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End of the Empire?

Since the conclusion of world war two, the United States has been viewed as the global leader. Much of this was due to the fact that we were the only industrial power on the planet that didn’t suffer massive infrastructure damage due to the war. We also had vast reserves of fossil fuels which we exploited to considerable advantage.

To most of the world we were the industrial, technological, educational and even moral leader. Now and especially since the election of the present national leadership, much of this is being questioned.

On the energy front we are still a major producer of fossil fuels, especially with the advent of the marriage of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing. The problem is that the world is moving on. Fossil fuels are yesterday’s technology. This has been clearly signaled by the Paris Agreement.

Seventy-two countries have ratified the agreement to reduce carbon emissions through efficiency and increasingly sophisticated solar and wind technologies. The countries which most vigorously develop and deploy these these “future fuels” will become the next leaders. Although we here in the US invented solar photovoltaics and pioneered wind power we are becoming small time consumers in this energy market.

The majority of wind turbines and solar panels here in the US are made overseas. Wind turbine blades, made here in the US, are made by foreign companies’ subsidiaries. Our labor goes to produce profit for companies in China and India.

And what does our current leader do? He has signed executive orders rolling back President Obama’s clean power plan that would have drastically reduced carbon emissions at little to no cost. The president’s proposed budget eliminates the energy star program – a program which has returned an astounding 300 dollars for every dollar invested! What does he say about our energy future? We’re gonna make coal great again. This makes about as much sense as subsidizing buggy whip manufacturing.

What does China do? China is on a trajectory to drastically reduce their reliance on coal. They are the world leader in producing photovoltaic panels and just recently became the world leader in installing solar. Denmark is a world leader in wind energy – currently getting 42 % of its electric power from wind. They are on target to reach 84% by 2035.

We currently get a scant 4 % of our electric power from wind and have essentially no target for improvement. We have essentially abandoned our position as world leader in the future of energy production.

Our immigration policy shows that we no longer really care about the “huddled masses yearning to breath free.” It is also impacting our educational leadership. Student in-migration is down. Forty percent of graduate schools are reporting decreased applications from foreign students. They represent the world’s best and brightest, who no longer see the US as the place to be.

Is this end of the empire? Just as the center of civilization passes from one society to another we very well may be witnessing the decline of or dominance in the world. We still possess the world’s biggest military but we may no longer be the world’s leader.

Australian Outback via The Ghan

Australia has about 75% of the area of the United States, roughly 3 million versus 4 million square miles. The real difference is in population. Australia with under 25 million is less the 8 % of the US population, about 320 million. Most the residents are on the coast, with the east and south coasts the more populous.

The first humans in Australia, the Aborigines, arrived around 50,000 years ago. European exploration and subsequent immigration came much later than that of the Americas. The British established a penal colony in southeast Australia in the late 18th century and population gradually grew thereafter. Exploration and habitation of the coasts greatly preceded the central region, the outback, known for the vast expanses of arid to semi arid deserts.

dragon lizard

dragon lizard

By early in the nineteenth century journeys through the outback were aided by caravans of camels imported initially from India and Pakistan. Caravans of up to 70 camels each carrying nearly a half ton of goods each, were driven by teams of Afghans who apparently excelled in camel herding. The camel caravans were used to supply remote mining sites, a few sheep stations (ranches) and to aid the construction of the first telegraph lines from the north to the south of Australia.

7 foot tall termite mound

7 foot tall termite mound

Today the Afghan herded camel “trains” no longer ply the desert. To a large degree they have replaced by rail service. As the camels were no longer needed they were simply released to the wild to fend for themselves. There are now estimated to be over a million feral camels.

The Ghan

The Ghan

Sections of a rail line began as early as 1858, but completion of the line connecting Darwin in the north with Adelaide in the south wasn’t completed until late in the twentieth century. The almost 1800 mile trip can be completed nonstop in 48 hours. A popular passenger rail service called the Ghan (after the Afghan camel drivers) now makes the trip with side excursions over 4 days.

