Boing Boing 

The wild rivers above California

Atmospheric rivers are meteorological phenomenon that we humans only discovered in 1998 and which supply about 30-to-50 percent of California's annual precipitation. In the NOAA satellite image above, the atmospheric river is visible as a thin yellow arm, reaching out from the Pacific to touch California. Or, more evocatively, reaching out to slap California silly with a gushing downpour.

An atmospheric river is a narrow conveyor belt of vapor about a mile high that extends thousands of miles from out at sea and can carry as much water as 15 Mississippi Rivers. It strikes as a series of storms that arrive for days or weeks on end. Each storm can dump inches of rain or feet of snow.

The real scare, however, is that truly massive atmospheric rivers that cause catastrophic flooding seem to hit the state about once every 200 years, according to evidence recently pieced together (and described in the article noted above). The last megaflood was in 1861; rains arrived for 43 days, obliterating Sacramento and bankrupting the state.

As you might guess, climate change is also involved. Evidence suggests that warming global temperatures could increase the frequency of atmospheric rivers. That, combined with the 200-year event expected soon and the fact we're learning so much much more about these storms, means that you should expect to hear the phrase "atmospheric river" more often.

Scientific American has two interesting stories on the phenomenon right now. The first, which I quote from above, is a blog post by Mark Fischetti. The second is a much longer feature story that gets into the forces that cause these storms and the climate change connection.

Occupy Sandy doc screened at secret cinema

A documentary about Occupy Sandy was screened at a secret location in NYC last night; it made the connection between Sandy and climate change. People wanting to see the movie were directed to a building whose wall was used as a screen for the premiere.

Now, in what may be the quickest turnaround for a movie in recent memory, the group, Occupy Sandy, will show a documentary Wednesday about its efforts and the contention that the storm was tied to climate change and the fossil fuel industry. In classic Occupy fashion, the screening will not be in a traditional theater, but rather on the side of a yet-to-be-disclosed building in the East Village.

The screening of the film, “Occupy Sandy: A Human Response to the New Realities of Climate Change” (see trailer above or click here), will be at 6:30 p.m.

‘Occupy’ Movement’s Next Guerrilla Effort: A Film Screening [NYT]

OCCUPY SANDY TRAILER IS UP! WORLD PREMIERE NEW SHORT FILM! NYC. NOV. 28th. [Vimeo]

#climatecrime [Twitter]

The climate change generation gap

October 2012 was the 332nd month in a row with a global average temperature that is higher than the 20th-century average. Put it another way: If you are younger than 28, then you have never experienced a colder-than-average month. In your entire life. (Via Chris Tackett)

Deconstructing Sandy

Yesterday, I got to have a great conversation on Minnesota Public Radio's The Daily Circuit. Host Tom Webber and I spent a good 45 minutes talking about Hurricane Sandy, climate change, and why it's so hard to talk about the connections between the two in an easily digestible, sound-bite format. In the meantime, he might have gotten some good sound bites out of me.

Chat about climate science and Sandy with Stanford's Noah Diffenbaugh

Yesterday, I told you that the relationship between Hurricane Sandy and climate change can be summed up with "It's Complicated". If you want a referendum on climate change, the data is in and we know it's happening. But if you're curious about this specific storm, what scientists know about hurricane systems, and how weather and climate interact, Scientific American has a live chat starting at 1:00 pm Eastern with Noah Diffenbaugh, a climate scientist at Stanford University. Check it out!

Did climate change cause Hurricane Sandy? The answer depends on why you're asking

There are two answers here: One for the legitimately curious, and one for people who want a disaster to be a referendum on climate change.

Read the rest

Scientific American goes inside the rogue geo-engineering story

Recently, news broke that a scientist had unilaterally launched a geo-engineering experiment — dumping iron sulfate and iron oxide into the Pacific Ocean. There were two goals to the project: First, grow a massive plankton bloom which would store atmospheric carbon the same way that trees take in and store atmospheric carbon; second, use that plankton as a food source to restore salmon populations in the northern Pacific. If it sounds like those two goals are kind of fundamentally contradictory — if the salmon eat the plankton, then the stored carbon is going to end up back in the atmosphere, not indefinitely stored — well, you're right.

