Science·What on Earth?

How to build a wind turbine for cities

In this week's issue of our environment newsletter, we look at a prize-winning design for a new wind turbine, and what climate change skeptics are thinking.

Also: The psychology of climate change skepticism

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(Sködt McNalty/CBC)

Hello, Earthlings! This is our weekly newsletter on all things environmental, where we highlight trends and solutions that are moving us to a more sustainable world. (Sign up here to get it in your inbox every Thursday.)

This week:

  • The psychology of doubting climate change
  • Building a better wind turbine
  • Canadians have opinions about carbon taxes
  • Sofa so good: Saving furniture from the scrap heap

What makes someone a climate change skeptic?

(AFP/Getty Images)

In August, residents of Redding, Calif., battled a wildfire that had consumed more than 40,000 hectares of forest and threatened more than 5,000 buildings. Scientists acknowledged that climate change had likely contributed to the size of the fire and others like it.

And yet, amid the smouldering ruins, there were some who disagreed.

Fast-forward to September, when Hurricane Michael pummelled the Carolinas. The torrential rainfall seemed to change the minds of some who had previously doubted climate change was happening there.

How is it that when a natural disaster lands on people's doorsteps, some see it as evidence of climate change while others find it unconvincing?

Psychologists say there are a number of factors at play.

For one, climate change can challenge someone's world view, which becomes uncomfortable and possibly inconvenient if acknowledged as true. Then there are political agendas to consider — for example, some people who publicly doubt climate change may be doing so because they feel taking action could mean economic hardship.

And frankly, there is a lot of misinformation out there.

Part of the problem may be how information about climate change is disseminated. Matto Mildenberger, an assistant professor of political science at the University of California, Santa Barbara, said that often, it's about who we trust as "the messenger."

He said that even with a scientific issue like climate change, we might disregard a scientist and side with someone who we "feel the most closest, personal affinity to … [someone] who is sort of part of my group or my tribe."

Climate change has been a politically divisive issue. Mildenberger, a Canadian who contributes to Yale University's Program on Climate Change Communication, said that what might be most effective in convincing doubters is to identify leaders who are actively taking pro-climate positions.

Trusted individuals "need to be climate advocates and climate messengers to their communities," said Mildenberger. "That might be the most powerful way to change the hearts and minds, [more] than any substantive scientific message at this point."

Another consideration is the "information deficit" about what is causing global warming. That's something Michael Ranney is trying to change.

Ranney, who teaches in the University of California, Berkeley's Department of Psychology, has created a website called "How Global Warming Works." Aware of people's short attention spans, it offers five videos of differing length — the longest is five minutes, the shortest 52 seconds — that summarize the science of Earth's warming climate.

Ranney's research found that learning the mechanisms is key. The result? Ranney said people who visited the site "almost tripled their understanding of the mechanisms of global warming, and that increased their acceptance of global warming."

Nicole Mortillaro

Canadian youth @ global climate conference

There's a big climate conference next week in Katowice, Poland. COP24 (short for the 24th Session of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) will bring together leaders from around the world to discuss the next steps in protecting the planet.

The 2015 version (COP21) produced the Paris Agreement, in which more than 190 countries agreed to efforts to limit global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.

One of the COP24 attendees will be Marina Melanidis, a 23-year-old Canadian studying natural resources conservation at the University of British Columbia. Melanidis will be there as part of a B.C. youth delegation and will write a couple of pieces for this newsletter on the experience. Stay tuned.

Harvesting the changing winds

(James Dyson Awards)

Most of us can't generate our own green energy. If you live in a highrise apartment building, for example, it may seem impossible — not to mention frustrating, because there's often a heck of a lot of wind up there.

Well, city dwellers, a wind turbine designed just for you might be on the way.

Earlier this month, University of Lancaster students Nicolas Orellana, above, right, and Yaseen Noorani, left, won the 2018 International James Dyson Award for an invention called the O-Wind turbine.

It's nothing like the giant, three-bladed turbines planted atop multi-storey poles on rural wind farms. Those are designed to harvest wind travelling parallel to the ground across wide open spaces, making them unsuitable for cities.

They have a number of other drawbacks and limitations, too. The bigger the blades are, the louder the swooshing noises they generate, which irritates neighbours. And they can also pose a hazard to birds and bats.

Technology is being developed to mitigate those issues, but having alternative designs is probably not a bad idea.

The current prototype of the O-Wind is about the size of a soccer ball and features lots of convex triangles, with vents on different sides at different angles, allowing it to harvest wind from any direction. Orellana said it was inspired by NASA's wind-powered Mars Tumbleweed Rover concept.