Darwin , Northern Territory

Darwin , Northern Territory

We boarded the train in Darwin, capital of the Northern Territory (NT). Darwin on the northern coast has a tropical climate, lying about 12 degrees south of the equator. From there we headed south for several hours before arriving in Katherine, NT. Nearby is the Nitmiluk National Park. The Katherine river flows through the park where it has cut deep gorges in the Sedimentary rock, dated to 1.2 billion years old.

Katherine River

Katherine River

Farther south is the quaint town of Alice Springs, essentially the geographic center of Australia. It is equidistant to Darwin and Adelaide, 900 miles each way. Desert climates can be severe. Summer high temperatures can reach 120 degrees, and winter lows, especially on clear nights can dip well below freezing.

Near Alice Springs

Near Alice Springs

South of Alice Springs is the town of Coober Pedy, renowned as the richest source of opals in the world. The climate is so extreme here that over half the town’s inhabitants live underground to escape the heat.

Opal Mines

Opal Mines

The end of the line on the southern coast of Australia is Adelaide, the capital of the state of Southern Australia. It is the most centralized city in Australia with over 70% of the state’s population in the greater metropolitan area.

Pipelines and Electric Lines

Over the coming months two major public service transmission lines will be installed across Pope county. One is a high voltage direct current (HVDC) electric transmission line from the panhandle of Oklahoma to Memphis, Tennessee. The other is a pipeline to move oil from Cushing, Oklahoma to Memphis. One will contribute to a clean energy future, the other will contribute to global warming. Both will, to the point of law suits, incense landowners along the rights of way.

Cushing Oklahoma, because of location and historical precedent, is the major hub for oil pipelines in the United States. It also happens to have the largest oil storage tank farm in the world. The Diamond pipeline will move 200 thousand barrels of light sweet crude per day to a Valero refinery in Memphis. To get a sense of just how much oil that is, if the pipeline were diverted it could fill the Dallas Cowboys stadium in less than a day. If the oil were all converted to gasoline, it could fill the tanks of half a million cars a day.

Opposition to this 900 million dollar project comes from landowners who would rather not have a 25 to 150 foot wide strip of land which must be maintained as an open space – no forestation or permanent structures in the right of way. The pipeline is also opposed by environmental groups who would rather not have more crude oil turned in to fuel which ultimately contributes to global warming.

The panhandle region of both Texas and Oklahoma have some of the best wind resources in the country. Wind speeds average near 20 miles per hour. It is a problem however as there is no market for all the potential wind energy in the area, hence the need for transmission lines to take what energy could be generated elsewhere. Most practical is transmission to the east across Arkansas to a distribution hub in Memphis. This will allow for clean renewable energy to replace energy from coal fired power plants across the Tennessee Valley Authority power grid. It also will require a 150 or so foot right of way.

The HVDC transmission line will carry 4,000 Megawatts of direct current electricity about 700 miles start to finish. Power poles are 150 feet tall and spaced 5 to the mile. This power line is like a super highway for electrons with very limited access. The only “drop-off” point planned currently is an off ramp near Atkins. This will allow 500 Megawatts of power to flow into the local grid.

Like the oil pipeline, land owners are opposing the HVDC line. The nation’s preeminent environmental group, the Sierra Club, is supporting it.

Both project require regulatory oversight which allows the use of eminent domain to secure the rights of way. The process is different for the projects. The oil pipeline has been approved by the Arkansas Public Service Commission (APSC) even though the Pipeline will provide no direct benefit to Arkansas. Apparently pipelines get a legal pass, not afforded to the electric transmission lines.

Because the initial HVDC line had no direct benefit to Arkansas, it was denied legal status by the APSC and therefore is seeking federal oversight. By partnering with the Department of Energy Clean line will gain federal right of eminent domain.

Species Extinctions

President Obama, when announcing his clean power plan to reduce carbon emissions said “we only get one home. We only get one planet. There’s no plan B.” The current human population is about 7.4 billion and growing by about 80 million a year. The United Nations population program projects a global population of 11 billion people by the end of this century, on our only planet.

Humans and our as yet unrestrained growth are having a profound impact on our only home, planet earth. We have transformed our atmosphere by filling it with excess carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels and deforestation. The oceans are becoming more acidic from the same carbon dioxide dissolving to form carbonic acid. Agriculture has transformed over 80 per cent of the arable land and 50 per cent of the total land surface.

