Wednesday, January 21, 2015

The Engines of Life Hit Stall Speed

SUMMARY: The world could warm 17 degrees hotter - scientist Thomas J. Goreau. Plus America's most dangerous nuclear reactor, Indian Point 25 miles from New York City. Lawyer/activist Susan Hito-Shapiro. Radio Ecoshock

I’ve heard some folks try to dodge the evidence by saying they’re not scientists; that we don’t have enough information to act. Well, I’m not a scientist, either. But you know what –- I know a lot of really good scientists at NASA, and NOAA, and at our major universities. The best scientists in the world are all telling us that our activities are changing the climate, and if we do not act forcefully, we’ll continue to see rising oceans, longer, hotter heat waves, dangerous droughts and floods, and massive disruptions that can trigger greater migration, conflict, and hunger around the globe. The Pentagon says that climate change poses immediate risks to our national security. We should act like it.

- U.S. President Barack Obama in his State of the Union address, 2015.


You can't make this stuff up. The hub of world financial activity, Wall Street and all, is gambling every day that two old reactors just 25 miles away won't finally melt-down, Fukushima-style. Even the Nuclear Regulatory Commission thinks Indian Point has the most at-risk-for-an-earthquake reactors in the country. Later in this program we'll talk with environmental lawyer, activist and local resident Susan Hito Shapiro about the real threat.

But first, I found another jaw-dropping, gasp-for-breath story in climate science. Is two degrees Centigrade of warming safe? What about 17 or 20 degrees hotter? That's right. The United Nations panel on climate change doesn't tell you the ultimate destination. When our current emissions at 400 parts per million finally stabilizes, London will be a tropical swamp with hippos and crocodiles - again.

I've been on the climate watch since 1990. How come nobody told us? And our source is not a blogger from nowhere-istan. He's a scientist with decades of experience and a who's who of scientific connections. The only good news is there is some good news. Dr. Goreau can also see a way to bring the world's climate back to the place we can recognize, and survive. It's all in a day's work at Radio Ecoshock.

Download or listen to this Radio Ecoshock show in CD Quality (56MB) or Lo-Fi (14 MB)

Or listen on Soundcloud right now!


Are we heading toward a super-tropical planet with today's coastlines deep underwater? We're going to talk about what the United Nations doesn't tell you, and the best way to save what's left. Our guest is Dr. Thomas J. Goreau. He studied planetary physics and astronomy, before getting his doctorate in biogeochemistry at Harvard. Born in Jamaica, among many fields of expertise, Thomas Goreau is an expert in coral reef science. He is President of the Global Coral Reef Alliance.

But I've asked Dr. Goreau to join us because of a startling speech he made last November at Tufts University. The conference was called "Biodiversity for a Livable Climate".


Download or listen to this Radio Ecoshock interview with Thomas J Goreau in CD Quality or Lo-Fi.

Let's just go over a few main points from my interview with Thomas Goreau. You probably haven't heard that news before, and may not hear it again. I'm not a scientist. This is just what I've found in Google searches, which you can do for yourself.

The actual climate record says that the world will keep warming for thousands of years. At our current level of 400 parts per million carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, it may settle out between 17 degrees and 20 degrees C. warmer, at least 30 degrees hotter in Fahrenheit. The seas will be some 27 feet higher, at least. Back in the last great warming period, the Emian, most of the world's coral reefs died, sea levels were super high, and the CO2 levels in the atmosphere were only 280 parts per million, much lower than today.

I found that hard to believe. So I went back into the charts myself. Has the Earth ever been that hot? We won't count the very early days of the planet, or the time when a collision split off the moon. NASA estimates temperatures in the atmosphere may have hit 3600 degrees Fahernheit. There was no life then.

According to Wiki, the hottest point in the last 500 million years was around 15 degrees C warmer than the 1960 to 1990 average global mean temperature.

In days of living things, Earth was at least 5-8 degrees C, 13 degrees hotter in Fahrenheit than today, reaching 73 degrees global mean temperature, versus our 60 degree Fahhrenheit global average today. That was the the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum or (PETM) around 55 million years ago. There was no ice on Earth, but palm trees and crocodiles around the Arctic sea. Many species went extinct.

There are two striking points about the United Nations approach to climate change, coming out of this interview with Thomas Goreau. First, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has been blinkered to look at just the next 100 years at the most. We've all become conditioned to that, without asking what happens in the NEXT 100 years, or 500 years.

Sure, we'll all be dead by then. But think back. If people in Medieval Europe developed this fossil-fuelled civilization, right about now we'd all be struggling to avoid extinction, living on mountain-tops or in the Arctic. Most of our animal and plant friends, including our food, would have been long gone. That's what we apparently agree to leave to our descendants.

In his Tufts lecture, at 6 minute 30 seconds into the video, Goreau says the actual long-term climate change operates on a sensitivity about 10 times what IPCC projects, sea level 100 times, and CO2 much more again.

The second big point about the U.N. climate framework is they don't count carbon soil at all. They don't measure it. Nobody rewards people who can put carbon back in the soil. Our whole effort is not agricultural, but industrial. Let's cut back carbon emissions, close the coal mines and the Tar Sands. Sure, but that won't stabilize Earth's climate at all. It just makes our future less worse, or stalls the big change one or two hundred years.

The UN watered down the language on sinks, and focused on fossil fuels, wanted credits for photosynthesis, but not respiration. The whole carbon accounting system makes no sense. You can get credits for planting trees, even if they burn, or die. But there's no credits for putting carbon in the ground. Soils need to be counted as carbon sinks, and use that as the ultimate measurement. Governments are running away from reality.


I know plenty of so-called realists who blast Bill McKibben's for being so whimsical demanding we go backwards in carbon emission time. It's obvious carbon in the atmosphere is going up, up, up. Except... that does mean we are doomed, and our world with it. Thomas Goreau is part of a growing chorus of scientists and activists who expose the awful truth: even 350 parts per million CO2 in the atmosphere is too high. We need to wind the carbon clock way back, to about 260 ppm.

Here is another video of Goreau on a panel, worth watching if you want to dive deeper.

Goreau says: Biochar treated at high temps doesn't decompose. There are forest fire ashes 350 million years old, still recognizable, didn't decompose.

We spend half the Radio Ecoshock interview talking not about climate catastrophe, but about the real solution that is out there in soil carbon. We do know how to do it! We could avoid climate catastrophe!


Find a lot more sources on soil carbon here at

Also listen to my interview with soil carbon champion Alan Savory. Here is the blog for that 2011 show on the soil carbon solution.

And listen to my 2014 interview with Courteny White on putting carbon back in the soil, to save the earth. Download/listen to this Radio Ecoshock interview with Courtney White in CD Quality or Lo-Fi

Or read about in this Radio Ecoshock blog entry.

Goreau's latest book book is more of a scientific textbook (at $100-something dollars). It's "Geotherapy: Innovative Methods of Soil Fertility Restoration, Carbon Sequestration, and Reversing CO2 Increase" by Thomas J. Goreau, Ronal W. Larson, and Joanna Campe, published in December 2014.


I just had an interesting email conversation with Albert Bates, the counter-culture thinker from The Farm. He's really into dirt, and getting carbon back into it. Albert is off teaching the ways of permaculture and carbon farming, this time in Belize. Some of the most ardent students, and maybe our best hope, come from South America, where the whole idea of biochar originated some 5,000 years ago. Some big names are getting interested in the soil carbon solution. Expect to hear more about it. If you don't, our great grand-kids may be cooked.

Perhaps coincidentally, Albert Bates' blog "Peaksurfer" has this in-depth article on the folly of nuclear power.

My second interview for this program looks at another way the world financial system can melt down, just like Fukushima.


Today, and every day, tens of millions of Americans in and around New York City risk a Fukushima-style melt down of two nearby reactors. The Indian Point Energy Center is just 25 miles north of New York City. These old reactors have leaks, fires, and shutdowns galore. The reactors are within a mile of a known earthquake fault. For all this and much more, Indian Point could be America's most dangerous nuclear plant.

The triple melt-down of the Fukushima nuclear reactors in Japan taught us that a nuclear accident is not a local issue. If you live in the Northern Hemisphere, or anywhere near an ocean, this is your problem. This is your story.

Two Indian Point Nuclear Reactors On the Hudson River, Outside of New York City

Radio Ecoshock investigates with long-time nuclear activist and New York State environmental lawyer Susan Hito-Shapiro.

