Monthly Archives: November 2014

Military Preparedness and Global Warming

Arkansas Pols in particular and the Republican dominated congress more generally don’t seem to think much of the risk of global warming. Jim Inhofe, the ranking member of the Environment and Public Works Committee in the US Senate famously said something to the effect that global warming is the greatest hoax ever played on the American people. Actually he said this hoax was second only to the separation of church and state, but we’ll save that for another discussion.

The Environmental Protection Agency begs to differ. After years of planning they have released a clean power plan aimed to curb the release of Carbon Dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels. This will not only reduce the risk of global warming but also clean our air of a number of pollutants harmful to health.

Another agency that disagrees is the Pentagon. They think global warming is real and in fact have released a report ”2014 Climate Change Adaptation Roadmap.” Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, in an address to the Conference of the Defense Ministers of the Americas said that “Rising global temperatures, increasing sea levels and intensifying weather events will challenge global stability and could lead to food and water shortages, pandemic disease and disputes over refugees and resources.“

Secretary Hagel went on: “The loss of glaciers will strain water supplies in several areas of our hemisphere. Droughts and crop failures can leave millions of people without any lifeline, and trigger waves of mass migration.”

Without claiming that the troubles in the near east are due directly to global warming, it is true that climate change can only make a regional problem worse. There is no doubt that severe weather such as floods and droughts further stress difficulties in any society.

US military flood relief, Colorado 2013

US military flood relief, Colorado 2013

This report is only the latest is a number of reports addressing the risk of global warming. The report is however noteworthy in that for the first time the pentagon recognizes global warming as a real threat now, rather than something to be dealt with in the future.

US National Guard provied search and rescue for Hurricane Sandy

US National Guard provied search and rescue for Hurricane Sandy

The pentagon report has indicated that a number of consequences must be addressed. Coastal military installations that are vulnerable to flooding will need to be altered, humanitarian assistance missions will be more frequent in the face of more intense natural disasters, and weapons and other critical military equipment will need to work under more severe weather conditions.

Obviously there is considerable disagreement between the views of the senator from Oklahoma and the leadership of the mightiest military in the world concerning the real risk of global warming. When such dissonance occurs we each have to decide who to believe. On the one hand we have congress, with an approval rating near single digits and on the other the military, sworn to protect us. It’s your call.

Student Debt

Nationally, 7 in 10 graduating college seniors have student loan debt. This is up from only 5 in 10 indebted students in the mid 1990s. For the indebted, it averages close to 30,000 dollar per student. Student debt in aggregate, 1.2 trillion dollars, is second only to mortgage debt. $$$

Breaking out the indebtedness, 66 percent of students attending public colleges and universities, 75 percent attending private non-profit institutions, and an astonishing 88 percent of students attending for profit institutions owe. Almost 9 in 10 students at for profit institutions carry a debt averaging 40,000 dollars. This is serious debt requiring the direction of 10 percent of a salary over 10 to 15 years for a school teacher, as just one example.

The cost of a college education has been rising faster than inflation and there are a couple of reasons for this. First, for public institutions, state funding as a percentage of the total cost of the education has been declining. Since the 1970s the share of the cost of an education has gone from well over half to much less than half, leaving tuition to make up the difference.

An additional burden on the cost of an education -the number of non-academic administrative and professional employees at U.S. colleges and universities has more than doubled in the last 25 years.
There are now about two non-academic staff per faculty member. Some of this is driven by the cost of regulations, and dealing with less than optimally prepared students. Ironically at least part of it is competition between institutions for students.

Athletics is also a drain on academics at all but the most successful schools. A local example is the fact that there is a athletic fee imbedded in the cost per credit hour at Arkansas Tech University: 14 out of 209 dollars per student credit hour goes to support the athletic program. Other fees exist but are identified as a line item. Would students on tight budgets really be interested in paying that fee were it voluntary? College Football Stadiums - Google Maps

These kinds of spiraling costs occur across the country. It’s just the price we have to pay for an educated citizenry, so be it. But does it have to be this way? Should higher education be in the entertainment business? Only seven programs at public institutions break even or better. For the University of Arkansas and almost every other university, sports is a money-losing proposition.

Now more than ever we are competing in a global economy and the country with the most educated citizenry should have a competitive advantage. In a number of European countries higher education is free for the citizens, but also free of entertainment programs such as athletics thus lowering the net cost.

You want a free college degree, at least tuition wise? Get over to Norway were they provide free higher education, even to non-citizens, just don’t expect to be rooting for the home team.


Our Planet – Our Toilet

Out in the North Pacific Ocean is a region of doldrums. To the north the prevailing winds blow from east to west, below this region from west to east. The winds drive currents and the result is the North Pacific Gyre. This is essentially a slow motion whirlpool that traps the flotsam and jetsam of the planet. There are other ocean gyres.