Our evolutionary success comes at the expense of the rest of the planet’s wildlife. We are driving other species to extinction at an unprecedented rate. Species come and go but scientists at the World Wildlife Fund estimate that human activities have accelerated the rate by over a 1000 times the natural extinction rate.

Our largest or possibly most gentle competitors for the resources of the planet are going first. Marine mammals are particularly stressed. A twenty million year old river dolphin found only in China is now officially extinct. The Banjii, called the “goddess of the Yangtze,” succumbed to human pressures in the form of habitat loss, suffocation in fish nets and collisions with shipping.

The world’s smallest porpoise is also the world’s most endangered. The Vaquita lives in the northern end of the Gulf of California, There are likely less that 60 animals, and these continue to die mainly in fish nets, many of which are illegal. Scientists are considering a hail Mary approach to its survival similar to the successful effort to save the California Condor. The rescue plan would involve collecting and captive breeding to rebuild stocks of the Vaquita. The problem is that this animal has never been held in captivity and uncertainties abound.

All 5 of the worlds species of Rhinoceros are endangered. Fewer than 60 Javan and 100 Sumatran Rhino’s survive in southeast Pacific Islands. Other Rhinos in India and Africa are more numerous but still critically endangered.

All is not lost however, as there are a couple of uplifting trends. A giant concern for the future is global warming. On that front there is some good news. Carbon free energy sources around the globe are the fastest growing source of new power. Simultaneously at least here in the US, our per capita consumption is actually decreasing. Even though there are more of us, we each are using less.

Most promising for the planet is the strong positive correlation between increased women’s education and birthrates. The more educated a woman, the fewer children she will have. Also more educated women delay childbirth and are therefore better able to provide for the children they have.

Climate Ocean Linkage

In recent years there seems to be somewhat of a kerfuffle over the use of the terms Global Warming and Climate Change. Some in denial about the scientific concerns for changes in our planetary environment have suggested that “they” have changed the terminology to confuse the public. Or denialists claim that the term climate change is employed to cover up for the fact that the planet is not actually warming. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Both terms have been around and in use for years by scientists and mean different things. Realistically climate change is a result of global warming and includes many derived effects in addition to warming. The best way to look at is yet more terminology. Anthropogenically (man-made) driven changes to our planet include overall warming, which directly drives things such as warmer land and sea temperatures, the melting of the polar ice sheets and the recession of glaciers. All of the above has been going on and accurately measured for a couple of centuries. The rate of change is not always constant but the trend is undeniable.

The warming is due to something called radiative forcing. Certain gases produced through human activities, mainly burning fossil fuels, absorb infrared energy (heat ) in the atmosphere. The heat is trapped in the atmosphere rather than radiated out to space. Essentially planetary heat gain and heat loss are out of balance. Carbon Dioxide not only drives the heat cycle but also negatively impacts the oceans.

The oceans are getting warmer due to the direct heating effect, and as there is more water from melting ice, the salinity or saltiness of the oceans is decreasing. Coral bleaching is being observed around the world. Bleaching is the term given to the die-off of coral due to heat and acidity. All that is left is the lifeless exoskeletons which appear white without the living matter present. Coral makes up the reefs that constitute the nurseries of the much of the ocean fish populations.

Wetlands on the continental shelves are being drown from rising sea levels. Wetlands also constitute nurseries for fin fish and shellfish stocks which are threatened. As the water levels rise the brackish water moves farther inland. Jellyfish, which have little nutritional value and therefore aren’t part of a food chain seem to be replacing other valuable organisms around the globe.

The world’s oceans are actually acting to moderate the rate of global warming by absorbing some the Carbon Dioxide from the atmosphere, but this comes at a cost. As the Carbon Dioxide from the atmosphere dissolves in the oceans, it reacts chemically to become more acidic. The same effect is achieved in bottled soda drinks. Carbon Dioxide is the stuff that makes a soft drink fizzy, and also more tart, due to the acidity. The acidity of oceans is directly proportional to the amount of Carbon dioxide absorbed. The worst case scenario is that Calcium Carbonate, the stuff of shells and the bones of animals won’t form.