Download or listen to this interview with Susan Hito-Shapiro in CD Quality or Lo-Fi

There are so many dangerous problems there, I hardly know where to begin. Why don't we start with mega-risk: the possibility of an earthquake. This was just in the news, as the Nuclear Regulatory Commission turned down an attempt by the reactor operator to avoid doing proper quake risk studies.

The NRC is amazingly slow to protect the public. Entergy has until 2017 to come up with a plan to protect against a quake - and then more years to implement whatever hardening is needed. We just have to hope it doesn't blow before then!


The other huge risk, revealed by the Fukushima melt-down in Japan, is the stupendous amount of highly radioactive spent fuel stored on site. What is the situation at Indian Point?

The Boraflex liners of storage ponds are aging, the battery backup is questionable, the pools are fantastically overcrowded beyond their design, some materials have been moved to dry cask, but not enough, there is no real protection for the ponds to contain nuclear radiation, and absolutely nothing to stop a jet-liner from crashing into these waste pool buildings, which have the strength of an average WalMart roof.

Other than that there's nothing to worry about, except of course the high earth quake risk and good old human error. While looking into all this, I came across news that a former supervisor at the Indian Point nuclear plant, Daniel Wilson, has been charged with lying to federal regulators about having reliable quality fuel for the emergency power generators.


There are 2800 tons of poorly protected, poorly guarded high level radioactive waste just sitting at Indian Point, on the edge of New York City. Remember, the 911 terrorists considered flying a plane into Indian Point, but decided to hit the World Trade Center instead. One of the 911 planes flew right over the nuclear reactors. There is nothing to stop that. Shapiro says today you can paddle a kayak right up to the reactor.

But Shapiro says the real every day risk is not terrorism - it's those old corroded reactors, unsafe at any speed. In a sense, until we shut these ageing reactors down, WE are the terrorists.


Amazingly, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has granted an exemption to Entergy at Indian Point when it comes to fire regulations. The Indian Point reactors don't begin to meet basic fire safety requirements.

Here's just one example that Susan explains. The equipment is supposed to have fire suppression material. They used a material called "Hemyc" that was meant to give hours of protection, but under real-world testing only lasts about 24 minutes. That's how long before a major fire and nuclear accident can happen.

Here is a .pdf report "Fire When Not Ready" on the whole fire protection mess in pretty well all American nuclear reactors. The NRC knows some materials were simply falsified in testing, while others don't work even for an hour.


Let's talk about getting out of Rockland County, or maybe even New York City, if and when the Indian Point nuclear plant blows. It looks to me like the NRC is only requiring an evacuation plan for a ten mile radius around Indian Point. That's strange, considering the American government advised its citizens to pull back 50 miles during the Fukushima nuclear accident.

Even the Governor of New York State acknowledges that there is no workable way to evacuate ten or twenty million people. As Susan Shapiro tells us, New York City is actually surrounded by the remains of an ancient mountain range. There are geographical bottlenecks which make an evacuation a nightmare.

We talk about the high cancer rates around the Indian Point reactor. Thyroid cancers near the Indian Point reactors are way, way above the average for the United States. Go to for all the details on that. Then there's the incessant fish kills as hot reactor water goes into the Hudson River.

The list of negative effects just goes on and on - and that's even before there is a big accident there. When Indian Point melts down - think about it! Fukushima was much further from Tokyo, but the Japanese government at one point considered abandoning Tokyo. Only a fortunate wind saved that city. The prevailing winds in New York blow straight from the Indian Point reactor site.

If there is a nuclear melt-down, 25 miles from Times Square, it could cause a world-wide financial melt-down. Wall Street would be evacuated, along with the core of American media production. We're talking about trillions of dollars worth of real estate as well, all poisoned for centuries.

I said at the start of our chat, that a blown reactor is everybody's problem. That's triple-true of New York City, the world's financial capital. You would think Wall Street might worry they could have to leave town permanently due to a nearby nuclear accident.

Here are some notes from Susan Hito-Shapiro, as a follow-up to our interview. The study she refers to about putting solar on NYC municipal buildings was some years ago.

Susan writes:

"More recently the City University of New York did a study - the link is here - that show NYC rooftops can generate up to 5,847 MW. Indian Point only produces 2200 MW and since 2014 NYC only purchases 550 MW from Indian Point."

Other key points Susan forwards:

"Earthquake Risk:

* NRC doesn't use the Richter Scale , instead they useg-force ground acceleration. Indian Point containment buildings and spent fuel pools are designed to withstand .15g

* The 5.8 Earthquake in Virginia in 2011 registered .26g -.28 g.

* The Epicenter of North Ana was 10 miles from the Reactor, Indian Point's reactors are one mile from the intersection to two intersecting faults.

Energy Use:

* The 2013 Consolidated Edison Annual Report says 350 MW are being contracted from Indian Point. An unspecified amount of additional energy goes into the Lower New York State Grid, through daily auction of NYISO. NYS has not required Entergy to provide recordson sales and profits.

* New York City must have internal capacity tosupply 80% of its own energy.


Hudson River Clearwater (founded by Pete Seeger) and their Indian Point Campaign

River Keepers and their close Indian Point campaign

Scenic Hudson

All these groups co-operate as part of the Indian Point Faith Energy Coalition

...and this activist blog "Shut Down Indian Point Now!"

Here is Susan Hito-Shapiro's Facebook page.

What I didn't know, is that Susan Hito-Shapiro is also a film-maker, who more recently started up a biodynamic farm with her husband, Santi Hitorangi, in New York State. It's called "Goshen Green Farm". This is one high-powered woman, who can go from growing green to making formal legal presentations at nuclear waste hearings. Thanks Susan for all you do!


You may have heard more bad news about ocean extinction. I'll be talking with lead author Douglas McCauley about that. Paul Beckwith is coming back. Maybe we'll argue about Arctic methane. And I've got more mind-boggling climate science for you, as Radio Ecoshock paces back and forth inside the carbon cage.

Until then, keep calm and carry on.

Get this program, and all our past shows, as free mp3 downloads from our web site at Or visit the Radio Ecoshock Soundcloud page to listen in.

I close out this program with a tune from my buddy, California musician Dana Pearson, also known as vastmandana on soundclick. It's his new creation "The Engines of Life".

I also run a clip from British rap poet Dave Allen performing his piece "Serotonin Fix". Find it on You tube here. Warning, Dave's piece contains some rude words, and some hard truth.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Green Dreams - Future or Fantasy?

SUMMARY: UK guest host Greg Moffitt interviews scientist David Fridley, from Berkeley National Lab and the Post-Carbon Institute. Radio Ecoshock 150114

We will switch away from fossil fuels sooner or later, because they will run out. If it's later, our kids get a wrecked civilization trying to cope with a wrecked climate. This week on Radio Ecoshock we finish out a three-part series on alternative energy, what it can do, and what it can't.

The take-home from green energy lovers and haters alike is simple: we can't have this crazy civilization running just on the sun and wind. When we stop milking the billion year-pile of concentrated solar, known as oil, gas and coal - something has to change.

That's all in this rebroadcast of a podcast out of Britain, called Host Greg Moffit interviews David Fridley, a long-term energy expert working with both the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab and the Post Carbon Institute. Pull up an ear, and let's listen in.

Download or listen to this Radio Ecoshock show in CD Quality (56 MB) or Lo-Fi (14 MB)

Or listen on Soundcloud right now!


David Fridley is a staff scientist at the China Energy Group of the Berkeley National Lab. He's also a Fellow at the Post Carbon Institute.

It would be interesting to hear a second interview with David about the energy situation in China. But this chat is more global, looking at the heavy load alternative energy must pick up, to support even a fraction of what we do now with fossil fuels. To think we can go on with business as usual under green power is, Fridley says, "magical thinking." That's partly because of the underlying physics behind energy itself.

It all makes sense when you think about it. Fossil fuels are composed of millions of years of solar power - stored in concentrated form by plants and then geological and chemical changes over aeons. The sunlight coming in now can hardly compete with millions of years of storage.

Pretty well all renewable energy ultimately depends upon the sun. Geothermal doesn't. But heat from the sun drives the winds for wind power. Even biofuel depends on sunlight hitting plants.

Fridley also points out a dark fact: not all problems have solutions. I think those cases are more what we call a "predicament". That's what we have now.


Can greater efficiency save us? Not really, as the "Jevons Paradox" tells us. Back in 1865, the English economist William Stanley Jevons realized that as coal burning equipment became more efficient, more people used more coal. Similarly, Fridley says refrigerators today are twice as energy efficient as those built in 1980. A lot of people have two fridges, and of course at least a billion more people around the world bought new fridges, now that they can afford to run them.