But the project showed that it's relatively easy for a small group of people to experiment on Earth's ecosystem without any oversight or approval from the global community at large. That's why the story made headlines. And it's why Scientific American's David Biello did a two-part feature on the experiment, writing about the background and interviewing Russ George, the scientist who launched the project.

George's ideas do have a basis in science. In essence, he's trying to replicate the effects of a volcanic eruption, which are associated with plankton blooms. George believes that the blooms are caused by large depositions of the nutrient iron. And, although other scientists think his goal of feeding salmon would defeat his goal of storing carbon, George thinks their findings are wrong. And he thinks this study will prove it. As a bonus, he's also hoping that the effect on salmon will reinvigorate the economy of a nearby Haida fishing village.

As for the legality of the project, here's what George told Scientific American:

This is Canada so it's British law, not American law. In British law, if you want to do something and you're not sure whether it's legal or not, you commission officers of the court to do an analysis and produce an official document, a legal opinion as to whether it breaks the law or not. This was done. The opinion was that with comparative studies and international laws we were absolutely in the clear. The claim that this is illegal is the design of the people who want to burn the books. This is the life of the village that they're trying to kill.

Read David Biello's interview with Russ George

Read David Biello's story about the geo-engineering experiment

An epic nonprofit PSA: "Follow the Frog," for Rainforest Alliance

This is a truly brilliant example of short-form advocacy filmmaking, created for Rainforest Alliance's "Follow the Frog" retail campaign. Written and directed by Max Joseph (whom my personal video-making idol Joe Sabia describes as his personal video making idol). Produced by Aaron Weber from Wander.

Why do some people say the Earth isn't getting hotter?

If you haven't seen the Skeptical Science website yet, you're missing out.

Via Tom Standage

Is acceptance of climate change on the rise?

A Yale survey found that 3/4 of Americans believe anthropogenic climate change is really happening. Of course, this comes after an exceptionally hot and drought-y summer and we already know that opinions on climate change oscillate with the weather. To really get a good picture of whether acceptance of climate change is on the rise, we'd have to look at a variety of polls, conducted in different ways by different organizations. And we'd have to look for changes in the trend line over long periods of time, so we know we're looking at an actual, long-term shift. Which all sounds oddly familiar, now that I think about it.

Outstanding accounts

Phil Plait — who writes the Bad Astronomy blog — still has not been paid for his contributions to the Great Global Warming Conspiracy. For such an organized cabal, you think they would have a better accounting department.

What's climate change ruining today?

Barring a seriously crazy shift that plunges us quickly into an especially cold winter, 2012 will likely go down as the hottest year on record in the United States. More importantly, this broken record is part of a larger pattern that affects the whole world—record-breaking high temperatures are becoming, themselves, a bit of a broken record. On a global scale, counting average land and water temperatures, 2012 is (so far) the 11th warmest year on record—almost a full degree hotter than the 20th century average. Of the 12 warmest years on record, all of them have happened since 1998 (and the top 20 is made up of years since 1987).

Over time, that kind of long-term trend takes a toll. But for those of us who are lucky enough to live with relatively high levels of wealth, air conditioning, supermarkets, and all the luxuries of modern life, that toll is not always obvious. Sometimes, you have to look a little deeper to see how climate change is already affecting the American way of life.

So, what's climate change ruining today? How about electricity generation? Juliet Eilperin at The Washington Post has a story about how a consistent trend of high temperatures and drought has affected water reserves, and how those diminished reserves affect our ability to produce electricity.

Read the rest

The wet get wetter and the dry get drier

The other day, a reader asked why I call climate change "climate change", instead of "global warming". The short answer is that, from my perspective, climate change does a much better job of giving people an accurate mental picture of what is going on. Global warming sounds like the world is just going to get hotter, and while that's technically true on a global-average-temperature-basis, it doesn't really reflect what's happening locally.