In a video for the James Dyson Foundation, Noorani said that in cities, "the wind tends to travel in a very, very chaotic manner." Tall structures, especially clusters of them, funnel winds between them. When wind hits the side of a building, it's forced up and down, boosting horizontal wind speeds at ground level and generating vertical wind as well.

The O-Wind is designed to capture those varied winds.

The device is still in the early stages of development. Its inventors haven't figured out the optimal size or materials for it, so it's a bit early to discuss how much energy a single O-Wind could produce. But Orellana and Noorani envision it being installed on balconies and the sides of buildings.

That might fit nicely with Concordia University Prof. Ted Stathopoulos's ideas for exploiting wind power in cities. The key, he thinks, is incorporating turbines into architectural plans before buildings go up. Not only would that be more practical, but he also thinks it would likely look better.

So far, his calculations show that the amount of power that could be generated in urban areas is low, but Stathopoulos thinks it could increase with more research and better technology.

Like O-Wind, perhaps?

Emily Chung

The Big Picture: Canadian opinions on a carbon tax

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said that in 2019, any province that has not implemented some sort of carbon pricing system will be subject to a federal "backstop" of a carbon tax on various fuels. This measure would affect the provinces of Ontario, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and New Brunswick. Not surprisingly, those governments have emerged as vehement critics. The Angus Reid Institute polled Canadians on their attitudes to a carbon tax and found they had changed after Trudeau's announcement in October that consumers would receive rebate cheques for participating in the carbon pricing plan.


Hot and bothered: Provocative ideas from around the web

  • Food waste is a travesty and a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, but some countries are having success fighting it. In a study of 34 countries, the Economist Intelligence Unit found France to be the champion in this arena. France bans supermarkets from tossing unsold food and loses less than two per cent of its total annual food production.

  • Wanna see some spooky-looking fish? This New York Times feature details the Ocean Twilight Zone, a project documenting the organisms living 200 metres to 1,000 metres below the water's surface. Scientists say learning more about species like the Sloane's viperfish, bristlemouth and silver hatchetfish will help make the oceans more sustainable.

  • Following the lead of some American youngsters, a Quebec group called Environnement Jeunesse is taking the Canadian government to court over climate change. The lawsuit, which is being brought on behalf of about 3.5 million Quebecers aged 35 and younger, argues that by failing to address climate change, the government is violating the rights of young people.

  • While a number of sports teams are utilizing green energy in their facilities, English football club Arsenal is more ambitious. They've installed a large-scale battery at their London home, Emirates Stadium. The setup is meant to draw on (mostly) renewable energy, and is reportedly capable of powering the 60,000-seat facility for an entire game.

How companies are giving used furniture a second life


Composting food waste, ditching bottled water and driving less are some useful ways of reducing your carbon footprint at home. But for many, a major gap happens the moment we show up at the place we spend eight (or more) hours a day: the office.

People don't tend to think about the environmental impact of the modern workspace, but research suggests a typical cubicle space is made up of up to 700 pounds of single-use materials just waiting to be thrown out.

Toronto-based company Green Standards works with companies to squeeze as much life as possible out of all those unwanted desks, chairs and ceiling tiles.

The company says that since 2011, it has diverted 36 million kilograms of discarded office equipment and turned it into $24 million US worth of donations to charitable community groups, which are more than happy to take them.

Green Standards president Trevor Langdon said that for less than the cost of hiring a waste removal company, his firm is able to work with companies to help save the planet — and make a little green in the process.

"Calling a company to throw out your furniture in the landfill is not free or cheap," he said. But his company is able to turn what used to be an expensive hassle into an average tax deductible donation of $7,000 to a charity badly in need.

Green Standards isn't the only organization trying to squeeze a little more life out of all those squeaky desk chairs.

Ikea recently launched a program in Canada that lets consumers return their gently used items to the store in exchange for credit. The furniture giant then takes the item and resells it for half price in its "as is" section to customers glad to buy at a discount.

It's early days yet, but so far, the response from shoppers has been positive. "It keeps things out of the dumpster," shopper Marie Forest told CBC while perusing some used tables at a Toronto-area store. "If [the furniture] doesn't show its wear and tear, why not?"

Indeed. Considering the ubiquity of the chain's products over the years, the program makes sense. And it could be a major step towards a sustainable corporate future — one Ektorp sofa at a time.

Pete Evans

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Editor: Andre Mayer | Logo design: Sködt McNalty


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