Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Insurance companies gear up for more extreme weather.

IBHS research facility

This past year, the Institute for Business & Home Safety (IBHS), the research arm of the insurance industry, unveiled a new research center dedicated to learning how homes survive under weather-related stress.  The massive facility, located in rural South Carolina amid dairy farms, can fit up to nine mid-sized houses, and has the ability to simulate torrential rain, hurricane force winds, and even wildfires.

The motivation behind research at the new IBHS center is to learn more about construction, maintenance, and building codes that are conducive towards disaster preparedness.

The research is part of a larger initiative by the insurance industry to respond to the multi-faceted challenge of climate change.  As climate change increases the occurrence and severity of extreme weather events, insurance companies will have to cover unprecedented losses.  Last year, severe weather events caused $37 billion in insured losses, the sixth-highest total for insurers since 1980, according to reinsurer, Munich Re.  In addition, the United Nations reported that natural disasters caused $109 billion in total economic damage last year, three times more than in 2009.

Changes in climate are also compounded by changes in the "built" environment.  High-risk areas for extreme weather-related events, such as Florida's coast and most "beachfront" property, can be hotspots for real estate development, oftentimes resulting in a landscape of high-density, high-value properties.  Most of these properties are not built with the potential of withstanding natural disasters, such as flooding or a hurricane, in mind.

Insurance companies recognize that raising premiums will not be enough to cover losses.  With the research at the new IBHS center, the insurance industry ultimately plans to incentivize ways of putting building codes and construction materials designed to withstand extreme weather, into practice.

Sharinne Sukhnanand

These briefs are part of a weekly series of updates to the publication: Climate Change: Past, Present, and Future.  The entire series can be found here.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Look at your fish! Look at the world!

"The moment one gives close attention to any thing, even a blade of grass it becomes a mysterious, awesome, indescribably magnificent world in itself."
- Henry Miller
Today's entry has to do with looking, really looking, at the natural and human world. I hope it will bring a bit of attention to beauty and intrigue too many of us are missing. I'm tempted to say we're doing that less because of the pressures of this modern world, but I that may be jumping to an unfounded conclusion. We pay attention to what's relevant to us, or what we perceive as relevant to us, and I expect that has always been true. Certainly industrial workers confined to industrial cities have been missing connection to the natural world for generations.

Before going further, I should point to why paying attention to the world around us is relevant to understanding climate. The primary connection is that you don't recognize change if you don't know what a place, a thing, a person, or a climate is like at some earlier time. I've written before about getting to know what your climate is like in a visceral way. As we spend more and more time in climate conditioned spaces we lose touch with our environment and our climate. This is another prod to keep or rebuild that connection.

This modern world allows us to move from climate-conditioned space to climate-conditioned space by way of moving climate-condition spaces. Your GPS allows you to get from point A to point B without paying a whole lot of attention to where you are and what's around you. Attention to landmarks has suddenly become unnecessary as we move about in vehicles that create uniform climates around us. It's great, of course, but it also has its costs. You can use your GPS as a mentor for learning the lay of the land. Or you can use it to ignore the lay of the land.

What do you do to give more attention to your environment? First, remember to do it. That might lead you to walking and biking more and driving less. That's got pluses besides bringing you more in touch with your environment of course. Then, stop and smell the roses. And draw the roses.

Hæmulon elegans, NOAA, Drawing by H. L. Todd

One of my favorite essays describes Louis Agassiz's approach to teaching. Agassiz was the first to present a scientific case for an ice age (and a direct opponent to much of Darwin's work). In the Laboratory with Agassiz, also known as Look at Your Fish! by Samuel H. Scudder, tells the tale of Scudder's first encounter with his mentor Agassiz. And, of Scudder looking at his fish long and hard:
Half an hour passes—an hour—another hour; the fish began to look loathsome. ...
...At last a happy thought struck me—I would draw the fish; and now with surprise I began to discover new features in the creature. Just then the Professor returned.
"That is right," said he; "a pencil is one of the best of eyes. I am glad to notice, too, that you keep your specimen wet, and your bottle corked."
With these encouraging words, he added, "Well, what is it like?"
Scudder gave his reply in terms of what he had seen in his first hours with the fish. Agassiz listened and replied:
"You have not looked very carefully; why," he continued more earnestly, "you haven't even seen one of the most conspicuous features of the animal, which is a plainly before your eyes as the fish itself; look again, look again!" and he left me to my misery.
The tale continues, unearthing how Scudder learned to see more and more about the fish. And about looking.

Of course, I'm partly urging you to go and look with your pencil, but more importantly, I'm just asking you to really, really look. There is so much awe-inspiring stuff in this world that we miss as we rush through it. And, unfortunately, we think much of that beautiful stuff is being flushed away, so we should enjoy it while we can.

And, if you went right past the first link above, it's a powerful example of how we blow by beauty in our rush from point A to point B. Here's virtuoso violinist Joshua Bell playing his Stradivarius in a Washington, DC Metro station and essentially being completely ignored:

Go forth and pay attention!

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

New York University implements a new "green" power plant as part of its own climate action plan.