And, frankly, what most people care about is the stuff that happens locally.

Today, Treehugger posted this NOAA video, which does a really good job of explaining one reason why a rising global average temperature can end up creating different climate change outcomes in different places. It's a great 4-minute primer on why "global warming" is more than just warming.

Via Chris Tackett

Mitt Romney: Climate change is real, but addressing it would be wrong

Science Debate is a group that's working to get political candidates in the United States actually talking publicly about issues of science and technology policy. In 2008, they tried (and failed) to get Barak Obama and John McCain to agree to a live, televised science debate. But they did get both candidates to send in written answers to 14 key questions.

This election cycle, Science Debate sent out a new set of 14 questions—all chosen from a crowdsourced list. Today, they announced that they'd gotten answers back from both Obama and Mitt Romney. You can compare the candidates side-by-side at the Science Debate website. I have to say that, while I disagree with a lot of Romney's conclusions, I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of thought and time his staff clearly put into writing some very long and detailed responses.

Perhaps most surprising was his response to a question about climate change. Instead of attempting to flatly deny the evidence, Mitt Romney has apparently moved on to acknowledging that climate change is happening—while simultaneously overplaying the uncertainty surrounding specific risks, and claiming that even if climate change is a big problem there's nothing we can really do about it anyway ... because China.

Personally, I think that's pretty interesting. Climate scientists, and the journalists who write about them, have been talking, anecdotally, about seeing this exact rhetorical shift happening in conservative circles. It seems that the Republican presidential nominee is now one of the people who acknowledge climate change exists, but would still rather not take any decisive steps to deal with it.

I happen to think that's a dumb position. After all, even if the United States can't stop climate change alone, the kinds of policies that would reduce our dependence on fossil fuels would also help us adapt and thrive despite climate shifts and fossil fuel depletion. But this is still a step in the right direction. As several climate scientists I've spoken with have said, we can disagree on the policy. But it's high time we stop pretending that we can't see the changes happening all around us.

Read the rest

Climate change allows 3 explorers to boldly sail where no man has sailed before

The three-man crew of the 31-foot Belzebub II, a fiberglass sailboat "with a living space the size of a bathroom," told the world today how they sailed through the M’Clure Strait in northern Canada, a "decreasingly ice-packed route through the famed Northwest Passage." Warming global temperatures and melting polar ice caps made it possible. The crew's original blog post is here. (LAT)

What's climate change ruining today?

In Virginia, rising sea levels are threatening Chincoteague Wildlife Refuge's ability to provide free parking near the beach for the summer tourists who provide a major source of income in the region. Here's a hell of a quote: "Zones that used to be parking areas in the 1990s are now underwater." Also threatened: The beach itself. Read more Daily Climate. (Via Brendon Slotterback)

How Smokey Bear creates forest fires

By now, many of you are probably aware that human behavior is one of the key factors behind some of the massive forest fires we've seen in recent years. The basic story goes like this: Under a natural cycle, periodic small fires sweep through forests, burning through small trees and dry brush. But if you prevent those fires from happening—as humans have done for around a century at this point—all that highly flammable stuff builds up. In the end, you're left with a giant tinderbox of a forest. The next time a fire does happen there, it's almost guaranteed to be much, much bigger and more destructive than the natural fires that forest is adapted to.

NPR has a very nice story about the science and history behind this problem, which forest fire experts call "The Smokey Bear Effect", after the cartoon Ursus the U.S. Forest Service has long used as part of its fire prevention campaign.

Its ill-advised fire prevention campaign.

And it was the experts who approved the all-out ban on fires in the Southwest. They got it wrong. That's the view of fire historian Stephen Pyne.

"The irony here is that the argument for setting these areas aside as national forests and parks was, to a large extent, to protect them from fire," Pyne says. "Instead, over time they became the major habitat for free-burning fire."

So instead of a few dozen trees per acre, the Southwestern mountains of New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado and Utah are now choked with trees of all sizes, and grass and shrubs. Essentially, it's fuel.

