Signs of Sustainability

We have a long way to go, but we're making progress. Here are some signs that we are moving towards sustainability.

September 15, 2014

Taking Ownership of Climate Change

Tompkins Weekly 9-15-14

By Wendy Skinner

In the September 1 “Signs of Sustainability” column, Richard W. Franke summarized long-term and continuing evidence of global climate change from a broad range of scientific and technological disciplines. Dr. Franke listed key studies that support the reality of what is happening to our planet. It was an article to be clipped and folded into one’s wallet for future rereading.

Faced with the immediacy of climate change and its consequences, it would seem that, aside from running screaming into the night, we should be vigorously pursuing ways to save our planet. A significant barrier to seeking remedies is not the veracity of scientific evidence, but whether people believe in it.

According to a recently updated report from the Brookings Institution, Americans’ acceptance of the reality of global climate change dropped from 72 percent in 2007 to 55 percent in April 2014. The researchers found that the cold winter of 2013-14 influenced people’s beliefs. This cognitive gap between macro- and micro-observations may be one reason many Americans have been slow to react to the threats of climate change.

An Associated Press poll from earlier this year indicated that people tend to believe in what they can perceive, such as a traditionally cold winter, and to doubt concepts that are further from their experience. Other studies show that somewhere between half to three-quarters of Americans accept the reality of climate change. A prickling question remains, however: Who cares?

A graph with a disturbing dip was published in Scientific American this past Spring. First the good news: In an assessment of 21 different surveys of 200,000 people in 44 states, SciAm reported remarkable agreement across political and geographic sectors. While the numbers were lowest in Utah and highest in Rhode Island, the majority of those polled agreed that climate change is happening and that human actions are part of the cause. A majority also favored government-imposed limits on greenhouse gas emissions.

The thorn in this rosy picture is that a mere 3 to 15 percent responded that they consider global climate change to be “extremely important” to them personally. Other studies show that many people, among them political leaders, don’t relate climate change to anything that will affect them in their lifetimes—although about one-third of us say we “worry” about climate change.

A challenge for the sustainability leadership is how to move the populace to embrace personal involvement and responsibility. What will inspire individuals to feel more personally involved and to do more than worry?

A Yale University study labeled Americans’ attitudes toward climate change as Alarmed, Concerned, Cautious, Doubtful, Disengaged, and Dismissive. Of the people in these groups, about a third said they had all the information they needed to form their beliefs. The Yale study also asked participants about their emotional responses to climate change. Words that came up most often from the alarmed and concerned were afraid, angry, sad, disgusted, helpless, and interestingly, hopeful. The dismissive group also used the words disgusted and angry, although probably for different reasons.

Polls and studies are arguably flawed, but based on this sampling from reputable sources, a reasonable conclusion is that while we increasingly know and believe the facts about global climate change, we are reluctant to take ownership.

Wendy Skinner is the director of SewGreen, a not-for-profit reuse, sewing education, and youth jobs program in Ithaca NY.











September 8, 2014

Heating with Wood Pays Dividends

Tompkins Weekly 9-8-14

By Guillermo Metz

Looking out the window, it’s 80 and sunny. But night-time temperatures all summer have periodically dipped into the 50s. Even if there’s no proven relationship between the two, I shudder to think what that means for the coming winter.

With summer, they say it’s not the heat, it’s the humidity. With winter, it’s not just the cold but the cost of keeping warm. Last winter was a long, cold one that caught many people off-guard. Particularly for those heating with propane or oil, the high costs of heating put an unexpected dent in many residents’ budgets. But it’s never too late to do something about it.

A winning combination is to make your home as energy-efficient as possible and then heat it with a pellet stove. Typically thought of as a space heater, homeowners around the county have shown that you can heat most of your home most of the year (or all of it) with a pellet stove, as long as the home is energy efficient. For most homes, that means increasing the insulation and air-tightness. Having an energy audit performed is the first step to finding out how energy efficient your home is, and in making it more energy efficient. Energy audits are still free for NYS residents making less than 200% of the median area income. You can find more information at

A significant issue with any wood-burning device is making sure emissions are kept at a minimum. By design, most pellet stoves have lower emissions than wood stoves, and reaching their designed emissions and efficiencies is much easier, since you’re using a much more standardized fuel.

Cornell Cooperative Extension of Tompkins County was going to run a wood stove to pellet stove changeout program aimed at retiring old, inefficient wood stoves for cleaner-burning pellet stoves. Instead, working with agencies at the state level, we are supporting a state-run initiative that aims to do the same thing, with an even bigger rebate. Renewable Heat NY is now offering $1000 rebates for changing out your old wood stove for a pellet stove. You can find more information at In an attempt to help lower-income homeowners with their heating bills, there is also an income-eligible option for homeowners who are heating with propane or oil but who do not have an old wood stove to turn in. And you don’t even have to be the homeowner to apply: if you’re renting a home with an old wood stove, you can (with your landlord’s permission) change it in for a pellet stove and receive the rebate.

At CCETC, we’re also going after some of the worst offenders: outdoor wood boilers. We’re piloting an outdoor wood boiler to pellet boiler changeout program aimed at replacing five OWBs with pellet boilers, with a rebate of $4000 each. Renewable Heat NY will add an OWB changeout to its program in 2015, with homeowners being able to upgrade to two-stage gasification, high-efficiency wood boilers (for an estimated rebate of $3500) or to an advanced pellet boiler (for an estimated rebate of $4500).