All these changes are being accelerated by what are known as positive feed back loops. As sea ice melts the surface of the earth becomes less reflective. Less reflectivity means more heat absorption, which leads to more sea ice melting. The longer we delay action the more difficult our predicament becomes.

Energy from Ocean Currents

IMG_3816

Whether we learn to stop burning fossil fuels as a way to mitigate global warming or we simply use them all up, we will have to find truly sustainable supplies of energy for our future. Nuclear power is always a possibility but seems to be going nowhere as nobody but nobody wants the radioactive wastes.

Solar energy in all its direct and derivative forms is the odds on leader. Solar thermal for powering turbines to generate electricity and Photovoltaic energy production are direct applications of solar power. Important but derivative is wind. Wind is the result of the Coriolis effect (more about this later) and uneven heating of land and water which creates the movement of air from regions of high pressure to low pressure. Wind driven wave action of some coastal areas also can be exploited.

Hydropower is also derived solar power. Solar heating causes water to evaporate from the surface of the earth. The water vapor can then condense and return to the surface as rain. Rainfall can be captured in reservoirs and used to generate power.

Geothermal power, heat from the interior of the earth, can be tapped to generate power where cracks in earth’s mantle make sufficient heat close enough to the surface as to be practically accessed.

Even the moon can provide power. It’s gravitational attraction drives the tides and in prime locations this power source has been tapped. The Bay of Fundy in Nova Scotia has tidal changes as high as 50 feet.

Ocean currents are an as yet untapped source of power. They are driven by several factors. The Coriolis effect is a force exerted by the rotation of the earth. Combine the Coriolis effect with the temperature differential between the equator and the poles and and differences in salinity between the two and you get a gyre.

The north Atlantic gyre is a circulation of water involving the gulf stream flowing north up the east coast of the United States, across the north Atlantic then down the western coast of Europe and back east across the Atlantic. The flow rate if the gulf stream is only about 2 miles an hour. This seems slow compared to wind speeds of about 12 to 15 miles per hour need for practical wind turbine power production.

The much slower movement of water still can provide significant amounts of power as water is about 800 times as dense as air, and power production is directly proportional to fluid density. All that is needed for power production is the placement of turbines anchored in place amid an ocean current.

Another current which could be used to produce power is a similar ocean gyre in the Pacific Ocean. The north Pacific equivalent of the gulf stream is called the Kuroshio current. It flows northward up the east coast of Japan and circulates in a clockwise pattern around the north Pacific.

An abundance of sustainable energy supplies exist around the world. Accessing multiple sources of sustainable supplies can assure all the power we need without using fossil fuels. The energy needs of humanity can be accomplished without utilizing fossil fuels and all the baggage their use entails.

Balkanization – SCOTUS Style

Within an hour of the announcement of the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell announced that there would be no hearings to replace Scalia until after the elections in the fall. His argument is that we should await the decision of the American people as to the next president before deciding on a replacement Justice.

The constitution is clear that the President of the United States selects nominees for the court with the advice and consent of the Senate. What is not clear is how to select a new justice if the senate refuses to hold hearings on a presidential nominee.

There are a number of “what ifs” built into the constitution and its amendments. If the president dies or becomes incapacitated, we have a vice-president at the ready. Three successive congressional acts have defined a presidential succession that goes well beyond the vice president. If there is no majority of votes cast in the electoral college, the election goes to the House of Representatives. If congress doesn’t like the actions of a president s/he can be removed through the impeachment process. If a tie vote occurs in the Senate, the Vice-President as casts a tie breaking vote.

There is however no mechanism to force a recalcitrant senate to act to confirm a selection to the supreme court. For that matter the senate could refuse to confirm any federal judge appointment, essentially abolishing the federal courts by attrition.

When the court is short one member, the possibility of a tie exists. In the case of a tie there is no decision. The previous appeals court decision stands. The death of Scalia has already changed things. In a recent civil action, Dow Chemical decided to pay an 835 million dollar settlement in an antitrust price-fixing case that it had lost in lower courts and that was on the Supreme Court’s docket. (A 4-to-4 tie at the Supreme Court would have left the lower court’s decision in place, including a judgment in excess of a billion dollars against Dow.