Over the past several years, even as fewer fires have struck the Southwest, they've burned more land. The U.S. Forest Service now spends about half its budget on firefighting.

It's worth noting that this is also a great example of why it's difficult to attribute specific events to global climate change. Increasingly hot, dry summers have certainly been a factor in creating the forest fires we've seen over the last few years. The last decade has been the hottest on record, and that has consequences. But it's not the only thing going on here. Climate change doesn't happen in a vacuum. Its effects interact with the effects of other decisions we make (and other natural events that happen to be taking place). So it's not enough to say what climate change will do. In order to make accurate predictions of risk, we have to think about the bigger picture and how climate change fits into it.

Read (or listen to) the rest of the story at NPR's website

Via Finn Ryan

Image: Forest Fire, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from wandrus's photostream

Climate science, climate change, and denial

CONvergence, Minneapolis' great big science fiction and fantasy convention, also has a whole series of panels based on hard science—Skepchickcon. This year, I was invited to speak on a few of the panels, including two that dealt with climate science. The best bits of those panels—"The Chilling Effects of Denialism,” and “Who Will Save the Polar Bears"—have been edited up and published online as this week's Skeptically Speaking podcast. Besides myself, the panels included engineering professor John Abraham, science advocate and writer Shawn Otto, and biological anthropologist Greg Laden. We had some great conversations! Take a listen.

The leaning houses of Dawson City

This photo, taken by Kulvir Gil, shows a pair of houses in Dawson City, Yukon Territories, Canada.

Dawson City exists in a subarctic climate, the sort of place with a lot of permafrost—soil that remains frozen year round. In order for permafrost to happen, the mean annual temperature has to be colder than 0 degrees Celsius (32 degrees Fahrenheit). But, in Dawson City, as in other parts of the Arctic, climate change has brought with it warmer mean temperatures. That means melting permafrost, a problem that affects the structural integrity of buildings built on the once-solid ground.

Evidence of melting permafrost in the central Yukon comes from Ottawa's Carleton University. The school's geography department has been studying the issue for 20 years. Its research shows the ground temperature in and around Dawson is increasing dramatically. That melts the permafrost and destabilizes the ground supporting the critical infrastructure.

Northern Climate Exchange co-ordinator John Streiker says things will probably get worse for Dawson before they get better. "All of your infrastructure, anything that's buried – foundations of buildings, even road beds, things like that – they all push up and down," says Streiker.

Read the rest of this CBC radio transcript about permafrost melting in Dawson City.

The photo above comes from Canada's Climate Change, a Facebook page highlighting real-world examples of Canada's changing climate.

Thanks Rees Kassen!

What is climate change ruining today?

Chocolate and high school football are being affected by climate change, according to two stories published on the Scientific American website yesterday. In the case of chocolate, the cocoa its made from is grown in several countries in West Africa, a region heavily affected by higher temperatures and extreme weather patterns. By 2020, there will likely be a 1.5 million ton shortage in cocoa production. As for football, the problem is the fact that, across the United States, cool weather season is kicking in later in the year than it used to. That affects football practice. Specifically, schools are increasingly concerned about the health risks of forcing high school students to get really physical, while fully suited and padded, in today's warmer Augusts and Septembers. So I think it's safe to say that climate change hates fun. It's a fun-hater.

Where extreme weather and infrastructure meet, bad things happen

I just posted the first part of a two-part feature about America's electric grid and the risk of blackouts. If this is something you're interested in, though, there's a New York Times piece from last week that you should really read.

When we lose our access to electricity, there's usually more than one thing that went wrong. But, one of the common things that does go wrong, especially in recent years, is extreme weather. The way the grid was built, and the way we manage it, was set up with predictable weather and climate norms in mind. When those things start to drastically shift—as we've seen over the last 10 years—the grid becomes vulnerable.

And electricity isn't the only infrastructure affected.

