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Is Engineering The Climate Playing God?

As climate technology advances, the incredible is becoming creditable. Someday, a guy sitting in a bunker may be able to alter the planet’s temperature by fiddling with a cosmic thermostat. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

There are basically two approaches to climate engineering. One is to capture greenhouse gas emissions and bury them. The other, more controversial idea, is to reflect the energy from sunlight back into space. This could be done through ginormous mirrors or by spraying aerosols into the atmosphere to make Earth shinier (and, therefore, more reflective).

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine has just launched a study of strategies to reflect sunlight. It finished a study on carbon removal last fall.

Environmentalists tend to speak of climate engineering in low voices. They worry that the prospect of containing or preventing the entry of planet-warming gases could hamper current efforts to curb emissions. Big producers of fossil fuels obviously like such ideas as building giant fans to suck air into devices that remove the carbon.

Scientists, however, share the environmentalists’ concern. They warn that these engineering feats, if doable, are many years away from being operative on a massive scale.

“The number one thing is you stop putting carbon dioxide into the atmosphere,” Dr. Simon Nicholson, an expert on carbon technologies, told me.

Nicholson, who directs the Forum for Climate Engineering Assessment at American University, says the most sensible way to think about a climate response is to consider all the options, including adaptation to what’s happening.

However, some amount of carbon dioxide will eventually have to be drawn out of the atmosphere. Only that will prevent us from hitting the 1.5-degree Celsius rise in temperature, at which point global devastation would be inevitable. We’re already 1 degree hotter.

There are also conventional means of carbon capture. Trees do it. (Devices that capture carbon basically operate like artificial trees.) Plowing the soil releases carbon, but planting cover crops keeps it in the ground.

The long-term carbon cycle sends carbon back into rocks. Scientists are looking for ways to speed that up. And there’s some talk of “marine cloud brightening.” Whiter clouds over the oceans reflect more solar energy.

Climate engineering unleashes a galaxy of controversies. A massive interference with nature, it makes some environmentalists, as well as people of faith, queasy. An Alaska native, upon being told of the possibilities, responded, “This is God’s stuff we’re messing with.”

And who decides what the temperature should be? Avocado growers and ski resort operators have very different ideas of what constitutes the ideal climate. Suppose the countries — Russia and Mexico, for example — don’t agree on the optimal temperature.

Solar engineering technology could also conceivably be weaponized. A hostile government could use it to burn or freeze an enemy. And what about a James Bond-type villain holed up in his mountain redoubt threatening to unleash a climate cataclysm if his demands aren’t met?

As for the presumed good guy in the bunker adjusting the planet’s temperature to meet the needs of the moment, is that a real possibility?

“Yup,” Nicholson said. “That’s basically what the computer models do.” Ideally, this would be a technocratic enterprise with some artificial intelligence thrown in.

The United States, you may have noticed, has no real climate policy. There’s hope that under new management in Washington, climate change will be treated as the crisis it is.

Meanwhile, we must ask: Does climate engineering amount to messing with God stuff? Perhaps, but humans are already screwing up the Creation by belching greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Humans may be able to fix the climate change mess they’ve gotten their planet into — but they’d better be careful.

Follow Froma Harrop on Twitter @FromaHarrop. She can be reached at To find out more about Froma Harrop and read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators webpage at


Just How Green Are State Governments?

By Rita Beamish, (TNS)

WASHINGTON — When President Barack Obama this spring ordered federal agencies to cut their greenhouse gas emissions over the next decade — to 40 percent below 2008 levels — the concept was hardly novel to state governments. For years, governors and legislatures have set energy conservation targets for state agencies, to save taxpayers money, reduce pollution and set an environmentally friendly example.

States have employed a host of energy-saving programs, green-purchase requirements, building efficiency standards and financial incentive arrangements to meet those goals. So how are they doing in meeting targets they have set for themselves?

A spot check by Stateline found that although some states have made progress, follow through and accountability are mixed. When a new governor is elected, environmental goals and standards can go out the window or be changed. A lack of enforcement can doom good intentions. And poor reporting or bureaucratic tangles can make it nearly impossible for the public to measure progress.

Take Iowa, for example. Republican Gov. Terry Branstad rescinded a 2008 order by his Democratic predecessor, Gov. Chester Culver, establishing a Green Government Initiative that called for a 15 percent cut in state agencies’ overall energy and water use over five years.

Culver’s order, which rescinded an earlier one by Democratic Gov. Tom Vilsack, was deemed to have “created redundancy” in state efforts, said Jimmy Centers, Branstad’s communications director. Centers didn’t have data on whether state agencies had met Culver’s target because “these (executive orders) were signed by previous administrations,” he said. Nonetheless, he said, energy use at the state Capitol complex dropped 21.5 percent between 2008 and 2013.

In Florida, Republican Gov. Rick Scott chose not to continue a 2007 executive order on climate change by his predecessor, then-Republican Gov. Charlie Crist. The order directed state agencies to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions 10 percent by 2012, and 40 percent by 2025. State officials said the quarterly progress reports that Crist ordered are nowhere to be found, nor do they think there was a reporting requirement after he left office.