There is a second feed-back loop to energy efficiency. Let's say you don't buy a second fridge, but now you have more money to spend. Energy effiency simply mobilizes more money for more energy consumption in other ways. Almost everything we do, and all wealth, is related to energy consumption, as our Radio Ecoshock guest Tim Garrett showed in a scientific paper. Find a transcript of that interview "Energy = Wealth = Inflation + A Ruined Atmosphere" here.

David Fridley points out that nature's model for survival on a greatly changing Earth is low energy efficiency, but very high redundancy. Our civilization is going the opposite direction. We keep getting more efficient, but knock out any redundancy. (Think about just-in time food deliveries, where the truck are the warehouses, and there are no back-up food supplies in major cities). That makes our society very fragile, and open to collapse.

Making that worse, Fridley refers to a statement by the first American Energy Secretary, James Schlesinger. He said Americans have two main states of existence: complacency and panic.

Like our speaker two weeks ago, Ozzie Zehner, David Fridley thinks that oil, and other fossil fuels, are the foundation behind all renewable energy, whether it's building hydro dams, or solar panels, or wind machines. That is true now, but it doesn't have to be that way, in my opinion.

One real barrier to total conversion to renewables, Fridley says, is the concept of net return of energy. That's the amount of energy you get after investing whatever energy it takes to build and maintain the facility. Coal has a huge return of net energy, getting from 50 to 80 units of power from one unit of power invested. That's why it's relatively cheap, and beloved by some developing countries. Of course that assumes you can wreck the local environment, don't have to pay for the health care for everyone who gets sick breathing the fumes from the power plant, and can dump toxins and climate-wrecking CO2 into the atmosphere for free, forever.

There's also a difficult question of how much net energy, or energy profit, we need to maintain our current level of complexity and specialization. The American systems ecologist Charles A. S. Hall calculates we need from 5 to 8 units of energy profit, for every unit of energy expended to get it - to keep a complex system like ours alive. The Post Carbon Institute has published a report by Charles Hall called "Energy Return on Investment". Find that report free here.

According to David Fridley, who is after all a scientist and energy specialist - biofuels can NOT reach this level of 5 to 8 units of energy profit, once all energy inputs are accounted for. The same is true, he says, of ethanol, or oil derived from the Tar Sands. These energy sources don't create enough surplus energy to maintain a complex civilization. I suppose if that's all we have, we either go back to some pre-fossil Dark Age, or we develop a new low-tech, low energy civilization.

David and host Greg Moffitt get into a discussion of electric cars. They progress to a topic close to my heart, which is the possibility of a decentralized world. Renewables like solar and wind don't need a giant power grid (that wastes half of all electricity put into it).

It's a wide-ranging conversation, about whether renewables can self-replicate, the possibilities of thorium reactors.

In summary, David Fridley says we have enough power now to convert to large-scale renewables. But if we wait 20 or 30 years, then the remaining fossil fuels will be so depleted, there won't be enough to power civilization AND make the conversion. It's another reason to get going with greener energy.


Does that sound impossible? Tune in next week for an experienced scientist who explains how it could happen.

That wraps up our three-part series on alternative energy, and our prospects of powering our future. Find all three programs as free mp3 downloads at our web site, or on the Radio Ecoshock downloads page. My thanks to Greg Moffitt of for this show. You can listen to the full 1 hour 18 minute interview of David Fridley on You tube here.

Next week we get back to interviewing top scientists and trouble-makers about the really big picture. It's startling stuff, as Radio Ecoshock hits the airwaves. Please join us again.

Don't forget to get our past programs as free mp3 downloads from the web site,

I'm Alex Smith. I don't think humans are going extinct any time soon - so please keep tuning in.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Green Reality VS. Ozzie Zehner

Green tech investor Dan Miller, and host Alex Smith answer Ozzie Zehner's claims the green energy is an "illusion". Ecoshock 150107

This is Radio Ecoshock. I'm Alex Smith. My original goal for this Radio Ecoshock series on alternative energy, was to find the most reasonable critic of green energy, who was not directly a beneficiary of competing energy - that is, a person with academic credentials who is not receiving money or other benefits from the coal, oil, and gas industries. California author and green energy expert Ozzie Zehner fits that bill.

I ran Ozzie's speech at Google last week on Radio Ecoshock. If you missed that, download it from our web site at Or listen to it on our Soundcloud page.

Then I hoped to hold a second program where I ask for listener questions, and pose them to Ozzie in an extended interview. Ozzie replied he is willing to come on Radio Ecoshock, but could not appear until next summer, due to a project he is presently working on. So we can't hear from Ozzie right now, but I hope we can pick this up again later in the season.

Ozzie applies his years of study, his European experience, and his keen intellect to persuade us alternative energy like wind and solar are not really green. They cannot power our civilization without heavy fossil fuel inputs. They damage the environment, from cutting down trees to toxic bi-products. We should put our focus and money into indirect methods of cutting carbon dioxide by creating a better society. In particular, Ozzie suggests population control, via a fair health care system, could be coupled with conservation, urban densification, and other energy saving techniques to reduce carbon emissions.

Ozzie makes some statements that raise serious questions. For example, he says increasing the current low amount of solar energy in the United States would bankrupt the American government. I thought the U.S. government was already bankrupt, and not because of solar subsidies. Going even further with solar to power our world would, Ozzie claims, destroy civilization within a generation. Later in this program, I'll check on some of the claims made in Ozzie's presentation, and suggest other possibilities. Hang in for that. But first we have a conversation with clean energy tech guru Dan Miller.

Download or listen to this program in CD Quality or Lo-Fi

Or listen right now on Soundcloud!


Dan Miller is Managing Director of The Roda Group, a Berkeley venture capital group he co-founded that is focused on clean tech.

The other principal and chairman of that group is Roger A Strauch, who was the first CEO of "Ask Jeeves" which is now The Roda Group has several interesting projects on the go. In the show, we talk a little about their new tech to improve common batteries for use with renewable energy. They also have a company claiming the tech to remove CO2 from power plant emissions (carbon capture). It's startling to think in the future we may be able to run a gas fired power plant with no CO2 emissions. We'll see.

Dan Miller has a history in the telecommunications and aerospace industries. Dan is passionate about solving climate change, as you can hear in his Tedx talk on You tube. Dan regularly gives talks to the public and business on climate change. We have a wide- ranging discussion on alternative energy, plus his appraisal of the problems with the Ozzie Zehner talk.

Dan makes a lot of good points. Probably the best is that Ozzie seems to make his projections based on our current energy system, rather than assessing the changes as more and more renewable energy comes online. Or course, since fossil fuels are limited, the world must change to renewable energy sooner or later. If later, we encounter climate catastrophe first.


Since making this program, I've been advised by a couple of listeners that Ozzie Zehner left his car company history out of his online bio. He graduated from Kettering University in Flint Michigan, a school formerly known as General Motors Institute. Then it appears Ozzie worked for the Opel Division of General Motors in Europe for at least 3 years. I don't know if this background influenced his low opinion of electric cars, or whether he was involved in any part of General Motors that famously "killed" it's electric car. Certainly his General Motors history would indicate some experience and interest in cars. It should be part of his online bio, in my opinion.

What follows is mostly a print version of my comments in this week's Radio Ecoshock show.


Before I begin to counter some of Ozzie Zehners' positions on alternative energy, I want to outline the many ways I agree with Zehner. I appreciate his courage in speaking unpopular thoughts. I can't emphasize this enough. Ozzie Zehner, in his book "Green Illusions" and in his talks, raises fundamental issues about our direction into the future. Don't miss any opportunity to learn from him.

For example, Zehner says alternative energy cannot power the wasteful civilization we have not, without killing off the planet. I agree. A society powered by alternative energy will have to use a lot less power, and should, to preserve what is left of nature.

There are many ways this can happen, too many ways to list them all there. In short, we could stop making things that don't last, stop buying things we don't need, and make sure our purchases are the least ecologically and socially harmful possible. Those require a major change in lifestyles in developed countries, and changes in aspirations in less developed nations.

Alternative energy if properly applied can also reduce the waste involved in centralized power production and transmission. It drives me crazy that we lose about 50% of all electricity produced in the big grid model of transmission. Solar panels on the roof, or a wind generator in the yard (when appropriate) involves a few feet of transmission, rather than a continental grid. I suggest the rural electrification program of the 1930's needs to be reversed. We should power only major cities and corridors with the grid. Remote homes, farms and mines should produce their own power.

We can also get a lot smarter, either personally or through computer-mediated power management, to avoid the peaks of use that demand coal or other fossil fuel backup. There is no need for all fridges and washing machines to run at the same predictable times.

