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A New Shade of Green

By Sherry Listgarten

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About this blog: Climate change, despite its outsized impact on the planet, is still an abstract concept to many of us. That needs to change. My hope is that readers of this blog will develop a better understanding of how our climate is evolving a...  (More)

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What does it mean to be a "realist" about climate?

Uploaded: Feb 14, 2021
I recently tuned into a city discussion about reducing local emissions. Senior Resource Planner Jonathan Abendschein was giving a progress update on his team’s effort to develop “the most adoptable plan that we can” to reduce emissions by 80% from 1990 levels by 2030. We have not made much progress since setting this “80x30” goal in 2016, but the importance of reducing our emissions has only become more evident. Staff was asked to draft a concrete proposal for the public to respond to.

Abendschein acknowledged that it is not an easy goal to hit, but pointed out that we have more options now than we did earlier. He did not present specifics -- the plan is still under development -- but he outlined some insights, gave an update on the process, and took questions from the Commissioners in attendance. (1)

Some of those Commissioners asked about charging infrastructure and utility staffing, offered suggestions to look at regional incentives or streamline permitting, expressed concerns about new gas appliances being installed, and commented on the benefits of local electric home tours and the need for effective communication. These Commissioners seemed to be concerned about climate change, supportive of the effort to formulate and quantify a plan, and eager to help.

But others were more pessimistic. Two Commissioners prefaced their remarks by saying that of course they want to “be on the right side” of the discussion, and then questioned whether the effort was realistic and worthwhile. “We need to maintain some practicality on some of these things,” said one, anticipating that the plan would involve “fantasy” targets and “extreme” costs. They suggested that the public would reject whatever the city came up with, that costs would be too high, and that it was better left to the state or to the residents themselves to formulate a plan, with one adding that “Frankly, the amount of emissions we save in Palo Alto is not going to make any difference in climate change, whatsoever. I think we all recognize that.”

It’s good to have diversity of thought on a commission like this. There are certainly community members who would have similar concerns, particularly in absence of an actual plan. Probing questions can be helpful. But these comments struck me less as constructive criticism and more as a venting of fears and frustrations.

The discussion made me wonder: What does it mean to be a “realist” about climate change? It is easy to say something is too expensive, or will take too long, or will be unacceptable to participants, or will be too complex. Certainly all of those objections and more could have been raised about GM’s move to halt production of gas vehicles by 2035. And yet that is happening. Certainly all of those objections could have been raised about efforts to divest from fossil fuels, to price carbon, to revise building codes, to clean up power, to enable international agreements, to move families from threatened coastlines. And yet those too are happening.

In the context of pervasive, persistent global warming, it is much more realistic to look forward than to look backward. Our homes are threatened by sea-level rise, our skies by smoke, our lands by fire and drought. We can no longer count on something as simple as outdoor activity in late summer and fall.

A climate realist acknowledges and calls attention to that evolving reality and rallies people around plans to address it. A climate realist doesn’t take comfort in compromises with the past. Instead they push for change commensurate with the scale of the challenge we are facing.

It is not enough to sit around waiting for the federal or state government to solve the problem, as one Commissioner repeatedly urged. Each city, each county, and each state has its own local context and its own best plan. Palo Alto is better positioned than most other cities to hit an aggressive 80x30 reduction. No one says it will be easy. But as one Commissioner put it, “If a community like ours can’t do this, then who can?”

I find it hard to believe that a leader of our community would claim that “What we do is too small to make a difference.” Does it make no difference when we each wear a mask? How is large-scale change made, if not from an accumulation of smaller changes? It absolutely makes a difference when each city, when our city, reduces its emissions, and even more so when it’s an early mover. #Norway

Climate realism is the opposite of more of the same, however “realistic” or “pragmatic” that may feel. Climate realism is forward-looking, creative, optimistic, data-driven leadership. I am profoundly disappointed that our leaders in the 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s did not move away from fossil fuels more proactively. Our job has gotten much harder as a result of their inaction. The buck has to stop, and stop with us. I’d like to see all of our city leaders demonstrating this kind of realism.

Notes and References
1. You can view a video of the discussion here.

Current Climate Data (January 2021)
Global impacts, US impacts, CO2 metric, Climate dashboard (updated annually)

From the New York Times, Feb 11:

On Sunday, a glacier in the Indian Himalayas burst apart, releasing a torrential flood that destroyed one hydroelectric dam project and damaged another, killed at least 32 people and left nearly 200 people missing and likely dead. Half a world away, this event might seem easy to disregard as yet another distant catastrophe — tragic yet unrelated to our daily lives.

