Tuesday, April 17, 2012 12:43 PM
Ever feel like your entire life is unsustainable? Sure, you recycle, maybe even compost or bike to work. But your student loans are out of control and you’re working overtime just to pay the bills and eat organic. Health care, vacation time, and retirement savings feel like pipe dreams. One misstep and the whole thing could unravel.
Mostly, you try to avoid asking “what if?” But you’re not the only one looking for answers. The creators of Global Teach-In believe that if we put our heads together, we can come up with a set of solutions for the economic, environmental, and energy crises. April 25th, in cities across the US (and a handful of cities worldwide), Global Teach-In will aim to inspire and empower everyday people to create change. Speakers including Bill McKibben of 350.org, Pamela Brown of the New School for Social Research, and Robert Pollin of the Political Economy Research Institute will start conversations on topics from alternative energy to corporate personhood, single payer health care to the student loan crises. For anyone waiting to get inspired and be part of the solution, it's an opportunity not to be missed.
Image: "Change" by Felix Burton, licensed under Creative Commons.
Tuesday, February 21, 2012 3:42 PM
What would it take to shape a planet on which people, other living things, and the systems that support us can sustainably coexist? For a special issue,
magazine invited experts from around the world to share their thoughts on how we might craft solutions to some of earth’s toughest challenges. Ben Jervey spoke with physicist Robert Socolow on what it would take to rein in greenhouse gas emissions and solve climate change.
What would it take to rein in greenhouse gas emissions and solve climate change?
The concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is about 40 percent higher today than it was 200 years ago. It’s going up principally because we are burning fossil fuels (coal, oil, and natural gas) and secondarily because we are cutting down forests. Fossil fuel energy represents 85 percent of the energy powering the world economy, and exchanging the current fossil fuel energy system for a low-carbon energy system won’t happen overnight. It could require a century or more if we fail to take climate change seriously. The current fossil energy system is a very strong competitor to any low-carbon energy system we will invent.
With all the talk about peak oil, it’s not surprising that people imagine that the fossil fuel era will come to an end soon, because we run out of fossil fuels. That’s not going to happen. What we will run out of is low-cost oil. But there are a lot of buried hydrocarbons in the form of lower quality reserves (coal, shale gas, shale oil, oil sands and others) that will keep the fossil energy system humming. So we are in a pickle. We will need policies that modify the current competition between high-carbon and low-carbon energy in favor of the latter. We will also need success in research, development, and deployment that lowers the cost of low-carbon energy.
You’ve expressed concerns about the current discussions of long-term climate targets.
The world’s diplomats and environmentalists have nearly universally endorsed a target that is extremely difficult to achieve. A consensus could develop—possibly quite soon—that the very difficult goal will not be attained. It would be desirable to prepare now to discuss some relatively less difficult goal that nonetheless requires, starting immediately, major national commitments and international coordination. We will greatly increase the likely damage from climate change if not achieving the current extremely difficult goal disheartens us and we respond by postponing action for decades.
What is this “extremely difficult” goal?
The extremely difficult global target is known as “preventing 2 degrees.” Let me decode this. To prevent 2 degrees, those alive today and our successors must keep the Earth’s average surface temperature from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), relative to the value of the same temperature before the Industrial Revolution. Achieving the “2 degrees” target requires the termination of the fossil fuel era in just a few decades. Indeed, “2 degrees” is now widely acknowledged to be shorthand for cutting today’s global carbon dioxide emissions rate in half by 2050.
An alternative target is “3 degrees,” which is shorthand for allowing the global emissions rate for greenhouse gases at mid-century to be approximately equal to today’s rate. The fossil fuel system would be greatly constrained relative to where global economic growth is taking it. Large deployment of energy efficiency and low-carbon technology would take place during the decades immediately ahead to facilitate the steady curtailment of fossil fuels. But there would still be substantial coal, oil and natural gas in the global energy system at mid-century.