Demanding Passivhaus or net-zero standards for all new construction would eventually replace most of our inefficient building stock. Dump the all glass models for apartments and skyscraper office buildings, replacing them with smaller windows and insulated walls.

The list goes on, and Ozzie supports these kinds of energy changes. Green energy will not power the wasteful system we have now. In a coming Radio Ecoshock show, I plan to run an in-depth conversation about that, from the Post Carbon Institute. Meanwhile, Zehner is correct about trying to fill the "leaky bucket" we have now. "We don't have an energy crisis, we have a consumption crisis" he says. That's absolutely correct. [26:40]

There is also a lot of truth that the promise of green energy has paradoxically encouraged some people to carry on with deadly amounts of energy use. The drive for a technical fix is very strong. It's true just pasting a few solar panels on a complete energy hog of a building is window dressing. It's also true that we might very well wreck the earth if we engage in a binge of making and installing alternative energy to keep the status quo. Few sane people are suggesting that.

We may create a burst of new carbon, in a mass plan to change over from fossil fuel plants to solar and wind energy. However, as Mark Jacobson from Stanford told us, this new carbon can be offset by cleaner production anywhere from six months to a year later. Then there is a long period, up to 25 years or more, when carbon would be reduced greatly, from the alternative of not building that green energy.

I do object when Ozzie Zehner uses emotional triggers, which are not based on science. He compares solar power, for example, to a religion. Some of his heated words are not the language of science, but might be at home on Fox News. I feel he communicates a personal grudge which remains unexplained.


Let's start with electric vehicles.

In his Google talk, and in other talks, Ozzie says: "But the National Academy of Sciences did a study, a life-cycle analysis. It's the broadest life-cycle analysis done on electric cars and they found that the harm steming from electric cars are a little bit larger than the harm stemming from a regular internal combustion engine of a car the same size.

In fact the only way we can find that electric cars are cleaner is if we narrow our research to just one metric, like CO2.

First of all, this one narrow metric of carbon dioxide is actually the largest threat to humans and all species in millions of years. Building carbon dioxide threatens us with great harm, and possibly extinction. This is a completely different "metric" than possible increased cancers from improperly storing the toxic waste from batteries, or solar panels. Carbon dioxide is the really big deal, Reducing it is a bonus strong enough on it's own to justify electric cars. Ozzie doesn't tell us about the scale of threats.

The paper he refers to was published by The Nation Academies Press. It's "Hidden Costs of Energy: Unpriced Consequences of Energy Production and Use". The book represents the work of many scientists and was issued by a committee of the National Research Council in 2010.

You can find out more about Ozzie's objections to electric vehicles in his feature article in the publication "Spectrum". It was published June 20, 2013. The title is "Unclean at any Speed".

The conclusions of the 2010 National Academy Press publication that Ozzie uses are directly contradicted by more recent research, in two papers published in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Science, or PNAS.

The first is "Valuation of plug-in vehicle life-cycle air emissions and oil displacement benefits" by Jeremy J. Michaleka et al.

That study does not support the radical statements that Zehner makes in his talk.

The most recent study was published by scientists in PNAS this November 2014, about two years after Ozzie's speech. It's titled "Life cycle air quality impacts of conventional and alternative light-duty transportation in the United States" by Christopher W. Tessuma et al.

This paper summarizes the situation as follows:

"We find that powering vehicles with corn ethanol or with coal-based or 'grid average' electricity increases monetized environmental health impacts by 80% or more relative to using conventional gasoline. Conversely, EVs powered by low-emitting electricity from natural gas, wind, water, or solar power reduce environmental health impacts by 50% or more. Consideration of potential climate change impacts alongside the human health outcomes described here further reinforces the environmental preferability of EVs powered by low-emitting electricity relative to gasoline vehicles."

Sure, if you run electric cars on biofuels made of corn, or on coal, you make the environment worse. There's no suprise there. But electric vehicles can easily use clean sources, unlike gas vehicles. So far most electric vehicles have been sold in California, which uses very, very little corn ethanol or coal. Ozzie told his audience electric vehicles run on bull manure. New science shows they can be a much better choice, not only for the climate, but for public health. Sorry Ozzie.


My next major objection to Ozzie's presentation is when he says alternative energy cannot replace itself. As we heard from Dan Miller, there are already solar manufacturing facilities run on solar power. Ozzie says:

"The problem is that certain types of industries rely on certain types of energy. So it's difficult to explore for copper and bring the trucks out there if they are only running on electricity." [ at 46:20 of this Radio Ecoshock show]

So I looked into that. My research finds that mining companies, particularly in South Africa, are beginning to power their intensive milling operations with alternative energy. See this article "Unlikely bedfellows: mines that run on solar or wind power" by Andrew Topf for example.

Certainly mines can operate with hydro power or nuclear power, which existing mines already use. Electricity is electricity, and that's what mines use most.

Surely we can't run the big trucks on anything but fossil fuels? Nonsense. Electric vehicles can be stronger, with more torque, real working power, than any diesel engine. An all-electric mine is completely possible. Again, as we see often in his work, it seems to me that Ozzie's vision is limited by what exists today, the old fossil industrial model. That's the way it is, so it's the only way it could be, Zehner tries to tell us, reinforcing our stereotypes.

German heavy industry has run entirely fossil free on some days, including manufacturing wind generators. Iceland runs entirely on renewable geothermal energy - including it's energy-intensive aluminum industry.


Next up: Ozzie Zehner spends much time in his talk explaining that solar power is a threat to our forests. This argument against deforestation by solar power is ludicrous. Ozzie found a few instances where solar panels were installed by cutting down trees. In the global picture of deforestation, the pin-prick of solar deforestation is so small it could not be seen. We should also remember the deforestation caused by tar sands mining, creating roads for fracking rigs, and mountain-top coal mining. He doesn't mention those or compare them. This argument is a straw man.

Similarly, the fact that some maintenance is needed for solar power in a desert setting is also a straw man agrument. First of all, a study done by an oil producing state like the United Arab Emirates is immediately suspect. They are evaluating a product that could wipe out their profits and possibly their economy.

Secondly, what other source of energy runs with without employees? Coal-fired, gas-fired, oil-fired electric plants all need employees too, and regular maintenance. These power stations also occasionally explode, which solar does not. Oil and coal power plants kill people locally and even at great distances with their emissions. Solar operators might have to clean dust off the solar panels. So what? I wonder why Ozzie works so hard to catalog minor to very minor aspects of alternative energy? And why doesn't he give us comparable figures from fossil fuel plants?


Ozzie says: "The Mohave Desert may be the Saudi Arabia of solar. But if we were to cover it with solar cells, and cover the world's deserts with solar cells, it would destroy civilization as we know it, within a single generation."

I would love to ask Ozzie about his sources, or even his reasoning for such a statement. First of all, no one is suggesting, especially Mark Jacobson, that we could or should "cover the world's deserts with solar cells". That is a vast area, and not what Jacobson said was needed at all.

Nobody is suggesting we cover ALL the world's deserts with solar panels. The European Union worked through a plan to power most of Europe with a relatively small area of the Sahara desert. So Ozzie is arguing with a plan that has never been suggested by anyone that I know of.

Secondly, the idea that deploying solar fully would kill off civilization in a single generation is wild speculation, and the kind of scare statement we can do without.

He then says thermal solar has the same side effects, even though it is mainly concrete and glass, not the heavy metals in amounts used in other panels. Solar thermal may even use liquid sodium as batteries, instead of lithium. It's a quick statement that doesn't stand up to scrutiny.


"What if we multiply solar cells by 100 [times current production], which would incidentally bankrupt the federal government".

This is another scare statement. Obviously, if we stopped subsidizing the fossil fuel industries, and used a free market system where the consumer of energy pays for not only the power, but the carbon pollution, we could multiply solar production by 100 times without bankrupting the federal government. Only a government built on fossil power and fossil industry corruption could go bankrupt by building clean energy. More fearful listener hears that we cannot proceed with green energy without bankrupting society, which is nonsense. [18:30]

Maybe you could reach a few trillion dollars in taxpayer costs if you based all your calculations on government give-aways meant to stimulate the beginning of an American solar industry. But who would stick with that? Once solar becomes more affordable, available, and common, it can easily compete with coal - assuming coal subsidies are dropped.

Anyway, the U.S. government seems headed for bankruptcy on it's own, with trillions of dollars in new debts, with no help from solar. China will likely increase it's solar power by 100 times what it had in 1990. I doubt the government will collapse because of that. It's a strange claim, and an extreme one, that does not help his argument.


