out of Washington, it’s never been more important that Iowa fights for renewable fuels like ethanol and biodiesel while looking for new ways to invest in the high-quality products we produce right here, right now in our state.
Press release from the Office of the Iowa Governor via email, Aug. 5, 2021.
I couldn’t disagree more with Governor Reynolds. 53 percent of Iowa’s corn crop goes to ethanol production, according to Iowa Corn. A third of that makes a livestock feed co-product and the rest into ethanol fuel. One did not need to be a psychic to predict farmers were not going to like it when passenger cars, SUVs and light trucks all go electric, likely in my lifetime. The better action for the governor–than propping up the internal combustion engine in automobiles and light trucks–is determining the future use of those corn acres once ethanol is no longer needed as a fuel.
Either we have the political will to address the climate crisis or we don’t. It seems clear President Biden is willing to take bold action to address global warming, as evidenced by his direction on electrifying cars and light trucks. While some in the environmental movement say he is not bold enough, last week’s executive order would never have been signed by a Republican president. Governor Reynolds’ pushback was predictable and an argument for maintaining a status quo that has not been good for Iowa in terms of soil depletion, air quality, water quality, crop diversity, and economic and environmental sustainability.
As this plays out in coming weeks and months, the dynamic between the White House and Iowa’s Republican governor will be important to watch. What shall we do to address the climate crisis? According to President Biden we can and must do something. Moving toward electric transportation vehicles is a positive step, even though farmers will have to adjust. We have to do more to address the climate crisis.
Despite the debate and inevitable conflict, the country has to adjust to our future needs. The debate between government and farmers is not new. It has never been more important as the future livability of our planet is at stake. It’s now or never on climate.
Despite near drought conditions most of this growing season, our garden is producing the best crop I can remember. Our ability to irrigate is most of that. I’m also becoming a better gardener. We don’t have it as bad as California does.
Because of dry conditions over an extended period of time, California farmers are letting fields go fallow. Without rain or irrigation there is no point in putting seeds in the ground. California Governor Gavin Newsom issued three drought emergency proclamations this year, in April, May and July. The state called for residents to reduce water use by 15 percent to stretch supplies and protect water reserves. While this drought is not the worst on a 1,000 year time line, it is bad and if it continues it will affect what shoppers see in grocery stores. It goes without saying prices will trend upward.
Because of drought in western states, what we do in our Midwestern back yards increases in value.
When Michael Pollan released this video in 2010, the landscape for local food was different. His focus was on the amount of fossil fuel it took to produce vegetables in California and distribute them across the United States. He also discusses the energy required to make processed foods, like Hostess Twinkies. While avoiding global warming remains a reason to eat locally, with drought made worse by climate change, supply becomes an issue. If California farmers are not planting crops, if almond trees are not sustainable there, how will we get nutritious food? There are few better solutions than growing one’s own and sourcing locally.
“Earlier this year, the European Union was celebrated in headlines across the world when renewable energy surpassed the use of fossil fuels on the continent for the first time in history,” wrote Majlie de Puy Kamp for CNN.
The European Union pledged to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and approved burning biomass as an alternative to coal, categorizing it as a renewable fuel. They found wood pellets were a suitable, renewable fuel to produce electricity and searched the globe for enough of them.
“The American South emerged as Europe’s primary source of biomass imports,” de Puy Kamp wrote.
Enter companies like Enviva, the world’s largest producer of wood pellets, with four wood pellet manufacturing plants in North Carolina.
The world’s leading authority on climate science, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, explicitly recognizes bioenergy as a renewable energy source that is critical to our low-carbon future. The IPCC also concludes that sustainable forest management is critical to prevent forest conversion to non-forest uses.
We need bioenergy both to replace fossil fuels and to keep forests as forests.
The IPCC states in its guidelines “do not automatically consider or assume biomass used for energy as ‘carbon neutral,’ even in cases where the biomass is thought to be produced sustainably.”
As I wrote in 2015, while the carbon cycle of renewable fuels can eliminate putting fossilized carbon into the atmosphere, and reduces emissions of particulate matter, the amount of CO2 released when burning biomass is about the same as with burning coal. What makes burning wood pellets and other biomass “sustainable” is we would leave more fossilized carbon in the ground.