The northern gyre, two or three times the size of Texas, contains over a 100 million tonnes of trash, almost entirely non-degradable plastic. There are regions of compact “islands” of trash and other areas where the trash is more dispersed.

ocean gyre "island"

ocean gyre “island”

This just not the wastes from ships in the region but rather the accumulated wastes that wash into the oceans from around the world. A plastic bag that blows out of the back of a pick-up in Montana can make its way through the Columbia river watershed to the coast. There the currents deliver the trash to the gyre.

The rafts of plastic in the gyre have created a whole new toxic environment in the middle of the ocean. Millions of seabird die annually from consumption of indigestible plastic. Hundreds of thousands of sea mammals and turtles die just from being entrapped in the waste.

death by plastic

death by plastic

A unique and troublesome type of plastic waste making its way to the seas are called microbeads. These are tiny tiny beads of plastic that are used in a number of cosmetic products and soaps as scrubbing agents or exfoliants. They are small enough to be taken up in diatoms, and then up the food chain.

microbead exfoliant

microbead exfoliant

Because of certain chemical properties they act like magnets to absorb toxic materials such as pesticides. When ocean fish or crabs, clams, etc. accumulate the beads via the food chain they have the potential of returning these toxins to our dinner table!

The very properties that make plastic attractive in modern society, lightweight, durable and inexpensive is coming back to haunt us. We are drowning in a sea of plastic wastes. What are we to do? We have trash collection and recycling across the country but obviously we are not doing enough.

Strengthening litter laws or recycling rules will help but what is really needed is a completely different way of doing things. Some communities are beginning to take small steps. Cities have enacted laws to charge a small fee for the use of disposable bags at checkout, say a nickel a bag. This is not an onerous fee but it is enough to make people think. California just passed an outright ban on disposable checkout bags.

We have to change the we we do business. The ubiquitous blister packing has to go. All plastic involved in packing has to go. Microbeads, out! This list goes on and on. There will have to be a new business ethic to clean up the planet or laws to the same effect.

We have a chance of surviving our own wastes without “murdering “ the rest of the planet but we have to change our ways. We have to stop filling the atmosphere with waste gases that are dangerously warming the earth, and we have to stop filling the oceans with our non-degradable solid waste.

Electrical Energy Future

A sea change in electrical energy production and utilization will be occurring over the next few generations which will make for a cleaner, more sustainable future. The current model for energy generation and distribution relies on relatively inefficient thermal power plants, power by fossil fuels or uranium. They are inherently inefficient, converting only a third of the energy available, the remainder is unusable waste heat. Fossil fueled plants have the added disadvantage of adding Carbon Dioxide to the atmosphere and driving global warming.

coal smoke

coal smoke

In 2009 the United States Environmental Protection Agency found that Carbon Dioxide and five other gases constitute a threat the human health and welfare and are a primary cause of global warming. After several years of planning they recently announced actions to mitigate this risk. Over the next 15 years states will on average have to reduce their emissions of CO2 by 30 percent. This will be achieved mainly by moving away from burning coal to produce electricity.

Although the national mandate is 30 percent, the Arkansas requirement is to lower our carbon emissions by 44 percent. That’s the bad news. The good news is that we have recently started in the right direction by demand side management. There are two ways to meet the EPA mandate, either find a way to replace the electrical production with non carbon energy sources (supply side) or reduce demand for electrical energy through efficiency (demand side.)

Recently the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE) lauded Arkansas for its progress in enacting aggressive energy efficiency measures. Arkansas was named as one of four “most improved” along with Kentucky, Wisconsin, and the District of Columbia, moving up six spots from its 2013 ranking. Specifically, the ACEEE noted that “[Arkansas’s] budgets for electric efficiency programs increased 30 percent between 2012 and 2013, while electricity savings more than tripled.”

The beauty of demand side management is that it not only save energy, it saves money. Every kilowatt-hour you don’t use, you don’t pay for. Energy efficient light bulbs such as compact fluorescent (CFs) bulbs or even better light emitting diodes (LEDs) save money and energy. Shade trees on the south side of a home save money and energy. More efficient electric motors save money and energy. Examples abound. A nifty term encapsulates this kind of savings – the negawatt. It is the energy you don’t use, hence money you don’t spend, through efficiency.

The next step is to gradually phase out our older coal fired power plants. This makes sense because as the older plants are the least efficient. You pick the low hanging fruit first, right? Prices for solar panels to generate electricity have been falling rapidly in recent years. Currently the price is such that a solar panel array pays for itself in about 10 years, after that the electricity is essentially free.



A lot of wind generated power is available to us from the west. A large project, Plains and Clean Line transmission line will be bringing clean wind generated electricity to Arkansas and parts east over the next few years.

If we make the right choices the world will be a better place in the future – our children’s children’s future.