Why does Ozzie Zehner pick up on solar energy as his main thrust against green energy. We'll grant him the time limitations in his talk - but still wind energy has become the major source of power for countries like Denmark, and provides a lot of power for Germany. We don't hear about geothermal energy, which already powers Iceland, and can do much more in many countries, including Australia and the United States. Then there's hydro power and nuclear power. I agree that nuclear is too dangerous to use, but it's there now.

My point is, we don't get a picture of solar energy as part of a large alternative energy mix, doing what it does best where it can. Instead we are brought to fear the expansion of some allegedly toxic giant.

Zehner doesn't offer us a balance between using alternative energy, with it's known risks, versus not using it, with the gigantic risk of mass extinction, including ourselves. As Dan Miller says, he doesn't really seem to get the big risks of climate change.

Assuming we have to choose between better health care (already available in almost every other developed country) and alternative energy is a false choice. We can do both. We will continue to use energy. It may as well be less harmful energy. Climate change threatens to wipe out not only our health, but our food and water sources in many cases.


Zehner says there is no proof that adding alternative energy actually decreases the use of fossil fuels. The Jevons Paradox, which he doesn't cite directly, calling it the "boomerang effect" has been true. It's a big worry, but the past is not necessarily an image of the future. For various reasons, the United States HAS decreased it's emissions and it's use of fossil fuels. Germany has greatly reduced their fossil fuel emissions, not only through the addition of solar and wind power, but also through better building techniques, mass transit, more energy awareness, and so on.

To say adding a cleaner energy source will just add to the waste, and make things worse, is demonstrably wrong already in some countries, and will become increasingly wrong, as more alternative energy is added to the mix.


Zehner says solar panels have the illusion of a price drop, which are really based on subsidies. But he fails to provide the comparative assessment of massive subsidies to solar competitors, like oil and gas. These fossil fuels get direct subsidies and tax breaks of many billions of dollars from governments, for decades, while they build their empires. They get free dumping of carbon dioxide into the air, and do not pay for the health costs of the pollution. The whole highway system is build for their products. The subsidies to fossil fuels are almost beyond calculation, and make the tiny subsidies to solar and wind laughable.

His argument that solar panels tend to age, and parts like the regulators have to be replaced is specious. Anyone who runs a fossil powered car knows they fall apart, and need maintenance. Ditto power plants of any kind. How do the costs of solar power compare to fossil power, that's what we need to know, and that Ozzie doesn't provide. That is a disservice, warning us away from a source of power that may in fact be cheaper to maintain, but he doesn't tell us that.

Again in the so-tiny-it-doesn't-matter reasons to not install solar: the panels might be stolen. What are the figures for stolen solar in the United States? What about in Europe? He doesn't say. Your car is far more likely to be stolen. So don't ever buy a car? Would you buy that argument?

He's also found some solar panels not facing the sun. What percentage of solar installations is that? .0001 percent or less? Why look for human foibles to argue against a much cleaner technology which might prevent the climate catastrophe? It's a shopping list of pointless objections.

In his talk, Ozzie Zehner claims "Even some of the most expensive options for dealing with CO2 would be become cost-competitive long before today's solar technologies". Really? First of all, I'm not aware of ANY viable technology for reliably removing and storing CO2, other than not producing it, as solar does. So he's comparing a technology that does not exist, with one that does. Second, I haven't seen any such paper, nor are we likely to. I think it's an example of the extreme statments that Zehner makes, in the long reach to make his case.

While it may be true that the current manufacturing techniques making solar panels involves the release of greenhouse gases thousands of times more powerful than CO2, Zehner doesn't give us a comparison between these billion parts per million emissions, with the masses of CO2 averted by the use of solar. It's just the tip of an iceberg of facts and studies we need to evaluate this claim. Perhaps he includes such numbers in his book, where he has more space.

Zehner tells his audience "There's no evidence that alternative energy offsets fossil fuel use in the United States". First of all, why limit this statement to the United States, which is the world model for energy profligacy. The U.S. is more or less the last of the developed nation to deploy alternative energy on a scale which matters. America has avoided infrastructure like mass transit, high-speed rail and other techniques which can match up well with alternative energy to reduce fossil dependence. It's a misleading statement, implying that alternative energy cannot reduce fossil fuel use, which is a wrong-headed approach. [16.:30]

Ozzie says: "Most importantly, alternative energy financing relies ultimately on the kind of economic growth that fossil fuels provide." This is an intriguing argument, with some truth. However, as discussed above, continuing to find and provide fossil fuels also relies on growth. The growth model may be breaking, which threatens all energy sources, not just solar.

Because once installed solar does not require the continued production and importation of fuel, it may in fact be a better answer to the problem of needing continual growth. In any case, it is the large economic system of growth that is unsustainable, not the power system feeding it. If we disinvest from things like Tar sands and Arctic drilling, not to mention military, we could create much more alternative energy, even without growth. [19:10]


Zehner repeatedly maligns people who want solar power as being religious, worshipping solar cells and setting up temples to them. [at 29:10] Then he says we make a "fetish" out of solar cells, using a negative image from psychology. Let's stop the vilification of people trying to find solutions to climate change. Zehner frankly fails to offer good solutions himself. Sorry, his solutions of better health care and densification of cities will take decades, and we don't have that long.

Zehner replies to a question about Mark Jacobson's research, by saying "if you ask a ridiculous question, you can find a ridiculous answer". [54:10] Is it ridiculous to ask if we can find enough power using alternative energy sources? I don't think so. Listen to my recent Radio Ecoshock interview with Mark Jacobson. He says Jacobson hasn't asked meaningful questions. In fact, Ozzie's answer is very weak and dismissive of the work of a major scientist, who has published over 100 valuable scientific papers. Jacobson at Stanford is far above Ozzie's grade. [and 55:20]

One of Ozzie's questioners asks if there is any example for history of conserving our way out of a crisis? (41:50). That is the crux of Zehner's argument, but he has no such examples. He might have given the Soviet Union, or Cuba after 1990 as examples, but did not.


I've run out of time, before I could go into the many more ways I agree with Ozzie Zehner. He's dead on about our addiction to technical solutions, and our harmful consumer lifestyles. We have a tendency to damage nature with the best of intentions.

I like Ozzie Zehner and his work. He serves as a valuable caution of how we can do alternative energy in damaging ways. But I think his main venture is a disservice to the future. We need solar, wind, hydro, geothermal, and all sorts of non-carbon energy. We need them quickly.

"Clean energy is less energy" says Zehner. Yes that's true, but clean energy is not a situation of NO energy. We will continue to use energy, and getting it from the Canadian Tar Sands, or Arctic deep water drilling, will fill the atmosphere with carbon and kill us. We need to use the greenest tech to produce the minimum energy we need.

Fortunately, Ozzie Zehner can't stop solar or any green energy. I'm told one out of four homes in Australia has solar panels on the roof right now. European countries are decarbonizing rapidly. The nations that listen to Ozzie, and stall new forms of climate-friendly power, will be last in the economic competition. America needs to catch up quickly, or be stuck in a left-behind old coal age.

At the end of his talk, Ozzie Zehner calls for "a green movement that is not simply a receptacle for energy firms and car companies to plug into. A green movement that looks beyond the eco-gadgets on the stage to consider the social and environmental justices behind the curtain." He's absolutely right. I applaud Ozzie Zehner for demanding we move into the future with our eyes open, always asking questions.

Next week, we'll conclude this series on the prospects for alternative energy, with a conversation with a Fellow of the Post Carbon Institute.

I'm Alex Smith. Find all our past Radio Ecoshock programs free at the web site Or listen to our most recent programs at the Ecoshock Soundcloud page.

Thank you for listening, and thank you for caring about our world.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

"Green Illusions" - Ozzie Zehner

Are we suffering from illusions about alternative energy? Have solar panels become a pointless fetish that could make climate change worse? What about electric cars? Is the whole "green energy" game just an extention of the fossil fuel industry, dressed up in green clothing?

Those are the claims made by a California engineer, and student of alternative energy. Ozzie Zehner published all this in his 2012 book " Green Illusions: The Dirty Secrets of Clean Energy and the Future of Environmentalism". The book has won awards and caused a stir.

For this radio program, I'm going to run you a talk given by Ozzie on September 19th, 2012. It's part of the "Authors at Google" series - and there were green energy techies from Google in the audience. We'll get some questions from them.

Download or listen to this program in CD Quality (56 MB) or Lo-Fi (14 MB)

Or listen on Soundcloud right now!