Last month, New York University (NYU) unveiled its new state-of-the-art cogeneration (CoGen) power plant, designed to simultaneously provide heat and electricity to NYU's campus while helping to reduce its carbon footprint.
The upgrade was a central part of NYU's own climate action plan, spurred on by both the New York City Mayor Bloomberg's PlaNYC Climate Challenge, a directive for all city colleges and universities to cut carbon emissions voluntarily by 30% by 2017, and the American College and University President's Climate Commitment, a larger initiative across many institutions of higher learning to work towards climate neutrality.
The new plant is a marked improvement over NYU's previous oil-fired power plant.  It is 90% efficient as opposed to a typical boiler plant, which is only 50-60% efficient, and it produces 13.4 megawatts of electricity, twice the output of the previous system.  The new plant helps NYU reduce its overall greenhouse gas emissions by roughly 20%, cutting up to 5,000 metric tons of carbon per year.
Here is a great diagram of how it works.  Briefly, natural gas powers two high-tech turbines, which are similar to jet engine turbines.  The rotation from turbines generates electricity while the heat exhaust from the turbines is recovered and used to make steam.  The steam is then shunted off for a variety of purposes.  Some steam is used for heating and hot water, additional steam is used to drive another turbine for electricity generation, and in the summer, steam is shunted off to chiller to create cold water for air conditioning.
While the project was not cheap (price tag of $125 million), the university is expected to save $5-8 million in energy related costs per year.

Sharinne Sukhnanand

These briefs are part of a weekly series of updates to the publication: Climate Change: Past, Present, and Future.  The entire series can be found here.     

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Gaining Hope

This week's events in Egypt give us hope. I have hope for the end of repression both within Egypt and throughout the region. And I have regained some hope for the power of the people. No one knows where it will end, but these events clearly show that if enough people get excited enough and angry enough and connected enough, they can make a difference.

Sometimes I/we lose sight of that fact. 

And, I for one, didn't see it coming.


What lessons can take from the last three weeks with Egypt on the world stage? Well, I'm no political scientist, but that won't stop me from speculating. And I welcome corrections and clarifications.

  1. It seemingly happened overnight, but it really didn't. The issues have been simmering for decades. Somehow, a tipping point was reached. 
  2. Communication technologies helped. Twitter, Facebook, youtube and Al Jazeera all clearly mattered and none of them alone were likely sufficient.
  3. People got off their butts and into the streets. And onto Facebook, Twitter, Al Jazeera and such. Simmering anger alone doesn't do much. Communicating alone does a bit more. 
  4. Most of the participants didn't do a lot of planning. But my guess is that a few people did more than we have a sense of.
How does that translate to understanding climate? From the Essential Principles of Climate Science:
Guiding Principle for Informed Climate Decision: Humans can take actions to reduce climate change and its impacts.
What are those actions? They surely vary tremendously in their nature, but it does seem like we ought to be able from Egypt. What do you think?

And, please: Keep hope alive.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Where to focus climate change education efforts?

I virtually sat in on a bit of the Climate Change Education Roundtable Committee Meeting #2 this afternoon. There was some fascinating discussion that I caught only the tale end of, then it moved into discussions of what to focus the next workshop upon.

There was a resounding endorsement of focusing that upcoming workshop on climate change education at the K-12, or K-16 level. That simultaneously cheered and depressed me.

It cheered me because it's a profoundly important audience -- an audience where the understandings (or misunderstandings) built will have the longest-lasting effect. There's also the possibility of education that trickles up. Kids really do teach their parents important things some of the time.

But I'm also concerned for the very simple reason that K-12 or K-16 education has never worked very well for getting a lot of people to understand important ideas. I want you to pay attention to this point, so I'll inset it and make it bold.
There are no examples of creating a thick description of what everyone should understand about any topic that has led to wide swaths of the population understanding the target content, in spite of countless attempts to do just that throughout human history.

Pretty bold, huh?

Not a single example.

That begs for us to do something different. Pleads for it. Cries for it. Screams for it. 

I did raise the issue and it was politely received. Then the next several speakers talked about their agreement of the need to focus on K-12 education. 

Yes, this next workshop should focus on the young, as the last one focused upon a variety of adult audiences. But, and this is a really big but, we need to attend to the fact that we've just not been successful in teaching much more than basic literacy to a majority through schooling (or any other approach, really). 

Ok, that's a bit of a simplification. Most folks do know some important things and they learned it somewhere. Hygiene, for example. And, most people understand that smoking is bad for you. But only a minority have good understandings of things like the workings of our constitutional democracy, or evolution, or trigonometry, or, well, I could go on and on about the things that almost everyone has been taught that only a slim minority of the population understands. 

Wow, does that sound elitist. 

How would you do on the 

But really, how would you do on the NAEP test? Or, if you're understandably not a fan of standardized tests, how would you demonstrate your understandings across the traditional high school content areas? To make myself sound less elitist, I'll note that I was too chicken to try any areas outside of science. Or, I mean, I haven't had time yet.

And now back to our message:

As we work on the agenda of educating young people about climate change, we need to constantly ask ourselves:
 What is it that makes this approach more likely to succeed than what we've done before?
If we can't answer that question, we need to pull back and take a different tack. 

Our in the box thinking leaves us sitting in the same old box. How are you stepping out of the box? What should we do to make K-12 climate change education effective?

The views expressed herein are those of the author, Don Duggan-Haas, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Paleontological Research Institution.