On a single day this month here, a US Airways regional jet became stuck in asphalt that had softened in 100-degree temperatures, and a subway train derailed after the heat stretched the track so far that it kinked — inserting a sharp angle into a stretch that was supposed to be straight. In East Texas, heat and drought have had a startling effect on the clay-rich soils under highways, which “just shrink like crazy,” leading to “horrendous cracking,” said Tom Scullion, senior research engineer with the Texas Transportation Institute at Texas A&M University. In Northeastern and Midwestern states, he said, unusually high heat is causing highway sections to expand beyond their design limits, press against each other and “pop up,” creating jarring and even hazardous speed bumps.

The frequency of extreme weather is up over the past few years, and people who deal with infrastructure expect that to continue. Leading climate models suggest that weather-sensitive parts of the infrastructure will be seeing many more extreme episodes, along with shifts in weather patterns and rising maximum (and minimum) temperatures.

“We’ve got the ‘storm of the century’ every year now,” said Bill Gausman, a senior vice president and a 38-year veteran at the Potomac Electric Power Company, which took eight days to recover from the June 29 “derecho” storm that raced from the Midwest to the Eastern Seaboard and knocked out power for 4.3 million people in 10 states and the District of Columbia.

This story, by Matthew L. Wald and John Schwartz, will give you a great overview of the risks we're facing—and the high prices we're paying—as "the norm" becomes an old-fashioned concept.

Read the rest of Wald and Schwartz's story in the New York Times

TOM THE DANCING BUG: What Will Be the Biggest Political Story of 2032?

FOLLOW @RubenBolling on Twitter.

Further: JOIN Tom the Dancing Bug’s proud and mighty INNER HIVE to support the comic and receive untold BENEFITS and PRIVILEGES!

Read the rest

Climate change numbers revealed and explained

Writing in Rolling Stone, Bill McKibben brings us global warming's "new math," a collection of scary stats about the record-setting shifts in the world's climate, from the hottest rainfall ever recording (109' F in Mecca) to the record-breaking increase in the number of broken records in worldwide weather. McKibben's second set of numbers are the financial numbers -- companies borrowing against fossil hydrocarbons that are still in the ground, effectively incurring an obligation to dig them up and burn them -- that explain why no one is doing anything about the first set.

June broke or tied 3,215 high-temperature records across the United States. That followed the warmest May on record for the Northern Hemisphere – the 327th consecutive month in which the temperature of the entire globe exceeded the 20th-century average, the odds of which occurring by simple chance were 3.7 x 10-99, a number considerably larger than the number of stars in the universe.

Meteorologists reported that this spring was the warmest ever recorded for our nation – in fact, it crushed the old record by so much that it represented the "largest temperature departure from average of any season on record." The same week, Saudi authorities reported that it had rained in Mecca despite a temperature of 109 degrees, the hottest downpour in the planet's history.

Not that our leaders seemed to notice. Last month the world's nations, meeting in Rio for the 20th-anniversary reprise of a massive 1992 environmental summit, accomplished nothing. Unlike George H.W. Bush, who flew in for the first conclave, Barack Obama didn't even attend. It was "a ghost of the glad, confident meeting 20 years ago," the British journalist George Monbiot wrote; no one paid it much attention, footsteps echoing through the halls "once thronged by multitudes." Since I wrote one of the first books for a general audience about global warming way back in 1989, and since I've spent the intervening decades working ineffectively to slow that warming, I can say with some confidence that we're losing the fight, badly and quickly – losing it because, most of all, we remain in denial about the peril that human civilization is in.

Global Warming's Terrifying New Math (via 3 Quarks Daily)

(Image: Climate change rally on Parliament Hill, a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike (2.0) image from peterblanchard's photostream)

How to make corn more sustainable? Grow less of it.

I wrote a story about the future of crop science that's printed in the June issue of Popular Science. When I was doing the research, the big question I wanted to ask was this: "How can we take the most important agricultural crops and make them more sustainable and adapted to climate change?"