Before we start, let me say categorically that I agree and disagree with Ozzie Zehner. He gives us fundamental truths about the need to stop wasting so much energy. Reducing energy cuts our impact on the planet and cuts the risks of climate change like no other strategy. Of course, we haven't cut back at all, and global greenhouse gas emissions are increasing every year.

But then Ozzie tries to tell us solar and wind power can't work. In fact, if applied in a wide-spread way, Zehner claims that would destroy civilization as we know it in one generation. So here's the deal. This week I'm going to run Ozzie Zehner's Google talk. Next week, I've got a green tech expert to give us a different view. And I'll present my own research into all this. Before you give up on green energy, be sure and listen to next week's Radio Ecoshock show as well.

Ozzie is introduced by a Google software engineer, Valera Zakarov.

Ozzie talks about the problems with electric vehicles, based on his article "Unclean at Any Speed" found here.

You will also find a reference to studies by the National Academies on the hidden costs of renewables here.

The collection of papers is: "Hidden Costs of Energy, Unpriced Consequences of Energy Production and Use" authored by the Committee on Health, Environmental, and Other External Costs and Benefits of Energy Production and Consumption, of the National Research Council.

There is a newer paper from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science on electric vehicles here. They still criticize them, but find EV's are beneficial when the electricity comes from wind or solar power. Find that paper here.

This week you heard Ozzie Zehner, author of "Green Illusions: The Dirty Secrets of Clean Energy and the Future of Environmentalism". This talk was lightly edited for radio, and due to time limitation, questions about health care and population control had trimmed. You can view the full talk on You tube. Find more on Ozzie Zehner at his web site here.

We are out of time this week. But don't give up all your green hopes just yet. Next week I'll be back with green tech investment guru Dan Miller. He thinks Ozzie is just plain wrong. I'll add my own research into this; some very different conclusions reached by other scientists and Radio Ecoshock guests; plus ideas on where we go from here. Don't miss next week's Radio Ecoshock show.

As we wrap up the year 2014, likely the hottest ever recorded, there are a couple of bits of good news. First, the Catholic Pope is starting a campaign to raise awareness of climate change in his flock, and to get action in the Paris climate negotiations in 2015.

Second, one of the most dangerous reactors in America began the shutdown process this week. Vermont Yankee went off line. It is one of those dangerous GE Mark I reactors. Like Fukushima, the fuel rods in this flawed design rise from the bottom, meaning any melt-down leaks out of containment. One down, a dozen more like it in the U.S. to go.

I'm Alex Smith. Thank you for listening, and thank you for caring about our world.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

WE CAN'T ALL GO BACK TO THE LAND (or we'll kill what's left)

SUMMARY: A journey to the "Ecoreality" post-peak-oil community, with UBC Campus Radio. Plus rap star Baba Brinkman's new album "The Rap Guide to Wilderness".

We begin with a slice from the new album "The Rap Guide to Wilderness." It's called "Tranquility Bank" with guest artist Aaron Nazrul. But the genius rapper behind the whole project is Baba Brinkman. I'll be talking with Baba from New York, a little later in the show.

Baba suggests we can't all head to the wilderness, without killing what's left. Along those lines, I'm going to play you a radio documentary which takes up where the film "Escape from Suburbia" left off.

Long-time listeners may remember my interview with the Director Gregory Greene.

Download or listen to this Radio Ecoshock show in CD Quality (56 MB) or Lo-Fi (14 MB)

Or listen on Soundcloud right now!


In this radio documentary by Gordon Katic, we find Jan Steinman. If the film, Jan and his wife sold their suburban home in Portland, Oregon, and travelled to British Columbia. They were seeking a safe haven to prepare their lives to live without oil, after peak oil threatened a decent from civilization. How did that work out?

We find out, in this program called "The Terry Project", which broadcasts on radio station CiTR on the campus of the University of British Columbia, in Vancouver Canada.

We are going to travel to the "EcoReality" intentional community on Salt Spring Island, a mild climate spot in the Strait of Georgia near Vancouver.

Our host at the station is co-producer Sam Fenn. Our tour guide is journalism student Gordon Katic, a dedicated environmentalist who seldom leaves the big city.

In this interview we hear the song "The Mary Ellen Carter" by Stan Rogers, 1979. It's classic. Watch it on You tube here.

That's real radio. The producers were Sam Fenn and Gordon Katic. As you heard, you can get more of this program, "The Terry Project" at

Find more photos of the EcoReality intentional community here.


A listener sent me a link to something called the "Rap Guide to Wilderness". I was dubious, but I listened, and I was astonished. Where did such high quality lyrics - and music - come from?

The artist and possible founder of a whole new branch of green rap is a Canadian, Baba Brinkman. While planting over a million trees in British Columbia, he got a Masters of Arts Degree. That was partly by writing a rap version of "The Canterbury Tales" by the medieval author Chaucer. He's performed at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, on "The Rachel Maddow Show" and at the Sydney Opera House.

The conservation group "The WILD Foundation" asked Baba to create an album, and it's here.

I reached Baba in New York, where he is touring with his off-Broadway show, a complete one-man show, called "The Rap Guide to Evolution".

Frankly, after listening to so much bad rap from somebody's You tube, I was stunned at the quality of Baba's work. Check it out!

For me one of the biggest stories in the world continues to be the way humans are creating a more sterile world. There are only 5 Northern White Rhinos left on the Planet, after a 44 year-old creature died in a zoo this December. Where is "the WILD Foundation" on the need for nature to survive?

The Wild Foundation is advocating the "half for nature" concept promoted by the famous biologist E.O.Wilson. OK, we are going to take up vast amounts of the planet for our cities and our agriculture, but to protect ourselves and biodivesity we need to plan to leave half for nature. Imagine if a developer proposes to pave over 300 acres for a new suburb. The law should require 150 acres to be left in its natural state. Who wouldn't want to live there?

Find out more from the Wild Foundation web site.

Baba Brinkman isn't just a rah-rah green cheerleader. His lyrics take us deeper into the problems environmentalists must wrestle with. In just one example, Baba finds we shouldn't try to promote a big back-to-the-land movement. Dense cities actually allow more room for nature. There's several controversial issues in his rap music - including the idea that science should use DNA tech to revive some extinct species, like the carrier pidgeon and more. Not everyone will agree that humans should tinker with species creation, or recreation (especially since the original biosphere conditions supporting those creatures may be gone now...)

In our interview, I also asked Baba why he didn't do more on climate change. I know you are tired of hearing my complaint there isn't enough good climate change music. In this case, Baba takes climate change seriously, and hopes to find a sponsor or venue to help him present a whole new rap album and show just on climate change. I'm thinking the Paris climate negotiations in 2015 would be perfect. Now we just need to find a big green group to help fund the development and staging of a new "climate rap" show!

Find Baba Brinkman at his web site, on Facebook, and Twitter.


My holiday thanks to a ton of people who send in news links, tweet about Radio Ecoshock, write in with guests and generally keep this program going. N. in Boston, I got your letter and your ideas.

Hello to my listeners in Zurich and Sweden.

To my Australian correspondents, keep it coming. I love the feed-back from the UK.

I appreciate all my online friends in California, Arizona and New England. Carl, you saved the Ecoshock web site.

Hello to my informers in Colorado, and my friends in India and Pakistan. And of course, all the Canadians who gave birth to the show, and Kelly who keeps it on the air in Vancouver. My gratitude and best wishes to all.

Alex Smith

Radio Ecoshock

Wednesday, December 17, 2014


SUMMARY: Sandy, climate & coming superstorms: Kathryn Miles & Dr. Adam Sobel. Plus new science says our carbon hits in 10 years, not a generation later. Dr. Katharine Ricke.


Dr. James Hansen wrote his pivotal book "Storms of My Grandchildren". But in 2012, the Atlantic experienced the largest storm ever recorded. It was Hurricane Sandy, the most expensive storm ever, causing billions of dollars in damage. Manhattan was flooded. Parts of the New Jersey shore were demolished. Two hundred and eighty five people were killed. It was also the big new show-case for both rising seas and storm surge.

Was Hurricane Sandy a freak once-in-century storm, or can we expect more and worse as planet Earth heats up? What about Asia and the Pacific, where Japan was raked by a series of tropical cyclones this fall. A giant storm just battered the Philippines - again. Are those climate related? Radio Ecoshock investigates.

Download or listen to this Radio Ecoshock show in CD Quality (55 MB) or Lo-Fi (14 MB)

Or listen on Soundcloud right now!

KATHRYN MILES: "Superstorm: Nine Days Inside Hurricane Sandy"

These days, you and I face situations we've never encountered before. It's climate change, terrorism, a new disease, or maybe an economic crash . But humans and their governments act on experience, not the future. As our next guest can tell us, responses based on the past can fail badly.

