Refugia Newsletter #47
Ocean heat, Al Gore, heat pumps, ocean refugia, and Climate Barbie
I had a birthday this week (the 7th) and as part of the celebration, husband Ron and I hiked in Saugatuck Dunes State Park, a local treasure. We would have taken a swim in the lake, too (Lake Michigan, I’m talking about), but it was a cooler, cloudy day and the water was Michigan chilly, so frankly we both wimped out. Still, the dunes and the lake’s horizon: renews my soul.
Shouldn’t this be an inspirational poster about following your path or something?
I’ve been a guest on a couple more podcasts recently, and I’ll share the episodes when they release. But for now, I want to honor a newsletter reader who deserves the very first “Thanks for referring this newsletter award”! Thanks to John Hiemstra of Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, for gaining us three new subscribers and earning an appreciative shout-out. When I sent John a thank-you email, he kindly responded with these words:
I am involved in climate action and creation care, and really appreciate the way your newsletter keeps me up to date with ecological news, climate ideas, and positive hopeful stories. I write on Canada’s oil sands developments (in my province of Alberta) and follow as many good sources as possible to engage these destructive ventures. I appreciate being linked in with others who are concerned with climate action and your newsletter links me in with other Christians in this field as well. Finally, I love the idea behind Refugia, which I find important and hopeful.
I am grateful for John’s work and for the connections we can all make with each other. We need each other! So thank you for helping to weave a few more threads of connection by subscribing and referring others.
Also, if you would like a copy of Refugia Faith (makes a great gift, too!), you are very welcome to use the current discount code provided by the good people at Fortress Press. The code Refugia23 will save you 25% until August 31. Just click the button below and enter the code when prompted.
This Week in Climate News
With the piling on of extreme weather events this summer and all the dire suffering people are experiencing (Hawaiian wildfires now?), it’s hard to choose a news story. Without ignoring the chaos and struggle of so many people all over the world this summer, I’ll choose two very big-picture stories to highlight: the oceans and Al Gore. Hear me out on that second one.
First, oceans. Hard to imagine a bigger picture concern than that. An article in the Atlantic from Aug 2 by Marina Koren (yes, I noticed her appropriate name—did you know that’s called an “aptronym”?) summarizes current ocean warming:
The surface temperatures of about 44 percent of Earth’s oceans are currently experiencing extreme heat, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
That number may well increase to 50 percent by September due to the combination of greenhouse gas emissions and El Niño. Koren also reminds us that the oceans are taking the brunt of GHG emissions impacts that would otherwise land on us land-based animals:
Our oceans have absorbed most of the excess heat produced by greenhouse-gas emissions in recent decades, serving as a buffer that protects us from the worst effects of climate change. Humans may be sweltering on land this summer, but our planet’s future—and therefore ours—is intimately tied with the sea.
Source: New York Times
Warming oceans are frightening for many reasons. Warmer water creates ecosystem stress and collapse, raises ocean levels, and intensifies ocean-based storms. Warming oceans also mess up ocean circulation, which helps regulate ocean temps and create the familiar climates on land. You might have noticed the group freak-out in the last few weeks over an article published on July 25 in Nature. Two Danish scientists concluded that the Atlantic Meriodonal Overturning Circulation (AMOC) could collapse a lot sooner than was previously feared. You can read their actual paper here.
Were the circulation to tip into a much weaker state, the effects on the climate would be far-reaching, though scientists are still examining their potential magnitude. Much of the Northern Hemisphere could cool. The coastlines of North America and Europe could see faster sea-level rise. Northern Europe could experience stormier winters, while the Sahel in Africa and the monsoon regions of Asia would most likely get less rain.
However, Zhong also explains that, like all science, this research is now out there for other scientists to comment on and consider. This new article work is important mostly because it works with a new modeling method. Even the authors agree, however, that their predictions are alarming but not very precise. Now other experts are weighing in. Also, pro-tip for reading alarming climate news: Predictions like this are often based on a continuation of current GHG emissions, not on any scenario with a rapid drawdown. That is the case here as well. So, as Zhong’s article suggests, go ahead and freak out a little, but then get back to work.
(Note: Refugia Newsletter #38 featured another similarly alarming story on Antarctic ice melt, also related to large ocean currents.)
As we’re trying to get back to work, let’s stay with our big picture theme, and turn to Al Gore. On August 8, Gore’s most recent TED Talk was released. The talk is called “What the fossil fuel industry doesn’t want you to know.” It starts out rather folksy, but then, about five minutes in, Al starts getting worked up. Honestly, you should watch it just for the fun of seeing that. By the end, he’s sweating.
Why? Because he’s angry. I realize Al Gore is not going to convince dismissers and deniers of anything. But the TED talk is significant because here’s a highly influential person in a very public forum calling out the lies and deceptions of the fossil fuel industry emphatically and with receipts. He’s focusing on the big-picture need to dismantle the power of the industry’s well-oiled (sorry) program of delay and deception.
By the end of the talk (it’s about 25 minutes), even though none of what he shared was new to me, I found myself getting both worked up and inspired all over again, and I’ve been worked up and inspired a million times already on this stuff. Let me know what you think when you watch.
