Al Weed talks about climate change

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By John Barnhart

Bedford’s city and county Democratic committees heard from Al Weed at a joint meeting meeting earlier this month. Weed, representing Public Policy Virginia, was in town to talk about global warming.

    Weed, who owns and operates Mountain Cove Vineyards in Nelson County, has a BA from Yale in Latin American studies and a master’s in economic development and political modernization  from Princeton. His work, prior to starting his vineyard, included a stint with the World Bank. He ran twice, unsuccessfully, as the Democratic Party’s candidate for the 5th Congressional District seat. Weed currently serves as executive director of Public Policy Virginia.

    According to a brochure produced by  Public Policy Virginia, it is a 501(c) 3 non-profit dedicated to changing Virginia’s energy culture. Its issue is climate change and its goal is to educate and influence citizens, administrators and elected officials on this issue. As part of its effort, the organization provides speakers who make presentations and that’s what brought Weed to Bedford.

    Weed spoke about climate change and how people can get involved in changing public policy.

    According to Weed, scientists say that carbon dioxide (CO2) concentrations above 350 parts per million (ppm) bring global warming to a tipping point. They have already reached 385 ppm.

    “This is a serious challenge,” Weed said.

    Weed said that the trend is toward a warmer climate. The six of the top 10 hottest years have occurred since the 1990s.

    According to Weed, CO2 is responsible for this because the atmosphere acts as a blanket, keeping the heat produced from solar radiation hitting the earth from all radiating back out into space. Without this blanket, the earth would be lifeless. He said that CO2 increases the thickness of this blanket, trapping more heat.

    He said that natural sources of CO2 form a closed loop. Living plants take it out of the air and dead plants release it. Burning coal, oil and natural gas for fuel create an open loop. Burning these fuels, referred to as fossil fuels, release CO2 that has been stored for millions of years. Burning these fuels form an open CO2 loop where the gas accumulates in the atmosphere.

    Weed noted that methane is also a “greenhouse gas,” 22 times more potent than CO2. Methane, however, is less of a problem because it persists in the atmosphere for a short time, compared with CO2.

    According to Weed, a warmer climate creates problems. Warm air raises sea temperatures, which causes seas to expand, raising sea level.

    “What we don’t know is how far and how fast,” he said.

    Another impact that global warming has on rising sea levels is melting glaciers, he said. Weed said that Greenland’s icecap represents 8 percent of the world’s fresh water, and it’s melting. Greenland’s icecap, melted, would produce a volume of water equal to what the Gulf of Mexico holds.

    Weed said that a sea level rise of 1 meter will flood coastal cities, including large portions of Hampton. A rising sea level also makes coastlines more vulnerable because it creates new coastline that lacks the protective dunes that built up on existing coastlines over centuries, he said.

    A warmer climate also means more storm damage. Weed said that there is no agreement about whether there are more hurricanes because of global warming, but it is making them more intense. He said that there is a close correlation between the intensity of hurricanes and the rise of sea temperatures.

    Other problems caused by global warming are droughts, rain that comes in gully washers that run off, rather than replenish the water table and a lack of snow. Water from snow, Weed said, tends to soak into the ground rather than run off when the snow melts. Global warming means a northward movement of climate zones and winters that are not cold enough to kill off insect pests.

    According to Weed, 45,000 acres of Virginia farmland goes out of rural use yearly, and he attributes this to climate change. He said that this land would produce enough ethanol to replace 2 percent of the fuel used in the Commonwealth every year.

    Weed said that it is possible to build a new economy that does not depend on burning fossil fuels. The problem is getting political leaders to go along with this.

    He said that one step state and federal political leaders can take is to require electric utilities to get a certain percentage of their power from renewable sources. This percentage must be steadily expanded, he said, adding that Virginia currently has a voluntary program, but this must be made mandatory.

    Weed said that government must also use carbon pricing to create an incentive to move away from fossil fuels and toward alternate energy sources. He prefers a carbon tax on fuels rather than a cap and trade system. He said cap and trade is inefficient, non-transparent and would require a new bureaucracy.

    The carbon tax would be levied at the source, or the point where the fuel is imported. In order to  achieve the necessary reduction in CO2 emissions, Weed said that it would take a tax of $50 per ton on the amount of CO2 burning a fuel will produce. This would require a $100-per-ton tax on coal. The tax on gasoline, according to Weed, would be less than $1-per-gallon.

    Along with seeking renewable sources for electricity and a carbon tax, Weed’s organization is looking for ways to use biomass for fuel. He said that Virginia has limited areas where windmill farms could be set up and solar power has limited potential and the Commonwealth has no major geothermal potential. There is, however, a lot of potential for using biomass, primarily wood waste and agricultural waste in Virginia, he said, adding that Virginia farms could also plant warm season grass such as switchgrass. This could be used for animal forage as well as biomass fuel. Weed said that this can already be used as boiler fuel. It will create a market for this material, which means that feed stock will be available for ethanol plants once commercial cellulosic ethanol becomes feasible. He doesn’t like corn based ethanol, which he said is unsustainable.

    Weed had material available for people who want to take action on his ideas. He handed out cards addressed to Senator Jim Webb that people could sign and mail asking him to support federal renewable source standards for utilities, a federal carbon tax and federal spending on a national power grid that can take renewable source energy, such as from wind farms, to locations where it will be needed. He also had cards, unaddressed, that people could address, sign and mail to state representatives. This call for Virginia’s voluntary renewable source program to be turned into a mandate. It urges greater use of biomass. It also asks that a provision that allows a power company to eliminate competition if the company offers a green energy option.

    A sheet with 52 action suggestions for individuals was also available. Among them, it suggests finding out where candidates for elective office stand on climate change and what they intend to do about it. It suggests walking, biking or using public transportation to get to work and installing compact fluorescent lights or LED lighting at home. If you are building a house, it suggests building as green a house as you can afford and references www.energysavers.gov and www.greenhomeguide.com as Web sites offering help.

    For more information about Public Policy Virginia, go to its Web site at www.ppvir.org.