Kathryn Miles has an exciting new book out about Hurricane Sandy. That's the monster storm that flooded New York City, and wrecked much of the New England shore, in late October 2012. Miles tells the gripping tale in "Superstorm: Nine Days Inside Hurricane Sandy." But I think the storm and the book are also a lens for looking at preparedness during a time of climate disruption.

Kathryn has written several books. She's a science writer published in Outside Magazine, Popular Mechanics, and many other periodicals. Miles is currently writer-in-residence at Green Mountain College in Vermont.

Kathryn explains this was the largest Atlantic storm ever, at over 1,000 miles in diameter. Operators in the International Space Station were amazed to see a continent-sized storm. It was larger than all of Europe.

After Hurricane Sandy raked the Caribbean Islands, 39 out of 40 weather models showed it spinning harmlessly out into the Atlantic. That's normal, as both the prevailing winds, and the spinning of the Earth, takes storms toward the East. I didn't know, until Kathryn told us, that hurricanes do not have much propulsion on their own. They more or less float with the prevailing wind and pressure systems.

The European weather modellers said Sandy would take a left hook into the area around New York City. Kathryn did exhaustive research with weather and climate scientists for this book. She says a combination of factors, including hotter seas, and a blocking high pressure zone over Greenland, pushed Sandy into combining with a different type of storm known as a "Nor'easter".

When "Hurricane Sandy" became this hybrid - the National Hurricane Center stopped sending warnings to top government agencies. Their aging software couldn't handle this hybrid, and they are only directed to work on "Hurricanes". So warnings fell to local stations of the National Weather Service.

No wonder then that various authorities fell into confusion! In this interview we cover the big difference between the approaches taken by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, and then New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Having been stung by unnecessary evacuations for the previous Hurricane Irene, Bloomberg held a press conference telling New Yorkers not to worry. Then a 34 foot high wall of watery storm surge washed over the city, flooding downtown Manhattan, subway lines, businesses and homes.

By contrast, Chris Christie told people in no uncertain language to "get the Hell off the beach" and evacuate. No doubt he saved some lives. But even so, and this is critical in evaluating human response to extreme climate events: 70% of the people told to evacuate did not. They stayed put, were flooded out, and some died.

Author Miles looked into that too. It turns out humans need at least three days of warning, with repeated warnings, before they will really act. Apparently it takes us that long to believe. Maybe that applies to government officials as well? I'm thinking of the terrible fires in Australia - "Black Saturday" in February 2009. The government wrongly advised people to stay and defend their homes, facing an incredible climate-driven firestorm. 173 people died.

In the story of the late Robin Waldridge, the Captain of the sailing ship "The Bounty", Kathryn brings out a case study of our weakness in judging risk. That human flaw in risk judgment applies directly to our ability to survive a lot of things, including droughts, heat, storms, and fires. If we haven't seen it before, or we were always fine in the past, we don't get out of the way, or change our behavior. You can expect to see this time and time again. It may even happen to you!

Predictably, the only fiery criticism Kathryn received after writing "Superstorm: Nine Days Inside Hurricane Sandy" was from Meteorologists! Some weather specialists still don't get the long-term storm implications of climate change. Some continue to deny climate change plays a role.

Others, and certainly the climate scientists she interviewed, are certain a warmer world plays several key roles in extreme storms.

1. this warmer world holds at least 4% more water in the atmosphere. That gives storms more power, and can cause extreme rainfall events, as happened during Hurricane Irene.

2. the oceans are measurably hotter. It turns out, the ocean off New England is quite bit hotter during the last few years. That also adds to the power of extreme storms.

3. the seas are rising. I'll talk more about this with our next guest Adam Sobel. The water around New York City is about one foot higher than it was in the year 1900. There are several reasons for that, it's not just climate change. But a higher sea adds to the storm surge, and that was the most damaging part of Hurricane Sandy.

Climate scientists are less certain about other impacts of a warming world. Most think we may get fewer hurricanes or tropical cyclones, but the ones that do come will be more powerful. There's a lot we don't know for sure about that.

The U.S. currently has 500 un-staffed positions in the National Weather System, including staff needed to run radar and work. Their budget cut by 8.5%. America has Doppler radar that crashes, satellites beyond their lifespan. The Hurricane warning service has to borrow from other countries, including some excellent work done by Cuba. This weakness in predicting extreme weather is a national crisis, and a personal threat.

Aside from all the science and research in Kathryn Mile's book, it's a terrific drama, wound around a series of personalities well-drawn by the author. It's literally hard to put down.

You can download or listen to this interview with Kathryn Miles in CD Quality or Lo-Fi


We are lucky to have an extreme weather specialist and atmosphere scientist here to help. Columbia University Professor Adam Sobel just published his new book "Storm Surge: Hurricane Sandy, Our Changing Climate, and Extreme Weather of the Past and Future".

Adam wrote me saying he's just returned from the Eighth International Workshop on Tropical Cyclones (IWTC-VIII) organized by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO). That was held at Jeju Island, South Korea. It's invitation only for the world's top forecasters and researchers. They go over the past 4 years of new science on tropical cyclones (which are also called hurricanes or typhoons).

The Philippines was just rocked by cyclone "Ruby" also know in Asia as "Hagupit". I'm beginning to wonder if some places in the world will be so badly damaged by repeated storms that people will abandon coastal settlements. Certainly some Pacific Islands are already threatened, with Kiribati likely the first to go underwater during storms.

But will we have more storms due to climate change? I remember back in 2006 when the New England scientist Emanuel Kerry produced papers saying hurricanes would be more frequent due to climate change. Then he backtracked, and it seems to me they haven't been more frequent since the year 2000, compared to the late 1900's. Adam Sobel agrees, but cautions we don't know how this experiment with climate will translate into weather. Some scientists think we will see more large storms. Forget the "storm-of-the-century" lable. We'll see plenty of them.

Let's talk about the sea level around New York City. Sobel says the water is about one foot higher now than in 1900. Like many coastal cities, New York was actually partly build on former swamps and lowlands. Some of it is extended with landfill into the former ocean. Adam says about 2/3 of that foot higher water around NYC is due to rising seas, due to simple expansion of the hotter ocean, and new water pouring in from Greenland and Antarctica. The other 1/3 of a foot is due to a pattern of sinking coastlines, as a slow reaction to the retreat of the heavy glaciers thousands of years ago. It's called subsidence, which means the land is sinking.

Our guest last year, J. Court Stevenson from the University of Maryland explained that for 10 billion dollars New York could build tide and surge control gates at the three entrances to New York harbor. These would be like the surge gates on the Thames in London, or in the Netherlands. So far, following the Bloomberg lead, this is not part of the plan. I think it's only a matter of time before the next Sandy floods New York.

We also got a harsh lesson on the real value of coastal real estate. There's no doubt that during this century, humans will have to exercise a planned withdrawal from many parts of the coast-line. That will include from parts of mega-cities from New York to Shanghai. As Dr. Peter Ward warned, sea level rise will reshape geography and economies around the world. (Ward's You tube lecture on his book "The Flooded Earth, Our Future in a World Without Ice Caps" is here).

It seems strange that many New Yorkers think more about a single day terrorist attack on their city, than they do of a coming century of floods and multi-billions of dollars of damage from climate change. In 9/11 we found out how critical New York City is to our economic system. I think if New York is faced with rising seas, high storm surges, and probably killer heat waves, that is also a national security issue.

Here is a climate central article on new wave of research into impact of climate change on severe storms.

You can download or listen to this interview with Dr. Adam Sobel in CD Quality or Lo-Fi.

If you want to get more detail on the damage to New York City during Sandy, try this fascinating interview by WNYC Pacifica host Leonard Lopate, talking with Dr. Adam Sobel.


Every now and then there's a game-changing scientific paper about climate change. I saw this one , and right away invited our next guest. Katharine Ricke, known as Kate, joined well-known scientist Ken Caldeira to investigate a critical question: how long does it take the carbon we emit today to reach it's peak heating potential. If you answered 50 years or more, you are in for a shock.

The title of the new paper is a give-away: "Maximum warming occurs about one decade after a carbon dioxide emission". That was published December 2nd, 2014 in the journal Environmental Research Letters.

The lead author is Katharine Ricke, a Post Doctoral researcher at the Carnegie Institute for Science, at Stanford University in California. She is our guest in this segment of Radio Ecoshock.

This study is a bombshell. We've been told for years that carbon emissions will really impact our children and grandchildren, not us. Now we find out the peak heating is only ten years after emissions.