That priorities change with administrations shouldn’t come as a surprise, said Annie Gilleo, senior policy analyst for the nonprofit American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE).

“I think it’s common: Over time when you have a change in governor or political party, you see the executive orders tend to lose emphasis,” she said.

Still, Gilleo said, it’s important for states to continue to set an example by establishing specific energy goals.

“The results matter, but it also matters that the government is making public that it thinks energy savings and greenhouse gas savings are important,” she said. “The state is setting an example for the private sector and showing that if it implements policies that affect the public, the state agencies are willing to make the same commitment.”

Revoking a previous administration’s goals and standards doesn’t always indicate a lack of progress or abandonment of attempts at measuring achievement.

In New York, Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued Executive Order 88 in 2012 directing agencies to improve energy efficiency in state buildings 20 percent by 2020, from a 2010 baseline. State government is on track to meet that target. Energy use per square foot dropped by 4.7 percent in the first year, and is projected to fall 6.9 percent after the third year, a 2013 progress report said.

Cuomo’s directive revoked former Republican Gov. George Pataki’s executive order seeking a 35 percent cut in energy consumption below what state buildings used in 1990. State officials now characterize that as a voluntary program, but said that for buildings whose managers provided data, energy consumption dropped 22 percent by Pataki’s 2010 target date.

In Colorado, Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper is continuing to follow former Democratic Gov. Bill Ritter’s order for state agencies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 20 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. In 2012, the most recent progress report showed the government was shy of its intermediate target.

As for another Ritter executive order, agencies achieved just a 9 percent reduction in their energy consumption relative to 2006 levels, short of Ritter’s 20 percent goal for 2012. The report stressed that efficiency per square foot had improved 21 percent as state office space expanded.

Hickenlooper is planning new one- and five-year environmental goals, including for reductions in energy and in emissions contributing to global warming, said Karen Phelan, deputy director of energy.

Over the years, surveys by ACEEE find, energy efficiency policies for state facilities have popped up in all states, varying widely in scope. Some seek an absolute reduction in energy consumption. Others account for growth by requiring efficiency per square foot of state building space — or per gallon in vehicles.

Some policies focus only on state-owned facilities; others include leased space. Some specify cuts in greenhouse gases, by nature involving a greater array of sources than energy reduction mandates. As for fleets, ACEEE found that 33 states have their own fuel efficiency mandates.

Timelines and targets, where they exist, also vary in aggressiveness.

Washington’s Legislature in 2009 issued a sweeping State Agency Climate Leadership Act to curb emissions. Incorporating all 141 state agencies — legislative, administrative, judicial and university branches — it aims to reduce emissions 57.5 percent below 2005 levels by 2050, with detailed online resources describing progress. Ferry boats, state vehicles and heavy equipment, building electricity, so-called fugitive gases that leak from air conditioners and other machinery, and even employee commutes are factored in, said Hedia Adelsman, the Department of Ecology special assistant for climate change.

As of 2014, state agency emissions were 4 percent below the 2005 baseline, and aggressive action — cutting emissions 11 percent below 2013 levels — was needed to reach the next interim target in 2020, a progress report concluded.

“The agencies are plugging along. The beginning was easy, but now we are doing the big things,” like expensive upgrades to insulation, boilers and heating and cooling systems in state buildings, as well as state fleets, Adelsman said. With targets set by law, agencies “can’t just ignore it,” she said. “Some agencies are doing better than others.”

Arizona reported surpassing a more narrowly focused legislative target set in 2003. It sought to cut energy consumption in state buildings 15 percent per square foot by 2011, using a 2002 baseline. The Governor’s Office of Energy Policy reported that key strategies helping to reach 15.8 percent were the replacement of inefficient lighting and cooling equipment; installation of programmable thermostats; more moderate temperatures; and the impact of a reduced state workforce in 2009.

Arizona State University campuses also benefited from so-called performance contracting, which allows agencies to pay for energy efficiency upgrades with the cost savings realized over time. Arizona lawmakers have not set new numeric targets.

State officials are still working on data to show whether Utah met former Republican Gov. Jon Huntsman’s 2006 order to improve energy efficiency in government 20 percent by 2015. Energy Director John Harrington said his upcoming report will show state buildings have attained the goal. Agency reports so far have emphasized cost savings from ongoing efficiency programs and funding strategies to expand the State Building Energy Efficiency Program.

Incomplete reporting by overburdened bureaucrats can hinder public accountability, even where robust efficiency programs are in place.

In Alabama, staff shortages have made it impossible to know if state agencies met Republican Gov. Robert Bentley’s 2011 goal of dropping energy consumption 30 percent from a 2005 baseline by this year, said Mike Presley, public information manager for the state Department of Economic and Community Affairs.

Without sufficient staff to recover data back to 2005, 2011 became the baseline. Between 2011 and 2014, state-owned buildings reduced their energy consumption 52 percent, Presley said. Key contributors were modernization of infrastructure, new efficient lighting and cooling and heating systems and the Alabama National Guard’s shift to a four-day workweek.