Not to constrain the global fossil fuel system at all over the next few decades could be called “5 degrees.” It is the only outcome currently contrasted with “2 degrees” in most discussions of climate change policy. “Three degrees” is the middle option, permitting somewhat greater flexibility and caution, but nonetheless requiring immense effort. We should be using the current period to work out the details of the middle option and keep it in play.
Climate scientists such as James Hansen have written that a concentration of 350 parts per million (ppm) carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is the “safe upper limit.” There’s a whole organization developed around that number (www.350.org). How do these temperature targets correspond to concentration targets?
Indeed, following the current discussion about targets is a daunting task for the nonspecialist. There is a third way of expressing a climate change target: neither a cap on ultimate surface temperature nor a cap on emissions at mid-century, but a cap on the ultimate concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Out of every million molecules in the atmosphere right now, 390 are carbon dioxide molecules. We say that the concentration is 390 ppm, or 390 parts per million. In Shakespeare’s time, the concentration was 280 ppm. 350.org is advocating a concentration lower than the present one, setting an agenda for the next century or longer. I think any goal that far out takes our eye off the ball. Our focus needs to be on how quickly we shut down the fossil fuel system over the next few decades, a period when the concentration of carbon dioxide is nearly certain to be rising.
You seem concerned that we could implement warming mitigation strategies too quickly.
The “2 degrees” target emerged from well-meaning but one-sided reasoning. To be sure, the faster emissions of greenhouse gases are reduced, the smaller will be the disruptions from climate change—the less the severity of storms and droughts, the less the increase in sea level, the less the acidification of the oceans, the less the damage to ecosystems. “Two degrees” was the answer to the question: What temperature rise would occur if the fossil energy system were shut down at the fastest conceivable rate? A two-sided analysis would take into account the disruptions that come from closing down the fossil fuel system quickly.
One reason we need two-sided analysis is that climate change is linked to nuclear war. A rapid global expansion of nuclear power is a step toward avoiding climate change, but it also can encourage the development of nuclear weapons.
My generation considered our greatest assignment to be avoiding nuclear war. The horror of nuclear war is less on people’s minds today, but nuclear weapons are still seen as desirable in many countries. The more worried anyone is about climate change, the more he or she should be working to develop the international institutions that can prevent the diversion into nuclear weapons of the uranium and plutonium associated with nuclear power. It would be terrible to exchange climate change for nuclear war anywhere on the planet.
Besides nuclear proliferation, do you have other concerns that keep you from endorsing the quickest possible move away from fossil fuels?
Yes, I do. An uncritical espousal of the fastest possible renunciation of fossil fuels is also irresponsible from the perspective of industrialization in the developing world. Fossil fuels are currently powering this industrialization, and plans for the decades ahead assume that the dominance of fossil fuels will continue. An alternative is low-carbon industrialization in various forms. Yet, very little detailed analysis has been done to understand what would be necessary to make low-carbon industrialization attractive.
To understand why such analysis is critical, note that today roughly half of the world’s emissions come from industrialized countries and half from developing countries. To meet the goal of cutting global emissions in half by midcentury, even if industrialized country emissions were to go nearly to zero, total emissions from developing countries would need to fall relative to today. By contrast, emissions of greenhouse gases from the developing world have roughly doubled in the past 20 years. Low-carbon industrialization for sure will require much innovation.
Do you have specific innovations in mind for the developing world?
Above all, developing countries undergoing rapid industrialization need to make energy efficiency a priority. Neighborhoods containing blocks of apartment buildings for hundreds of millions of people are being built today, equipped with hundreds of millions of household appliances. To service these neighborhoods, new roads and new grids for electricity, natural gas and water are being provided. Unfortunately, most of this development repeats mistakes made earlier by industrialized countries. First costs rather than life-cycle costs drive investments. Measurements of actual usage of power and fuel are rare, even though such measurements would permit energy-savings strategies to be evaluated and made more effective.
Aren’t you violating a taboo when you talk about the responsibilities of developing countries?
As someone from an industrialized country, I do indeed find it awkward to lecture counterparts in developing countries about their patterns of development. In effect, I am saying: “Don’t do what we did.”