I suppose there are a lot of ways to define "most important", but I went with the crops that feed the most people. Wheat, rice, and corn account for more than 50% of all the calories consumed on Earth. So those are the plants I looked at. And that's where I ran into a surprise. Scientists had some really interesting, concrete suggestions for how to prepare wheat and rice for a changing world. But with corn, they took a different tack. Basically, the scientists said the best thing to do with corn was use less corn.

Large yields and high calorie content have made corn the most popular and most heavily subsidized crop in America. That’s an increasingly urgent problem. In 2010, corn production consumed nine million tons of fertilizer and led to greenhouse-gas emissions equivalent to 42 million tons of CO2—and corn isn’t even something we can easily eat. “The digestibility of unprocessed corn to humans isn’t very high,” says Jerry Hatfield, a plant physiologist with the USDA. “We have to put it through processing of some sort, whether that happens in a factory or an animal.” Set those problems aside, and a deal-breaker remains: modern corn is more sensitive to heat than any other major crop, and attempts to create drought- and heat-resistant corn through genetic modification are still unproven. A recent study found that a 3.6°F increase in global temperatures could make corn prices twice as volatile.

All of which is why many experts advocate replacing corn with a portfolio of hardier, more nutritious and more efficient food sources. Wheat production generates less than half the fossil-fuel emissions of corn and returns 63 percent more protein. Other crops actually give back to the land. Chickpeas and peanuts contain twice as much protein as corn, and they increase the nutrient content of soil.

Read about the other suggestions for adapting major food crops to climate change.

Image via WATTAgNet

Just how hot is it in the US right now?

Mark Memmott at NPR's "The Two Way" blog digs in to statistics and maps from the National Climatic Data Center to illustrate exactly how fucking hot it is in hundreds of cities around the US, as a record-setting heatwave continues. I found the data a little confusing, so I 'shooped up a "For Dummies" version for you all, above. But do read the whole post from Mark here. (via Dave Pell's NextDraft)

Monster storms and aging power grids nix many July 4th festivities in Eastern US

Storm damage and high temperatures have left 1.3 million homes and businesses in the eastern United States without power since Friday. At least 23 people have been killed, some crushed by falling trees, others from heatstroke. From Illinois to Virginia, "Many Fourth of July celebrations were canceled as local governments confronted damage from the hurricane-force winds and high heat and drought conditions that made firework shows risky." There's an intense image comparison here at the NASA website, showing before/after satellite images that reveal massive blackouts in DC, Richmond, and other cities affected by the "derecho" storms.

Beautiful watercolor notes from the Aspen Environmental Forums

I've been live-tweeting today from the Aspen Environmental Forums. But in a session this morning, I noticed that my friend Rachel Weidinger—director for the ocean advocacy group Upwell—had a far niftier way of taking notes and communicating what she was learning. While I opened up my iPad, Rachel opened up a full set of watercolor paints.

What she produced was something more akin to illuminated manuscripts than paintings—collections of short quotes and key ideas, done up in vibrant colors and surrounded by thematic doodles. It's great stuff, and a really interesting way to process and present information.

Rachel was kind enough to let me post her notes here. This page comes from the panel we attended this morning, all about climate change and the long-term impacts those changes are likely to have on regional weather. Check out more of her illuminated notes at Flickr.

Science Tales: short comic stories about science, skepticism, evidence and woo

Darryl Cunningham's Science Tales is a fantastic nonfiction comic book about science, skepticism and denial. Divided into short chapters with simple layouts and graphics, Cunningham's book looks into belief in chiropractic and homeopathy; denial of moon landings, climate change and evolution, the anti-vaccination movement, and related subjects. It concludes with a tremendous piece on the forces that give rise to anti-scientific/anti-evidence movements, which Cunningham attributes to the deadly cocktail of cynical corporate media-manipulation and humanity's built-in cognitive blind-spots.

Cunningham has a real gift for making complex subjects simple. If you're a Mythbusters fan, admire James Randi, enjoyed Ben Goldacre's Bad Science, and care about climate change, you'll enjoy this one. More to the point, if you're trying to discuss these subjects with smart but misguided friends and loved ones, this book might hold the key to real dialogue.