In the Western world, we should not be so sanguine. The disaster was a direct result of extreme climate change in the world’s highest mountains. The rapid warming there offers a warning of the potential consequences for the United States and the rest of the world as greenhouse gases continue to heat the planet.

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Posted by Resident8, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis,
on Feb 14, 2021 at 11:15 am

Resident8 is a registered user.

Palo Alto made a decision to help lead the way when it passed the 80x30 climate plan. We were not trying to maximize developer short-term profits but rather show others it's possible to save the planet and how. We were the first utility in the country to offer only 100% carbon neutral electricity. Home energy use is about 1/3 electric, 1/3 heating/cooling and 1/3 vehicle. The current push to reduce use of natural gas in homes/work and gas automobiles is exactly the right direction. For some that will be more biking, for others purchasing an electric vehicle. Most importantly converting homes from gas heating, hot water, gas stove and gas washer and dryer to electric. I think PA Utilities should offer more and bigger subsidies for folks making the switch across the board including for solar panels, battery storage, electric car charger, electric hot water heater, electric hvac (example mini split) heating/cooling, electric stove, etc...

Posted by Ronen Vengosh, a resident of Menlo Park: Suburban Park/Lorelei Manor/Flood Park Triangle,
on Feb 14, 2021 at 11:20 am

Ronen Vengosh is a registered user.

The "we're too small to make an impact" statement ignores California's unique role in demonstrating progress and leading the way that others then emulate. Eliminating our own emissions may be negligible from a physics perspective, but we act as a proof of concept and as a signpost to many other communities who follow our lead. The cumulative impact is immense.

Another factor is that Well to do communities like ours have the privilege, burden and obligation to be the first ones to take action. By making investments when the costs are still high, we help technology move down the learning curve and make it cheaper and easier for other communities to follow suit.

Climate action is the defining challenge of our time. Our community leaders must rise to the challenge.

Posted by Jennifer, a resident of another community,
on Feb 14, 2021 at 12:40 pm

Jennifer is a registered user.

Converting your home from natural gas to electricity might sound good, but keep in mind electricity is more expensive. Not everyone can afford a higher electric bill. Gas/electric bills are high enough already. How about financial realism? Not everyone is wealthy.

Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a Mountain View Online blogger,
on Feb 14, 2021 at 2:50 pm

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

These are great comments, thanks! A couple of thoughts...

@Resident8: One question is, how would you fund the subsidies? It could be by raising gas rates, but how do you make that equitable? FWIW, I worry some about a flight to solar. People who electrify may do some form of solar (rooftop or community solar, for example) to get lower rates, bypassing the utility and making it harder for the utility to cover fixed costs. So (to your point) I do think the utility will want to find ways to keep big electric users on the system.

@Ronen: To strengthen your point, there are many advantages our city has besides being (generally) well off, including having its own utility, relatively low electricity rates, a temperate climate, a bike-friendly climate and terrain, and eco-conscious businesses and culture in general.

@Jennifer: Absolutely. The whole planning process is largely about finances and an equitable transition. One thing to keep in mind is that, while electricity is much more expensive than gas, modern electric heat pump appliances are much more efficient than gas appliances.

To do the math, say that:

EG = efficiency of your gas appliance (e.g., 0.6 for a typical gas-powered tank water heater)

EE = efficiency of your electric appliance (e.g., 3.6 for a newer electric one-piece hybrid heat pump water heater)

PG = price of one therm of gas (e.g., $1.25) -- this is often higher in winter, so use a winter price if you are looking at space heating. Use the price of the tier you will be subtracting from.

PE = price of one kWh of electricity (e.g., $0.25) -- use the price of the tier you will be adding to.

Then the ratio of your new (electric) bill to your old (gas) bill will be:

(EG / EE) * (PE / PG) * 29.3

(The 29.3 is kWhs/therm.)

The electric bill may be more, or may be less, depending on the prices and equipment in question, and whether the person has low-priced solar. I'd say it's often a little bit more, especially for space heating. But the tough financial part I think is the cost of installation. There aren't a lot of trained technicians, so I get the sense that work takes longer and there's less competition when it comes to heat pumps vs furnaces.

Great comments!