Alabama is one of several states now using an online tool provided by the federal Environmental Protection Agency to assess and track energy use. The EPA urges agencies to “benchmark” their operations, establishing a baseline measure of energy consumption against which changes can be measured.

“It’s a critical first step to improving energy efficiency of buildings. You can’t manage what you don’t measure,” said Mike Zatz, a manager for the EPA Energy Star program.

California, known for its aggressive global-warming targets, stands out for easy-to-find public information on the government’s energy efficiency.

A graphics-friendly website tracks each agency’s progress on mandated reduction of energy and water use and greenhouse gas emissions. State agencies as a whole already have surpassed Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown’s 2020 goal to reduce their own emissions 20 percent below 2010 levels, achieving 26 percent as of 2013, according to the California Environmental Protection Agency.
Massachusetts also posts detailed progress reports on its “Leading by Example” green program, launched in 2007 by then-Gov. Deval Patrick, a Democrat.

Mandates cover state executive branch agencies, universities and fleets. And the 2014 report shows that agencies met Patrick’s 2012 target for reducing greenhouse gas emissions 25 percent, en route to 40 percent by 2020, as well as his goal to increase renewable energy to 15 percent of state government’s consumption. State government fell short of the goal to reduce energy use per square foot by 20 percent, achieving just 3 percent, partly due to dramatic increase in college hours of operation, officials wrote.

Photo: The Salinas Valley in California. The state is known for its aggressive global-warming targets, stands out for easy-to-find public information on the government’s energy efficiency. Faces of Fracking via Flickr

Emissions Order Might Spur Alt-Fuel Vehicle Sales

By Todd Spangler, Detroit Free Press (TNS)

WASHINGTON — The federal government could increase its purchases of electric, hybrid, and other alternative fuel vehicles under an executive order signed Thursday by President Barack Obama to further cut greenhouse gas emissions.

The White House announced that Obama signed the executive order cutting the federal government’s greenhouse gas emissions by a total of 40 percent by 2025 compared to 2008 levels, building on a 2009 order which have helped reduce federal greenhouse gas emissions by 17 percent already.

The new plan calls for reducing per-mile greenhouse gas emissions from the federal government’s fleet of 650,000 vehicles by 30 percent in the next decade compared to last year’s levels and increasing the percentage of zero-emission and plug-in hybrids in the fleet.

The U.S. Department of Energy and the General Services Administration did not immediately respond to questions from the Detroit Free Press about how many alternative fuel vehicles are in the federal fleet and how many have been purchased or leased since 2009.

The executive order called for agencies with 20 or more leased or purchased vehicles to ensure that by the end of 2020, 20 percent of all new acquisitions be zero-emission or plug-in hybrid vehicles. By the end of 2025, that percentage is expected to grow to 50 percent.

The order also tells agencies to plan for cutting unnecessary vehicles from its fleets and to put in place appropriate refueling and recharging facilities for alternative fuel vehicles. The order does not cover combat support vehicles.

What couldn’t be known is whether such a target would ultimately be met, given that Obama leaves office in early 2017, though it appeared from a Free Press review of GSA records that, at the very least, that agency had purchased or leased hundreds of alternative fuel vehicles in recent years while working to meet the president’s 2009 order.

Other parts of the executive order signed by the president included directing federal agencies to ensure that a quarter of their total energy consumption is from clean energy sources such as wind power by 2025 and that overall energy use in federal buildings is reduced by 2.5 percent a year.

The White House said the results of both federal government actions and commitments from private sector suppliers — including IBM, GE, and Honeywell — could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 26 metric tons compared to 2008 levels or, it said, “the equivalent of taking nearly 5.5 million cars off the road for a year.”

Photo: drpavloff via Flickr

Paul Ryan Doesn’t Believe In Climate Science

U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) has taken the familiar Republican chorus of “I am not a scientist” one step further, by stating that he does not believe that science can know whether or not human activity is to blame climate change.

During an hour-long debate against Democratic challenger Rob Zerban on Monday, the moderator posed to both candidates the question of whether human pollution impacts climate change. The Associated Press reports that Ryan responded, “I don’t know the answer to that question. I don’t think science does, either.”

But science does know. A survey that collected 11,944 peer-reviewed papers from 1991-2011 on the topics “global climate change” or “global warming” found that 97 percent expressed the position that humans are impacting global warming. Similarly, NASA has concluded that 97 percent of scientists agree that human activity is very likely causing climate change.

Ryan has doubted climate science before. In July, speaking at a breakfast hosted by the Christian Science Monitor in Washington, the congressman said, “Climate change occurs no matter what.” At that breakfast, Ryan also claimed that EPA efforts to reduce emissions from power plants were “outside of the confines of the law,” and “an excuse to grow government, raise taxes, and slow down economic growth.”

At the debate on Monday, Ryan again stood behind his opposition to implementing plans to fight climate change. Ryan’s stance that “the benefits do not outweigh the costs” (of proposals that would limit climate change) stood in stark contrast to Zerban’s point that “this is an opportunity to invest a dime to save a dollar.”

Ryan is heavily favored to win re-election to his seat in GOP-leaning southern Wisconsin.

Photo: Gage Skidmore via Flickr

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