To get a taste of Science Tales, click through below for the first five pages of the MMR story, courtesy of publishers Myriad Editions.

Science Tales

Read the rest

Art about climate, sustainability, and risk

Science is about facts. But how you convey those facts matters almost as much as the facts themselves. After all, if people can't understand what you're talking about enough to apply the information, it doesn't really matter much how good your data is. This is particularly true when you're talking about stuff like climate change. If you can't connect with people in a visceral, emotional way, will they remember or listen to what you're trying to tell them?

Science journalist Eli Kintisch is trying to address that problem by using public art to help people better understand the science and the risks surround climate change. Earlier this year, he organized To Extremes, a contest and exhibition of proposals for large-scale public art projects centered around the theme of climate science.

If you're in the Boston area, you can check out the proposals at an exhibition that runs April 20th through April 29th in MIT's Maseeh Hall dormitory. There's an official reception for the even April 23rd at 7:00 pm.

The image above comes from the winning proposal submitted by UK artist Sam Jury. Called "All Things Being Equal" it involves a series of commissioned films about the personal impacts of extreme climate events. The videos are paired with an algorithm that chooses which clips to play based on real-time weather data from around the globe. Plans are currently underway to install "All Things Being Equal" at a public site.

Get more information on the To Extremes exhibition and upcoming events.

The war at home: Energy crisis and risk in America

Here are two myths you need to let go of:

The solution to high gas prices is more oil.

Climate change is something that happens to polar bears and people from Kiribati.

The truth is that fossil fuels are extremely useful and valuable. And, by their very nature, the supplies are limited. Likewise, climate change isn't just something that's going happen—it's already taking place, and you can see the effects in your own backyard.

Too often, I think, we talk about the risks of fossil fuel dependence and climate change in ways that make them seem abstract to the very people who use the most fossil fuels and create the most greenhouse gases. That's a problem. There are lots of reasons to care about energy. But I think that fossil fuel limits and climate change are the most pressing reasons. And I think it's incredibly important to discuss those very real risks in a way that actually feels very real.

This isn't about morality, or lifestyle choices, or maintaining populations of cute, fuzzy animals. (Or, rather, it's not just about those things.) Instead, we have to consider what will happen to us and how much money we will have to spend if we choose to do nothing to change the way we make and use energy.

Over at Scientific American, you can read an excerpt from my upcoming book, Before the Lights Go Out. In it, you'll read about the energy risks hanging over the Kansas City metro area—a place that, in many ways, resembles the places and lifestyles shared by a majority of Americans. You've probably never been to Merriam, Kansas. But you can look at Merriam and see what could happen in your hometown.

Merriam isn't a small town. There's nothing really recognizable as a small town central business district. Instead, Merriam's stores and offices are mostly concentrated along two major thoroughfares—Shawnee Mission Parkway and Johnson Drive. These wide, multilane roads are dotted with clusters of shopping centers and big box stores, like necklaces strung with fat pearls. The municipal building and the police station are a couple of nondescript offices that sit off the frontage of Shawnee Mission Parkway, on a ridge overlooking the Interstate. Nothing about that says, "Classic Americana."

Yet Merriam isn't a suburb, either—or an urban city. It's too dense to be the first and not dense enough to be the latter. Merriam has a mixture of house styles. Drive down one street, and you'll see a 1930s bungalow standing shoulder to shoulder with a spare little 1950s Cape Cod. Next to that, there's a 1980s split-level with windows on the front and the back but none on the sides. More than three generations of the American Dream are living here.

It's ironic that Merriam doesn't really fit any of the classic American paradigms, because, quite frankly, most of us have already left those paradigms behind. We talk about this country as if it's full of neatly defined small towns, big cities, and tidy suburbs. In reality, the places where we live are lot mushier than that. Merriam isn't the exception. Merriam is the rule.

Read the rest of this excerpt from Before the Lights Go Out at Scientific American.

Image: Kansas City Photos, a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike (2.0) image from publicworksgroup's photostream