Hi everyone! This is my first post on Chapelboro.com, so let me introduce myself and what I’ll be writing about. Mostly. I’m a policy geek at the Environmental Protection Agency (note: the views in my Chapelboro columns are my own, not the EPA’s), a mom of teenagers, an on-again-off-again local (and also internet) progressive activist, and a HUGE renewable energy / energy efficiency enthusiast.
I worry a lot about climate change and the future of civilization.
I also worry a lot about some stuff close to home, like the school to prison pipeline (my kid saw it happen in Carrboro, of all places), everything going on in our state government right now, the devaluing of NC teachers, and, in general, the complete dumbing down of the mass media and the ignorance it fosters.
But I don’t want my posts to be as depressing as all that sounds. I’m going to talk about all the good stuff we can do to make things better. I want to show you all the totally cool local people I’ve met who are doing incredible community work. I want you – my readers – to be inspired. Encouraged to act, with joy and purpose.
So here’s my first installment. Ever heard of an organization called Interfaith Power and Light? They orchestrate something called the “National Preach-In on Climate Change,” encouraging faith communities to preach on climate change. I was asked to do that at my synagogue.
How to approach the topic? How to address our congregation? They’re a very wonky crowd. I have to inspire, but also have my facts really straight.
Here’s what I’ll tell them: first about the problem, but then a lot about what we all can do.
How Bad Is It?
A day or two after Hurricane Sandy hit, Bloomberg Businessweek put a photo of the flooded Lower East Side of Manhattan on its cover. In huge block letters over the photo they wrote: “It’s Global Warming, Stupid.”
Just last month, 40,000 people were displaced by flooding in Indonesia.
Also last month, it was 120 degrees at the Australian Open. That’s one data point, but the years-long drought in Australia is not.
Southern California is also bone dry and burning. The American Southwest gets its drinking water from rivers fed by runoff from the snowpacks in mountains that are rapidly losing their snowpacks.
Years-long drought is also at the root of the Syrian conflict. When farmers can’t farm, at some point they have to give up and move.
Because our changing climate has caused changes in ocean temperature and salinity, the phytoplankton are dying in the oceans. They’re the bottom of the food chain, and all marine life depends on them. We do too, for oxygen.
Even the cause of our recent cold snaps – the polar vortex pushing cold Arctic air too far south – has been predicted by the climate models to happen more frequently. We’re getting the Arctic air that’s supposed to be in Alaska. In Alaska, it has been ridiculously warm all season – 40 degrees and rainy – causing problems like avalanches.
The bottom line is that these historic storms, floods, and droughts are happening at record-setting levels of frequency, which, again, is exactly what the climate models predict. NOAA’s National Climate Data Center tracks the number of billion-dollar disasters in the US each year. They put out a series of maps showing the progression from 1980 til now, and the contrast is pretty dramatic.
The 15 hottest years on record – and by hottest we mean global mean temperature — include every single year of the 21st century, plus 1997 and 1998.
Our children and grandchildren’s world is going to be a very different one. In a few years the Arctic will be free of ice in the summer, messing over the jet stream and wigging out the weather even more. And sea levels have already started to rise.
The Outer Banks are toast in our children’s lifetimes. So is Miami Beach. I’m not exaggerating – I just watched a video about the long-term planning process that four south Florida counties have undertaken. They are well aware of the precarious position they are in.
According to the UN’s biggest-ever study of climate change, to avoid the most dire consequences, we need to triple the share of energy production that’s clean.
We’re not even close. We have to get off fossil fuels really, really fast. That’s coal and natural gas producing electricity, mostly, and oil for transportation fuels.
Why don’t more people get that?
There are lots of answers, but as they say, follow the money.
We’ve made our mega-corporations, including Big Oil, Big Coal, and Big Natural Gas, so rich that they now control the messages we get. They fund the disinformation. They foster the false idea that there’s some sort of “debate” among scientists about climate change. Probably you know all this.
There’s no debate left. Just like we understand evolution happened and we quibble about the details, so it is with climate change. In 2013 2,259 scientific papers – written by 9,136 scientists — were published in peer-reviewed journals on these topics. Only one – just one! – questioned manmade climate change. A journal in Russia published it, and the paper contained passages worrying about what will happen to Russia’s economy if it can’t sell oil and natural gas.
So we’re clear that there’s no worldwide cabal of scientists conspiring here – as if that were possible – but that we really have this problem.
Which leaves the question…
What Can We Do?
Well, Obama’s Climate Plan has some very nice stuff in it, most of which I’m not going to get into in this space. My day job includes working – at least peripherally – on some of that stuff. It’ll help.