A serious problem exists now because tied decisions mean that the circuit court decision stands, but only for that circuit court, of which there are 12 (Arkansas is in the 8th circuit.) Tied decisions mean no decisions, it is as if there were no supreme court only the 12 regional circuit courts. There can be no consistent federal law throughout the nation as long as tie votes are possible.

With only eight justices on the court, and the possibility of tie decisions, we have a situation which “Balkanizes” federal law (Balkanization is a term which refers to a condition when one political unit fragments into several smaller units, especially when there are political differences among the smaller units. It refers to the Balkan Peninsula in the 19th century when the Ottoman Empire collapsed into a number of smaller often hostile nation states.)

Right now it is not the United States of America, but rather the “Amalgamated 12 Different Regions of America.”

National Security is More than Bombs

The focus of a previous Republican debate was national security. To a man (or woman) the only concern was for the security that comes from a bullet or battleship. Their strategies involved variations on sending our troops to die in Syria, greater involvement of the Arab nation’s troops, increased drone attacks and a strangely abundant call for carpet bombing.

Other kinds of security may come to mind on a national scale, food security is a biggie, and avoidance of floods and droughts, and disease vectors such as insect born infections, and epidemics, and heat waves and on and on from global warming and climate change. Bullets and battleships won’t help here, just the opposite. Instead of fighting we must work on agreeing so we can reach solutions.

Back to national security of the bombing kind. Last July the Department of Defense (DoD) released a report outlining possible threats to national security that could involve the military. “Global climate change will aggravate problems such as poverty, social tensions, environmental degradation, ineffectual leadership and weak political institutions that threaten stability in a number of countries…”

When the British exited the Indian subcontinent they partitioned the area into India and East and West Pakistan, based strictly on religious grounds. Later east Pakistan became Bangladesh. It is a small but populous, low-lying country. A predominantly Muslim country adjacent to a predominantly Hindu India. What happens when rising sea levels push 150 or so million Muslims “upslope” into Hindu India? The capital of Bangladesh is not coastal but still is just 4 meters above sea level. Even without forcing migration across borders, population concentration can cause strife.

Hardly any place on earth is immune from threats that could turn into military conflict. The melting of Arctic sea ice will bring several major nations into proximity in the area. Some of the area has ill-defined borders which when covered with ice weren’t much of an issue. Now those issues along with the seas are heating up.

Access to fresh water will surely become a flash point in the future. The high latitudes and low latitudes are predicted to get wetter, but the mid latitudes drier. There are already over a billion people with limited access to potable water and this may only get worse with global warming.

The DoD report emphasizes that the threat is real and requires planning to be prepared for the future. “The ability of the United States and other countries to cope with the risks and implications of climate change requires monitoring, analysis and integration of those risks into existing overall risk management measures, as appropriate for each combatant command, they added.”

A recurring theme in science fiction novels and movies has been the coming together of otherwise warring nations to fight a common enemy – space aliens. Will global warming be the threat not from space but from within which will bind us together as a world community? An important step was taken recently in Paris with a much heralded agreement among all nations. The meeting of world leaders has resulted in an international resolve to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius.

Upcoming Paris Talks

Next month, world leaders from over 190 countries, and scientists that represent governments and Non Governmental Organizations (NGOs) will meet again, this time in Paris, to try to address the issue of global warming. This is a mind-bogglingly difficult task. Fully 80% of the global economy runs on the energy produced from burning fossil fuels which releases Carbon Dioxide. The CO2 in the atmosphere acts like a blanket trapping heat which results in warming the planet.

The answer is simple and clear, but the solution is anything but. The answer is to stop burning carbon as an energy source. How that is achieved is the crux of the problem. Some say that if we can put a man on the moon, we ought to be able to solve the climate problem. To be honest that was an easy goal to achieve. First and foremost we did it essentially alone. The global warming challenge requires the cooperation of every country on the planet, something which has never happened before.