Today’s feature: heat pumps. We do not have a heat pump yet at our house. It’s on our list for maybe next year. So I’ve been trying to learn more about them. Why are heat pumps important? Here’s a quick setup from Michael Thomas, another Substack writer whose newsletter is called Distilled. Thomas writes:
There are 125 million homes in America. Collectively, the energy they burn every year puts more planet-warming pollution into the atmosphere than virtually every country on Earth. Our homes alone emit more carbon-dioxide each year than the entire nation of Germany.
But not all appliances in a home consume the same amount of energy. While we see and interact with our lights, phone chargers, and refrigerators everyday, these products use relatively little energy. Meanwhile, the furnaces and air conditioners we rarely see are responsible for about half of the energy used in a given year. In harsher climates that number can easily reach two-thirds.
So the goal here is to “electrify everything” and then produce all that electricity with renewables. Not going to happen overnight, but the faster we go the better. Heat pumps are a key element (sorry—heat pun) in this electrifying process.
How do they work? Well, you can read Thomas’s summary here if you want the science of it. Basically, heat pumps operate as both heaters and air conditioners by moving around heat that already exists in the air. They don’t burn something to create more heat. The tech is similar to our current air conditioners, and it’s not new.
Source: Distilled newsletter.
Note that back in 2020 already, 14 percent of US homes heated with heat pumps. Last year, Thomas notes, “heat pumps outsold gas furnaces for the first time.”
The great thing about them is that they are way more efficient than a gas furnace, which are 98% efficient. How can you do better than that? Thomas writes:
Heat pumps, by comparison, typically operate at 200% to 400% efficiency. In other words, they consume 1 kWh of electricity, and then convert that into 2 to 4 kWh of energy in the form of heat.
So even if you’re not actually using renewables to power your heat pump, you’re still saving a lot of energy and therefore emissions. Heat pumps save you money, too: for us, a heat pump should save us a little bit each year on heating and a lot on cooling. The savings are much greater for people moving from other forms of heating. Carbon Switch has done a helpful analysis of both cost and carbon emissions savings.
I had two main questions as we ponder how a heat pump could work for us.
Question 1: Does it hook up to our current HVAC system? Well, yes, that’s how it would work in my house. We would have an “air-source” heat pump, not a geo-thermal pump. And we would have a unit outside the house (replacing the air conditioner) and then another unit inside that would hook up to our current furnace in order to pump the heated/cooled air through our current duct system. Some houses have ductless heat pumps with little units called “mini-splits” in each area of the home. In our case, since we live in a cold region, we would probably keep our gas-forced-air furnace as a backup, which would kick in automatically only if temps got very cold. (Estimates differ on what “very cold” means; latest technology means, say -10F.)
Question 2: Can I get benefits from the Inflation Reduction Act for this upgrade? Answer: Yes. Putting in a new system will, of course, cost us some dollars. However, we can get a tax credit of up to 30% of the cost, with credit capped at $2000. We probably won’t qualify for the rebates also available to lower-income households.
I’m still not entirely clear on how another bunch of rebates, the “Efficiency Rebates” are going to work. Anyone have a good resource for that? I’ll keep an eye out, too. Meanwhile, the people at Rewiring American have a handy calculator you can use to see, roughly, what you qualify for based on income and where you live for all kinds of IRA-incentivized home upgrades.
In connection with the story about ocean warming above, let’s focus on some good ocean news. (I promised good news in every newsletter, right?) The Yale Forum on Religion and Ecology alerted me to the organization Mission Blue. This group, founded by the oceanographer Sylvia Earle, has identified what Earle calls “Hope Spots” in the ocean. Here’s how the Yale Forum summarizes:
“Hope Spots” are areas that have been identified as crucial to the health of the ocean – “Earth’s blue heart,” [Earle] calls them.
Don’t you think another word for Hope Spots might be: refugia? At the Mission Blue website, I learned that the organization is basically a network of partners. The idea is to “launch” these spots and adopt them, slathering them with publicity and every kind of support. The site says 156 spots have been launched already. Earle writes:
Our Hope Spots are championed by local conservationists whom we support with communications, expeditions and scientific advisory. I wish you would use all means at your disposal – films, expeditions, the web, new submarines, campaigns – to ignite public support for a global network of marine protected areas, Hope Spots large enough to save and restore the ocean, the blue heart of the planet.
At the Yale Forum link, you can also find Sylvia Earle’s TED Talk. And to explore the Mission Blue website, I suggest starting here, with the details on the Hope Spots.
Source: https://missionblue.org/hope-spots/ and Earthstar Geographics
The Not-So-Wayback Machine
A climate tie-in to the Barbie movie? Ha! I bet you didn’t expect that! Well, to find out who Climate Barbie is, you’ll have to click through and read this essay I wrote last week for the Reformed Journal. It’s a cultural commentary on the movie, with a key footnote about Climate Barbie. Hint: she’s from Canada.
Hope you can find a song to sing as you face the weeks ahead. Until next time: be well.