But the EPA cannot singlehandedly save civilization. Again, we have to get off of fossil fuels. Yesterday. Oil, coal and natural gas. Yet natural gas is still in the President’s climate plan. It does burn cleaner than coal, and if you don’t count the methane emissions from the extraction process, then hey, it’s a bridge fuel to the cleaner future! Oh, and it scales up really nicely.
But. It won’t save us.
No, the only thing that will save is getting off ALL fossil fuels really, really fast.
That means different and fewer cars. More mass transit. Energy efficient buildings and homes. Energy efficiency is huge, people. And more, more, more renewable energy.
The best way to do that is take our power into our own hands.
How? We have to FIND. OUR. POWER. Not just figuratively. Literally.
Now, I’m not going to tell you to just recycle and remember to turn out the lights. Not that those aren’t good things. I’m sure you do them already.
No, what we need to do is FIND. OUR POWER. And not just our power as individuals. Our power as communities. Because we’re all in this together and we use our power best TOGETHER.
So let me throw a few ideas your way.
For example, how about we work to make Duke Energy obsolete? (Does anyone reading this work for Duke Energy? Sorry…)
It won’t happen overnight. But… there’s a lot we can do right now to find OUR power, and make Duke Energy lose some of its.
First of all, did you know that the price of solar panels has plummeted dramatically in the last few years? China has poured billions of dollars into both improving the efficiency of the panels and also into mass production, which has mostly driven the price drop.
In some states, the price per kilowatt-hour of solar is challenging the price of natural gas (which has been starting to rise recently), especially if federal and state incentives manage to stay in place. Solar is already cheaper than coal in many places.
Solar is getting cheap enough that many more people can afford it than ever before. Do you know what state is the second-fastest-growing solar energy market, as of this past quarter (California is of course number one). Any guesses?
It’s North Carolina.
That’s one reason that last year one of the only bills to fail in the NC Legislature was the bill to take away our renewable portfolio standards. That’s the requirement that 12.5% of the power in NC has to be renewable by 2021. They couldn’t repeal it. It never even got out of committee.
Too many small businesses around the state are making money because of that law, in too many legislators’ districts.
Solar is much more affordable and available than ever before. And if you put it on your house you get a 30% federal tax credit and a 35% state tax credit based on what you spent, plus you get to sell your excess solar production back to Duke Energy, reducing your bill.
You can also do a lot to make your home more energy efficient. Remember the food pyramid? There’s an energy efficiency pyramid that walks you through all the steps you can take, from cheapest to biggest ticket. A good first step is to get an energy audit, so you’ll know what fixes will save you the most in your house. But please do check out the pyramid.
So those are individual actions.
But there are also many, many ways to find OUR power. As communities. I’ll just talk about a few.
For example there’s a new program in Durham and Raleigh called, appropriately, “Solarize Durham” and “Solarize Raleigh.” Also, I just heard that “Solarize Carrboro” is starting up. The programs are signing up homeowners to purchase solar panels as a group from local providers, at the same time negotiating steep discounts from the providers. Solarize Durham has negotiated a 30% discount from Yes! Solar Solutions. Let’s bring this program to all of Orange County!
Other community solar projects have taken shape recently, including a locally crowdfunded solar project in the Arcadia neighborhood, and one for the roof of the Carrboro Farmer’s Market shed, of which I was a part.
Other community efforts you can join are focused on building local resilience as a hedge against future climate disruption. Transition Chapel Hill-Carrboro, which is an outgrowth of the international Transition movement, offers classes in resilient skills like organic gardening, and hosts climate education events.
Taking the concept of community more broadly, there are national efforts to crowdfund larger community renewable energy projects led by nonprofits such as Mosaic and Native Energy. Solar City, in California, is even bundling renewable projects and selling securities as a market-type investment.
Another local power production idea that’s taking off in a lot of places is microgrids – small energy plants serving a specific location. During Hurricane Sandy, my cousin in Greenwich Village had no power in his 10th floor apartment, but he had continuous power in his office at NYU because the university had its own microgrid. UNC’s got its own power plant too. It used to be powered by coal, but students successfully agitated for a (gradual) transition to gas. What if the students and the community now pressured UNC to incorporate more renewable energy into its microgird? The University has an awful lot of roof space…
Finally, public transit is a critical part of local resiliency and reducing oil consumption. We need to join efforts to create a more walkable community, and to increase bus and rail transit.
Whatever you do to reduce our carbon footprint as a community, consider doing more! Your planet – and your community – need you.
Thanks for listening. Now go find your power.