Posted by neighbor, a resident of Midtown,
on Feb 15, 2021 at 2:37 pm

neighbor is a registered user.

Thanks for another great post, Sherry.

First, who are these Commissioners and who picks them?

Re: "We have not made much progress since...2016"; the "We" could be all of humanity or the citizens of Palo Alto. Why no progress? To me, it's the usual nimbyism...the same reason Palo Alto doesn't build dense housing during a homelessness crisis.

Re: "GM's move to halt production of gas vehicles by 2035." Sorry, but I'll believe it when I see it. Remember the video of GM literally crushing EV1s?
Why did/do they do that? Similar to nimbyism - the profit motive.

Re: "The buck has to stop, and stop with us." I absolutely agree, right here and right now. But how to overcome nimbyism and pollution-profiteering?

I feel one possible way can be by arguing for the moral imperative. We can see the effectiveness of this method by looking at how much people regularly give to religious/charitable/do-gooder causes (via cash or volunteering).

To supplement the morality argument, it must be made clear that people's efforts are effective and helpful, which is why posts like yours are so valuable!

Thank you again.

Posted by KOhlson, a resident of Old Palo Alto,
on Feb 16, 2021 at 2:07 pm

KOhlson is a registered user.

Nice post - thanks for wading through a UAC meeting!
I think we, and by that I mean the City of Palo Alto, have not made progress since 2016 when a new council came in. The goals for a more sustainable city recorded less than 1% improvement - in some cases accumulative 3 years! So I have hope that a new council with more focus on sustainability will help re-calibrate CPAU.
We (again, CPA) have some near term history with this sort of thing. In the 1980s the city helped incentivize solar water heating (we had one for a few years). This easily demonstrates that we (...) have the tools, resources, and community that few other cities have: a civic-minded and well-educated populace, an engaged council, our own utilities. While some will convert to more sustainable living because they want to, even more will do so when nudged through economic incentives. And CPA can do this!
@neighbor, perhaps you're right, that GM won't convert everything to BEV in 14 years. But they're putting a lot into it starting now. Ad there are some interesting economic factors working against ICE-cars. I suggest you check out the Bill Gates interview on why he thinks this will work, in the recent Weekend Read in the WSJ. After all, he's a guy who knows how to make global things happen.

Posted by mikepat, a resident of Monta Loma,
on Feb 16, 2021 at 2:12 pm

mikepat is a registered user.

I wish you would visit the recent news regarding wind turbines. In Texas this week, all wind energy was stopped because the turbines froze solid. Ironically, Texas, (which owns the largest oil/natural gas reserves in the country) was unable to keep power on to its customers. (Other sources had been previuosly cut back). You might also remember when California had to institute rolling outages during the most recent heat wave.

[Removed: Unsubstantiated claim about sea-level rise. Please include a reference. Here are two of my own: Web Link and Web Link

It will be a serious mistake to sacrifice reliable electricity for home use in order to commit to green energy.

Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a Mountain View Online blogger,
on Feb 16, 2021 at 2:30 pm

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

@mikepat: Reference? My understanding is that the power shortages in Texas are largely due to frozen instruments at gas, coal, and even nuclear plants, lower gas pressure, and more gas being diverted to home heating.

Here is one reference. Note that ERCOT is the agency that manages Texas' grid, so they would know.


The story here imo is that we need to adapt our grid planning and infrastructure to account for more extreme weather events that are resulting from a changing climate. That was the story from CA as well. Neither is related to renewables.

Posted by Raymond , a resident of Monta Loma,
on Feb 16, 2021 at 3:11 pm

Raymond is a registered user.

Mountain View is more than making up for Palo Alto's marginal gains in reducing GHG emissions. MV has approved building about 7000 new living units in the low-lying north-of-101 mudflat area. Nearly 20,000 new residents seem likely to push the population from 81,000 to about 100,000. Hallucinating GHG emissions reductions while increasing the population by 25% accomplishes nothing.
As a sanctuary city in a sanctuary county in a sanctuary state in an open borders high emissions country, the effective thing to do would be to limit immigration from low GHG emissions countries. If there is no proposal to do that, perhaps we have climate denial.

Posted by mikepat, a resident of Monta Loma,
on Feb 16, 2021 at 3:34 pm

mikepat is a registered user.

web link for tides: Web Link When I googled "Texas power outages"I found dozens of references to frozen windmills but I'm not sure which you would believe. Way to much "politics" involved with this story. People will only believe the story that fits their narrative.

Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a Mountain View Online blogger,
on Feb 16, 2021 at 4:32 pm

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

@mikepat: Thanks for the follow-up. FWIW, I just did a Google search (incognito, so not biased with my reading history). The top source was USA Today: https://www.usatoday.com/in-depth/news/nation/2021/02/16/texas-weather-power-outage-rolling-blackouts-leave-millions-dark/6764764002/. I read the section in the middle of the article titled "Are frozen wind turbines to blame?" and it's consistent with what I shared. Take a look. I agree that unfortunately the story was politicized and the facts distorted, much as they were with the CA outages. It's not that wind wasn't affected. It was. But they had planned for it. The surprise was that everything else was affected, and that constituted a much larger share of the grid.

Regarding your tides link, what do you think it is telling you? (Maybe you are confusing inches and feet?) Keep in mind that these graphs are projecting linearly from the past 40 years, which is questionable per the PNAS papers.

Quoting Daniel Swain, a Research Fellow from the National Center for Atmospheric Research: "Research actually shows that rates of global sea level rise have accelerated in recent years, and estimates regarding the upper end of plausible further sea-level rise over the coming century have actually increased considerably as the non-linear contribution by continental ice sheets comes into clearer focus. So, if anything, sea level rise is becoming more of a problem than previously thought."

Also keep in mind that sea level rise is local (which is unintuitive). Look at the gulf of Mexico sea level rise levels in comparison: https://tidesandcurrents.noaa.gov/sltrends/regionalcomparison.html?region=USTG (the third chart). And there's a difference between the base level and storm surges, which are much higher. I am no expert, though.

I appreciate your sharing the link and also sharing your perspectives. I hope the information that I am sharing is helpful. There's a lot I don't know (!!), and I'm always open to other perspectives as long as they are accompanied by links to reputable sources.

Posted by mikepat, a resident of Monta Loma,
on Feb 17, 2021 at 9:34 am

mikepat is a registered user.

So, Texas power was effected all across the grid, including nuclear. Texas is a red state. (so much for politics). But I guess my point regarding the rising tide is: don't ignore the decimal point. I used Monterey ca as my source for the tide averages. It is going up, for certain. But .56 feet over 100 years is 6 inches in 100 years.
But I also believe reducing co2 is good thing. The reason for the rise is partly dissolved co2 in the ocean. I reduce my personal co2 level by cycling or walking whenever possible. I also began watering my plants a little more, since a green plant absorbs co2 while a brown plant emits co2. But I am retired, so if I want I can keep by driving to a relatively small amount. People who don't need to commute have been relatively rare prior to COVID.

Posted by AlexDeLarge, a resident of Midtown,
on Feb 19, 2021 at 11:58 am

AlexDeLarge is a registered user.

We're past the tipping point, all the king's horses and all king's men and throw in Greta for good measure cannot shift the climate back to anything considered normal again. We're temporary, no big deal.

Posted by Elgin Taylor, a resident of Stanford,
on Feb 19, 2021 at 12:47 pm

Elgin Taylor is a registered user.

President Joe Biden is addressing this serious concern on a national level but he chose a very unqualified and inept politician to oversee these matters.

Posted by Del Collins, a resident of Old Palo Alto,
on Feb 19, 2021 at 2:13 pm

Del Collins is a registered user.

AlexDeLarge has got it right...game over.

And Elgin of Stanford brought up a good point...we're going to rely on Climate Czar John Kerry to steer us in the right direction? Seriously?

Tipping my black king over on the chessboard.

Posted by That User Name is already, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Feb 20, 2021 at 12:55 pm

That User Name is already is a registered user.

"We're past the tipping point"

They denied for years, they concern trolled for years ("shucks, we can't do THAT, there has to be a better way") and now claim it's too late.

Yeah, who didn't see that coming? Related to those that believed the frozen windmill fables by Abbott and Carlson, etc.. despite all the facts.

Posted by StarSpring, a resident of Adobe-Meadow,
on Feb 20, 2021 at 4:51 pm

StarSpring is a registered user.

Exactly. AlexDeLarge has it right. It is highly likely that reducing global temperatures will require some amount of geoengineering like injecting sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere to prevent catastrophe. Sadly, in the face of all this, Palo Alto's 80x30 climate plan is simply cute, like a TicTok video of a kitten facing down a pit bull.

Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a Mountain View Online blogger,
on Feb 20, 2021 at 5:23 pm

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

Hmm, there's certainly a lot of "not my problem" and "way too hard" in some of these comments. I disagree. It is absolutely our problem, and absolutely within our means to address. Or, as some of you urge, we can continue to make it worse and pass it off to our increasingly desperate children and grandchildren.

Re solar radiation management, I want to be sure you know that it does nothing to reduce greenhouse gases or ocean acidification. All it's really meant for is "peak shaving" if temperatures are increasing too fast while we aggressively work to reduce our emissions. Because greenhouse gases continue to build up while it's deployed, breaks in deployment are really problematic. It's a diplomatic challenge, to put it mildly. It could also be very expensive if payments are needed to compensate regions that are negatively impacted.

Source: The Wilson Center

If you do not want to write off the planet, then think hard about what is the cheapest and easiest way to stabilize at a comfortable climate (short of having reduced emissions 50, 40, 30, 20, or even 10 years ago).

Posted by Duveneck neighbor, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis,
on Feb 20, 2021 at 11:04 pm

Duveneck neighbor is a registered user.

Regarding sea level rise:

I live in 'the flats' in PA, at 13 ft above mean high tide. I care about the Redwood City NOAA measurement, not the Monterey measurement.

According to NOAA, RC has 2.79 +/- 1.62 mm/year using a linear fit to the data. But, the NOAA site directs the reader to a more 'refined', shall we say, analysis maintained at Colorado (https://sealevel.colorado.edu). That site uses a quadratic fit to the data, which actually fits better, because the RMS error for a quadratic fit is superior to a linear fit.

The global mean sea level change is 3.3*T + 0.097*T^2. T = time in years. Scaling this by the ratio of slopes from Redwood City to the global mean, the equation for RC is 2.79*T + (0.097*2.79/3.3)*T^2. So, in 30 years, 2050, the sea level in Redwood City can be expected to increase by 157.5 mm, or 6.2 inches. Not in 100 years, but in 30 years. And the rate of change, remember, is increasing. If the quadratic trend holds, then the change in 100 years is 43 inches, or about 3.5 feet.

2050 is probably at the outside limit of my lifetime. But not my kids or grandkids. 3.5 feet is a reasonable estimate, extrapolating from today's available data. And that's the mean: the danger is in the extremes, and not only is the mean increasing, but the standard deviation of the mean is increasing, too. Think 'king tide'. Think, 'king tide coinciding with a 100-year rain'. Remember 1998, when our lot had 15" of water in the backyard, and over 2' in the street.

The math doesn't bear up. Not even for 30 years from now, let alone 100.

Posted by Duveneck neighbor, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis,
on Feb 21, 2021 at 10:28 am

Duveneck neighbor is a registered user.

Kim Stanley Robinson has written a recent book of speculative fiction entitled, "Ministry For The Future." Set over a 20-year-or-so period beginning roughly 10 years from now, it explores many scientific, technological, ethical, moral, philosophical, logical, financial/economic, and other issues which are part of and parcel to Climate Change.

As a work of fiction, it falls below the standards of his prior works such as Red Mars. Which is irrelevant to Ms Listgarten's blog. But, as a relative short introduction to the issues of Climate Change, their consequences, and possible mitigations, it is completely relevant, and IMO excellent.

It's also optimistic. Each of us *can* and *must* do something. The rise of atmospheric CO2 remains inexorable. The rise will, almost certainly, result in large-scale human death.

As example, Robinson details the simple concept of 'wet-bulb 35C': a wet-bulb anemometer showing a temperature about 35C (95F) means the human body cannot cool itself through sweat evaporation, and so 'cooks'. Climate change already has increased the number of single days, in various locations, with temperatures and humidities exceeded this threshold. A week-long event is not beyond the Pale; it would stress energy networks for air conditioning; wide-scale failures, as experienced in Texas at the other end of the temperature spectrum, but as experienced in California in 2000-2001, would result in massive numbers of human dead.

A final comment regarding the 'not my problem' and 'way too hard' nature of some of the comments here. A recent publication in the journal Sustainability addresses the social dilemma basis for the creation and reinforcement of these attitudes: social media reinforce the do-nothing stance, rather than a can-do perspective. The article suggests means to overcome these barriers. See: Web Link

Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a Mountain View Online blogger,
on Feb 21, 2021 at 1:01 pm

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

@Duveneck, thank you for the great information and references.

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