I advocate fixing the bad habits in industrialized countries and limiting their adoption in developing countries. “Developed” countries can and should pursue energy efficiency much more aggressively—addressing our own poorly insulated homes, low-mileage vehicles, and inefficient refrigerators, computers, televisions and air conditioners. We can and should establish land use policies that reduce sprawl and long commutes.
To sum up, what would you recommend for an overall climate change strategy?
We will know more about climate change in a decade or two, and we will also know more about the societal stresses incurred by aggressive climate change mitigation. It is all too easy to imagine outcomes of addressing climate change that bring societal disruptions as severe as climate change itself. I am confident that preventing such outcomes is achievable. But right now there is too much willingness to pretend that such outcomes don’t exist.
I recommend, first, the coordinated development of ambitious emissions targets and emission-reduction strategies required to meet these targets. Second, at regular intervals, in accordance with the principle known as iterative risk management, both the targets and the strategies would be revisited and revised in the light of new information and insights.
Published in association with
, a print, online and multimedia magazine for environmental thought leaders produced by the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment.
Image courtesy of Princeton University.
Wednesday, February 15, 2012 11:17 AM
What would it take to shape a planet on which people, other living things, and the systems that support us can sustainably coexist? For a special issue,
magazine invited experts from around the world to share their thoughts on how we might craft solutions to some of earth’s toughest challenges. Jeremy Faludi spoke with optimist Alex Steffen about what it would take to make a city carbon neutral.
First, let’s talk about transportation. What are your favorite tools or strategies that cities can use?
Well, one thing I’ve learned that’s really shocked me is the degree to which transportation planning in the U.S. is really traffic planning. Even progressive cities like Seattle have a sub-department that is about everything else but cars. They don’t have any integrated strategy at all. The traffic modeling software used by the planning commission for the five-county metropolitan area here doesn’t even account for pedestrian trips or bicycle trips, and only does a one-to-one swap for transit and cars, which we know isn’t the way the real world works.
If we’re talking about transportation, the best thing a city can do is densify as quickly as it can. That needs to be said every time this issue comes up, because it’s the only universal strategy that works. That’s the best-documented finding in urban planning—that as density goes up, trip length goes down and transportation energy use goes down. The main question that nearly every city in North America needs to address is how to densify quickly. Once people are grappling with that, though, there are other things people need to do to make that work: making neighborhoods walkable, with green spaces, street life, mixed-use zoning and other qualities that make a place livable. If you have density without that, you just have vertical suburbs.
How you get density is different depending on whether your city is growing or declining. Most cities in the U.S. are growing because the country is having one last population boom. The biggest thing growing cities need to do is minimize barriers to development so that as long as someone is doing good urbanism, they can get permitted quickly and get building quickly. In a lot of places, one of the most expensive parts of building a new building is the delay caused by permitting, public process, etc. Places that have done a really good job, like Vancouver, basically set a high bar for what will get passed, but once you’ve passed you’re good to go, there aren’t delays. I think that’s one of the most important things, because we know there’s already a giant pent-up demand for urban living space. We want to provide that urban living space—but that requires building on a scale we haven't seen in 40 or 50 years.
What are the best strategies to fill cities with carbon-neutral buildings?
In most places, the process of land use planning and infrastructure planning is broken—even if it’s working well in most ways, it’s broken in the slowness with which it grapples with change. In quite a few cities, most civic engagement is mostly a matter of fighting development, people saying, “not in my backyard.” Even in cities that are doing good planning, it tends to be marginal and incremental and take decades to come to fruition. There are a number of cities that have fast-track permitting for green buildings.
Vancouver has explicit policies about setting ambitious policy goals and strict building standards, but then really expediting any projects that exceed it. A lot of cities will need to embrace that. We have a lot more to lose by changing too slowly than by changing too quickly. We know enough about how to legislate good urban design that there’s no excuse for not picking up the pace.
I think people are frustrated because all these things are such large-scale issues that people feel they can only be solved through complicated bureaucratic processes of city governments, which have glacial paces. What can we do about that?