Homeowners new to pellets often ask about where the pellets come from and if demand can be met if significantly more people turn to heating with pellets. Most pellets are made almost exclusively from waste wood from sawmills, and though there have been periodic shortages the past few years, there is plenty of local wood to support a growing industry. Last winter was cold. Really cold, much of the time. No one anticipated that, which meant shortages for all kinds of fuels, including pellets. This year, pellet mills are ready. And as the market for pellets grows, the supply side will become even more secure.

Another program we are working on is bringing bulk pellet delivery to the Southern Tier. This will provide homeowners with a scenario much like liquid heating fuels. Someone can deliver pellets to your home on a schedule and put them into a container much like an oil or propane tank. From there, you can use a pail to transfer pellets to the pellet stove. No more picking up one-ton pallets or lugging 40-pound bags.

Perhaps more importantly, bulk delivery will enable larger end-users, from homes to large commercial entities, to heat with fully automated pellet boilers. These very clean-burning, highly efficient appliances can be fed pellets automatically through pneumatic or augured systems so that the end-user doesn’t have to do more than empty the ash pan, often as little as once a month.

Properly used, wood stoves are also a good option for heating, especially if you have a ready supply of wood. But if your wood stove is more than 20 years old, it’s time to upgrade to a newer one. And no matter what vintage your stove, always make sure you don’t burn anything other than clean, dry wood, and a little bit of newspaper to start the fire.

Whether you’ve been heating with wood or wood pellets your whole life or are considering it for the first time, sign up now for our next Learn to Burn workshop, September 10, 6-8pm. We’ll cover the Renewable Heat NY program, how to best buy and dry firewood, what to burn and what not to burn, and all the latest technologies, as well as basic tree identification and woodlot management. Call 272-2292 or e-mail me at to register (there is a sliding-scale $10 fee but no one will be turned away and everyone will be entered for a chance to win a moisture meter).

Guillermo Metz is Green Building and Renewable Energy Program coordinator at Cornell Cooperative Extension of Tompkins County.

September 2, 2014

Global Warming Theories Confirmed

Tompkins Weekly 9-1-14

By Richard W. Franke

“Is the Earth’s climate changing? The answer is unequivocally ‘Yes.’” So wrote the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in its 2001 Third Assessment Report. The IPCC’s 2001 report reflected an overwhelming scientific consensus that global warming was occurring and that human activities – in particular the release of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide (CO2), methane and nitrous oxide into the atmosphere – was a major cause. The Fourth and Fifth Assessment Reports have confirmed and elaborated the 2001 document.

The IPCC’s 2001 confirmation of human-induced global warming resulted from 142 years of scientific research. In 1859 the Irish physicist John Tyndall had discovered the “greenhouse effect” in which CO2 reflects certain wavelengths of solar heating back to earth. In 1895 the Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius noted that the smoke from industrial factories was likely to eventually warm the planet.

For the first half of the 20th century most geologists and others focused on trying to explain the onset and decline of ice ages. But in 1960 the American chemist Charles Keeling announced measurements showing that C02 in the atmosphere was increasing at a rate much faster than had been thought earlier. This returned interest to what Arrhenius had said at the beginning of the century about smoke from industrial stacks eventually warming earth. Over the next 41 years increasingly intense and elaborate scientific undertakings unfolded to test the possibility that human activities were changing the atmosphere and thus the planet’s climate.

Scientists made use of the amazing technologies coming out of labs and workshops around the world. Weather balloons, rockets and satellites made it possible to accumulate vast new tables of measurements across increasingly large stretches of the atmosphere. Computers – primitive and clunky at first – grew faster and smaller and made possible calculations that would not have been feasible without their digital circuits. Mathematicians discovered “chaos theory” which indirectly helped establish the possibility that small changes in some element of earth’s climate could bring about large effects – sometimes called the “butterfly effect,” referring to the idea that a butterfly flapping its wings in one area could cause movements that turn into a tornado several hundred miles away. Nuclear testing – in what might be its only positive contribution to the world – left behind numerous isotopes that provided scientists tracer atoms to follow how the oceans absorb heat. Through it all Keeling’s measurements of the steady march of CO2 levels provided an anchor that kept bringing the debates back towards greenhouse gases.

One of the most important new sources of data came from ice cores drilled in Greenland, Antarctica and in some glaciers. The drill at Vostok in Antarctica went down 3,623 meters (11,886 feet) revealing over 400,000 years of climate history. Vostok and other ice cores helped establish the close connection between CO2 levels and world average temperatures. Scientists learned that forest cover might play a significant role in regulating greenhouse emissions – a discovery of great importance today. They also learned about the massive movements of water in the giant ocean circulations and came by accident on the danger of the ozone hole and its connection to chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) used as propellants in some spray can products.

Another key was the development of climate modeling. After a slow start resulting from slow computers and limited data, modelers by the 1980s with better data were able to almost capture the climate in a set of mathematical equations. This allowed for the eventual predictions starting in the 1990s of the likely temperature effects of particular parts per million of CO2.

From 1960 to the ground breaking 2001 IPCC report hundreds of scientists wrote thousands of papers, attended hundreds of conferences, traipsed across deserts and ice caps, puzzled over equations that at first wouldn’t solve and engaged in all sorts of other knowledge enhancing activities. Many changed their minds several times about big issues but in the end about 97% of those most qualified in the field of climate science have joined the consensus reported by the IPCC.

Richard W. Franke writes about the history of sustainability. He is professor emeritus of anthropology at Montclair State University, a resident of Ecovillage at Ithaca and a board member of Sustainable Tompkins.


Kolbert, Elizabeth. 2006. Field Notes for a Catastrophe. New York: Bloomsbury Publishing.

Speart, Spencer R. 2003. The Discovery of Global Warming. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.