Burning stuff to release energy that is made into electricity remains problematic in terms of emissions. While windmills, solar panels and hydroelectric generators are not without issues, these forms of electricity generation better serve our future energy needs as we work to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
As we contemplate the EU’s path to reducing reliance on fossil fuels, there is another issue that gets lost. The quest for wood pellets has greater impact on marginalized communities near forests that are being harvested for fuel. Read de Puy Kamp’s article for more information about these climate justice issues.
“I can’t think of anything that harms nature more than cutting down trees and burning them,” said William Moomaw, professor emeritus of international environmental policy at Tufts University.
While the EU may meet an arbitrary goal of reducing its carbon footprint, by using wood pellets to generate electricity the achievement is more paperwork drill than actual reduction of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
In 2014 and 2015 I worked as a freelance reporter for three area newspapers. I refer to this article published on Oct. 7, 2015 in the Iowa City Press Citizen frequently in my work on the climate crisis and post it here for easy reference.
UI study finds benefits in burning oat hulls for thermal energy
Biofuel use is a well-known contributor to meeting sustainability goals at the University of Iowa. Since 2003, UI has used oat hulls sourced from Quaker Oats in Cedar Rapids to generate electricity, heating and cooling on campus.
Several chemistry department faculty and students recently completed a study of gas and particle emissions from co-firing coal and two types of biomass versus straight coal at UI’s main power plant.
Researchers also found that using oat hulls with coal reduced carbon-dioxide emissions by 40 percent and significantly reduced the release of particulate matter, hazardous substances and heavy metals.
“The UI is working toward meeting a goal of using 40 percent renewable energy by 2020,” said Betsy Stone, an assistant professor in UI’s chemistry department. “Part of their plan to achieving that goal is the use of biofuel, which is a renewable source of energy, instead of fossil fuel, in this case coal.”
The group was interested in understanding how using biomass instead of coal changed emissions released into the atmosphere, Stone said.
“When burning 50 percent oat hulls and 50 percent coal, we saw a big reduction in criteria pollutants compared to burning 100 percent coal,” she said. “When I say ‘criteria pollutants,’ I’m talking about things like fossil carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide and particulate matter.”
Use of the 50/50 mixture reduced the mass of particulate matter by 90 percent, Stone said.
While overall CO2 emissions were constant among the three fuels used in the study — straight coal, 50/50 oat hulls/coal, and 3.8 percent wood chips/96.2 percent coal — the use of plant material makes the process more sustainable, Stone said. Biomass takes CO2 out of the atmosphere and incorporates it into the plant. When it’s burned, CO2 is released.
“It’s considered to be a renewable fuel because we have that carbon cycle going on,” Stone said. “With fossil fuels, we’re releasing fossilized carbon. It goes into the atmosphere and takes millions of years to get back to fossilized form again.”
The major take-home message is there is a significant reduction in fossilized CO2, sulfur dioxide and particulate matter, which is beneficial to people living near the power plant, Stone said.
“I thought the study was definitely encouraging and in line with our thoughts that biomass is good for the environment,” said Ben Anderson, UI power plant manager. “Overall, the results are encouraging and provided assurance we are going the right way with the biomass project.”
The biomass project brings the renewable component to the plant, but is also a component of fuel diversity, he said.
“That’s really important for reliable operations,” Anderson said. “Natural gas markets have been known to spike from a cost perspective. If there is a problem with pipeline transport, we can use the biomass and still keep this plant online.”
Maureen McCue, coordinator for Iowa Physicians for Social Responsibility, noted important considerations of this study, including locally sourced fuel options and the avoided cost of buying and shipping coal. McCue called UI’s biofuel efforts “a good use of a resource that might otherwise go to waste.”
“The mixture avoids some of the known adverse health effects associated with burning more coal,” McCue said in an email. “There is no health benefit to anyone unless you assume burning coal is obligatory/unavoidable and thus count as benefited the person(s) who would have been impacted by more coal.
“It’s like saying not hitting your head with a hammer is a health benefit,” she added. “No one wants to risk their health breathing coal emissions or headaches by hammer if there are alternatives.”