Or course it doesn't end there. The warming action of carbon dioxide goes on not just for centuries, but for tens of thousands of years. That's because carbon dioxide is a relatively inert chemical in the atmosphere. It doesn't change much chemically over time.

Contrast that with methane. After only ten years or so, methane starts to break down - mainly into carbon dioxide. That is why scientists like David Archer argue that we must concentrate on carbon dioxide, rather than fear methane emissions. That's another whole argument we've been carrying in various Radio Ecoshock shows.

An obvious question from a non-scientist would be: why does a puff of carbon dioxide take ten years to become most active in trapping heat radiation? Why doesn't it have the maximum impact as soon as it rises up into the atmosphere? Katharine answered it's because the oceans are slow to react, but to be honest, I still don't understand the answer to this question. If any scientists are reading this right now, or if you think you know why this delay occurs, please email me. The address is radio //at// Or post your response in the comments below.

Former US Energy Secretary Steven Chu said "It may take 100 years to heat up this huge thermal mass so it reaches a uniform temperature ... The damage we have done today will not be seen for at least 50 years."

I found plenty more like that. This is a long-running misconception. It has shaped climate negotiations and government responses. Now we have science that shows CO2 in a different light.

This discovery is personal too. If I think my crappy low-mileage car won't affect me, maybe I won't try to bike or use public transit. But it's a different story if my emissions could change the climate just ten years from now, isn't it?

Drawing from over 6,000 runs of the best climate models on the planet, about 90% of the results showed CO2 hitting it's great heating potential around 10 years. The window was something like 6 years at the earliest, with a few showing a period as long as 30 years. But the science is pretty clear on 10 years.

There are some large uncertainties, including climate sensitivity, and the reaction of the carbon cycle (including carbon used by living things) and thermal inertia of the oceans.

This paper was written partly in response to a school of scientific thought, lead by Matthews and Solomon's 2013 paper, saying our past emissions do not determine future warming. Our future emissions do. It's a tricky problem to explain. The paper is "Irreversible Does Not Mean Unavoidable" published in the journal "Science" on April 26, 2013.


Following their paper, the excellent science blogger John Cooke bluntly says there is no warming in the pipeline. Future warming is only determined by future emissions, so we can control climate change by controlling our emissions. More warming is not "baked in" they say.

My understanding was that people like Dr. James Hansen talk about up to 1 degree, or more, in the pipeline, because of heat stored by the oceans and global dimming, or the aerosol pollution that diminishes sun arriving to the surface. Dr. Ricke agrees there is warming "in the pipeline" beyond the ten year lag you found in this new research.


This debate about what happens if our air pollution clears up (likely a burst of heating) is discussed in yet another seminal paper by Andrew H. MacDougal, Avid and Weaver titled "Significant contribution to climate warming from the permafrost carbon feedback". For you doomsters out there, these scientists look at a case they describe as "industrial shutdown".

A guest article by Peter Cooke at Climate Progress says:

"Thawing permafrost will release carbon to the atmosphere that will have an appreciable additional effect on climate change, adding at least one quarter of a degree Celsius by the end of the century and perhaps nearly as much as one degree (about 1.5°F).

The permafrost feedback response to our historic emissions, even in the absence of future human emissions, is likely to be self-sustaining and will cancel out future natural carbon sinks in the oceans and biosphere over the next two centuries.

Thus, even if we "stopped emissions tomorrow" the MacDougall study suggests, contrary to Matthews and Solomon, that CO2 would not decrease (and so warming would continue) if only because of the warming set in motion now that the Permafrost is melting.

This Climate Progress article also discusses "the industrial shutdown experiment". The authors (MacDougall et al, including Canadian scientist Andrew Weaver) imagined a complete shut-down of carbon emissions in 2013, and in 2050.

It notes that because the added permafrost heating could be balanced by ocean and biosphere uptake, this feedback effect does NOT equate with a runaway greenhouse effect.

"Note that a self-sustaining feedback is not the same thing as a runaway greenhouse effect."

The shutdown in 2013 results in CO2 stabilizing around 400 ppm for at least the next 300 years. A shutdown in 2050 yields a stable level around 550 ppm, on average, with a higher or lower level dependent on the as-yet-uncertain climate sensitivity.

Find more on the "industrial shutdown" experiment in this article by John Cooke. It's deep.

A further article on this study can be found here.

My thoughts:

Scientists generally consider the "industrial shutdown" scenario so unlikely, they either ignore it, or just look at "what-if" scenarios. However, it is conceivable that an industrial shutdown could occur due to a mega solar storm knocking out electric grids, a major nuclear war, an unstoppable disease in humans (think ebola on steroids), a meteor striking the Earth, or even a collapse of the current system (similar to the collapse of the Soviet Union, but globally, and on a much larger scale).

A cessation of human caused carbon emissions sounds possible by 2050, but is not really viable if we keep our present system of agriculture, and persist in terraforming, such as deforestation, both of which contribute to substantial emissions even without an industrial culture.


In a well-written article at climatecentral, Andrew Freedman found scientists who temper your discovery for several reasons. Some say the timing doesn't matter, all that matters to the climate system is the total greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, whenever that comes.

Another caution is from Zurich scientist Reto Knutti, who tells climatecentral, quote:

"It takes only a few years for the climate to respond to emissions, but it takes a generation, at least, to change the emissions. We are slow, not the climate.

We discuss all that in our interview.

After reading this study, I was left wondering how long a particular carbon emission can stay active in the atmosphere. Your graphs appear to stop after 100 years, with the carbon impact still pretty high. In fact, it doesn't decline much after the 10 year peak. How long does carbon dioxide stay potent as a warming gas in the atmosphere?

I interviewed David Archer about this. In his book "The Long Thaw", and in his Radio Ecoshock interview, Archer said that CO2 emitted today would remain in the atmosphere for at least 50,000 years, if not 100,000. You can see a You tube video of that Radio Ecoshock interview here. Archer did not mean a particular molecule of CO2, which is recycled through the biosphere, but that additional molecule level would be maintained for a very long time. The paper by Ricke and Caldeira stops at 100 years not because they disagree, but because that was the time frame of the best data sets - and all they needed to answer their principal question: how long does it take for CO2 to reach it's peak potential for heating the atmosphere?

This was also published in this scientific paper: Archer D et al 2009 Atmospheric lifetime of fossil fuel carbon dioxide Annu. Rev. Earth Planet. Sci. 37 117–34


From the paper by Ricke and Caldeira: "While the maximum warming effect of a CO2 emission may manifest itself in only one decade, other impact-relevant effects, such as sea level rise, will quite clearly not reach their maximum until after the first century (see, e.g., figure 2(c) of Joos et al (2013)). For many impacts, such as changes to natural ecosystems, degradation is the result of the cumulative effects of consecutive years of warming or precipitation change (Parmesan and Yohe 2003). Ice sheet melting can persist for thousands of years following a warming (Huybrechts et al 2011). As such, even if maximum warming occurs within a decade, maximum impact may not be reached until much later. From this perspective, Steven Chu's statement that today's damage 'will not be seen for at least 50 years' may well be accurate."


This new science may help push climate negotiations into high gear in Paris next year. Now we know we don't have time to set long-term goals and slowly reduce CO2. Our emissions now will hit us hard and fast within 10 years!

From the conclusion of this paper:

"Our paper corrects a potential misconception that the largest effects of today's emissions will be felt only by future generations. Benefit from avoided CO2 emissions will most likely be manifested within the lifetimes of the people who act to avoid those emissions."

Find links to this paper, a video of Katharine explaining it here.

Download or listen to this Radio Ecoshock interview with Katharine Ricke in CD Quality or Lo-Fi


I admit this week's blog is too long. But I got almost a year of education just researching for this week's guests. There was way too much to cover on the radio, and I found deep tunnels going into science that can determine how our future develops, and maybe whether we will survive our own carbon civilization.

I invite you to follow up on the links, and ask yourself the same hard questions.


I need to tell my anonymous donor and supporter "N." in Boston: I got your letter and I'm looking into your suggested reading and guests. Thank you.


We have some more tough questions in coming shows. I found a great radio documentary on the perils of dreaming about eco-community, and survival after oil. Then I'm going to challenge another green dream: alternative energy. Is it real, or just another carbon-dependent mirage. Stay tuned.

You can download all our past programs as free mp3 files from the web site Listen to our most recent programs on Soundcloud here. There have been so many top scientists, authors and activists on Radio Ecoshock its almost an open university, cruising the past interviews.

As always, I sincerely thank you for listening, and for caring about our world.