Our putting a man on the moon also didn’t require any special source of energy or concern for the wastes produced therefrom. To solve the global warming crisis will require a combination of drastic reductions in burning fossil fuels, massive improvements in energy efficiency to reduce demand and an expansion of sustainable non-carbon energy sources over an extremely short time scale, unprecedented in the history of mankind.

Some steps have been initiated in a few countries, most notably Western Europe, where several countries have moved aggressively to deploy wind and solar. On a good day Denmark can get 100 % of its electrical energy needs from wind. Germany is not particularly well situated for solar power yet in 2014 they produced over 6% of the electrical energy from solar PV panels. Even China is reacting. Their current 5-year plan has a goal of over 11% of energy needs from renewable sources. That’s some of the good news, the bad news is that it is not nearly enough.

If the countries could agree to reduce carbon emissions by 20% from the current scenario, over the next 50 years, it will only push back the time it takes to double the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere by 10 years – from 2065 to 2075. Some countries such as those in western Europe have both the technological acumen and the political will to achieve that kind of a goal. Others like the US have the technology but as yet have not expressed the political will to take on the task. And finally much of the rest of the world has neither.

So where does that leave us? Eventually the planet with run out of energetically available fossil fuels, but it doesn’t look like curtailing their use will happen any time soon. Adapting to “a new world order” of the climate variety seems inevitable. If there is one thing we humans do well is adapt. As a species we are very young, but have come out of Africa and covered the globe, occupying every conceivable niche. From the frozen tundra to desiccated wastes of deserts. From lowland swamps to the tops of mountain ranges.

We will pull our cities back from the submerging coasts, and adapt our crops to the hotter regimen. But what about the rest of the biosphere? I suspect we will be adapting to a more biologically barren world.

Mean Coal

To say that every time you flip a light switch, you kill another coal miner would be an outrageous and unsupportable allegation, but we need to think about the costs, in addition to the electric bill, of keeping the lights on.

Close to half of the electricity produced in the U.S. comes from burning coal, and a lot of it. Current use is about a billion tons of coal a year. The costs we pay directly include the actual costs of extraction of the coal, and additional costs tangentially related to coal extraction. The tragic deaths of 29 miners in West Virginia forces us to see these additional costs.

In addition to the deaths from accidents are the more significant but less dramatic deaths from diseases associated with coal mining. Black lung disease is estimated to take 1,000- 3,000 thousand lives per year. Chronic, non-lethal conditions such as related cardiopulmonary diseases affect many, many more miners. If the coal companies pay the health care costs associated with mining, then the cost is added to the price we pay for electricity, but the emotional costs are immeasurable and born by the miners and their families.

We literally have to decide what a life is worth. How much are we willing to spend on our electricity to prevent another death through greater but much more costly safety regulations? Put more bluntly, how many deaths and how much debilitating illness will we tolerate to save money on our electric bill?

Costs which we bear collectively but outside the cost of electricity are more insidious. Severe environmental degradation occurs when mountain top removal strategies are employed to get at coal seams. The tops of mountains are blasted and pushed into surrounding valleys. Acid drainage from various mining techniques can destroy virtually all life in affected watersheds. Emissions from the burning of coal include numerous toxic metals such as mercury, cadmium, lead and arsenic. More radionuclides are released to the environment from burning coal than the total fuel cycle of nuclear reactors. Coal combustion is the major contributor to global warming and and changes in ocean chemistry through acidification.

So the question becomes what do you want to pay for your electricity, in dollars, lives and the environment you leave to our children. The most important thing you can do is examine how much energy you use. You really don’t need kilowatt-hours of electricity. What you want is a warm in the winter, cool in the summer, well-lit house. Or a successful business that meets the customer’s needs.

To a surprising degree, this can be achieved through the utilization of what Amory Lovins calls “negawatts.” That’s the energy you don’t use through efficiency. It’s better than a free lunch, it is a lunch that pays you to eat it! Examples abound: LED light bulbs, attic insulation, shade trees, and clotheslines just to name a few.
Even if we don’t act responsibly, ultimately we will power the world without burning carbon because we will have used up it all up. But we can act responsibly, we can decide that the adoption of a world powered by truly sustainable energy is our best and only future.