One of the most unfortunate side effects of the urban activism of the ’60s and ’70s is the belief that development is wrong and that fighting it makes you an environmentalist. We know that dense cities are both environmentally better and dramatically more equitable places. Walkable neighborhoods are better than the suburbs for people with a wide range of incomes, and what happens in cities that don't grow is that they gentrify and poor people are pushed out. Trying to fight change makes you less sustainable and more unfair.
I think we need to acknowledge that not everyone will be happy with the results. But you need to be able to charge ahead anyway. I really admire Janette Sadik-Khan, the commissioner of the New York City Department of Transportation. One of the things she’s great at is that when there’s an idea that’s understood to be workable and good because it’s worked elsewhere, and with the amount of basic vetting needed to show it won’t have unintended consequences, she goes ahead. She just makes changes, rather than submitting things to lengthy process. The most famous thing she did was Times Square, making it a pedestrian plaza. She didn’t put it through a five-year plan, she just did it. Same thing with a ton of bike lanes, bus rapid transit, etc. She doesn’t get bogged down in debate about things. We need more leadership like that. She’s had opposition—some people haven’t liked what she’s done. But most people really do like it, because it works.
In almost all city governments in America, the small group of people who don’t want change are able to block change. Sometimes these people block change for good reasons, but much of the changes we need, that will improve cities, also get blocked—which is a loss for everyone involved.
How do you streamline the hearing process but still allow people’s voices to be heard? For instance, when the big-box store wants to move in that would kill local businesses, how do people have recourse against that?
My experience is that, in most cities, the planning process isn’t used primarily to block things like that. It’s used primarily to block things like extensions of transit, affordable housing, large residential projects, etc. There are bad projects, and people have every right and duty to block them, but most NIMBY opposition isn’t to stuff that’s actually bad, it’s just to stuff people don’t like because it’s different. And I don’t think the public has a duty to listen to the same arguments again and again and again. I think once officials are elected who have a clearly articulated agenda, they should just go do them. There are converging approaches that are designed to involve more people in the process, change the process itself. Some of this is in the Government 2.0 movement of better data transparency; some of this is in open-source planning, etc. Most of the process in most cities I’m aware of is de facto exclusionary because you can’t participate unless you can take time off in the middle of your workday to go to the hearings. So you end up with wealthy NIMBYs, public officials and developers, which isn’t a very good mix. Putting pressure to change those systems, for civic revival, would greatly help.
So you’re arguing not for shutting down public hearing process, but for letting cities decide on projects by whole classes of projects rather than individual cases?
Yes, exactly. You don’t get the pace of change that’s needed out of case-by-case evaluations. If you’re willing to make tough choices right up front, we know it’s possible to do a lot of this stuff without taking away anything that people love about their cities. In fact, we can add value to people's neighborhoods.
There’s a great plan for the city of Melbourne, which they presented at TEDx Sydney. The city’s growing quickly, needs to add a million people over the next decade or two, but they don’t want that to be sprawl. So they took a digital map of the city and blocked off everything that’s currently single-family residences, everything that’s a historical building, everything that’s green space, working industrial land, and other things people are vociferous about valuing. That left a fairly small percentage of land. But they showed that if they concentrated density in those corridors, they could add a million people without expanding the city at all, and it would add all these benefits, like better public transit and such. You can dramatically increase the density of places without taking away things people want—and actually adding things they want but couldn’t afford today—because the average suburb isn’t dense enough to financially support a tram or the like. But if you add a dense core that can support that, suddenly even the people around it, in their single-family homes, get the benefit, too. I call that “tent-pole density,” where extremely high density in a small area brings up the average for a whole neighborhood, even when the rest of the neighborhood doesn’t change. I think it’s a really important concept, one that most people don’t get.
We’ve run out of time for incremental approaches. For carbon-neutral cities, there are things worth talking about in how our consumption patterns can change—sharing goods, etc.—but those are a fraction of the impacts of transportation and building energy use. If we need to choose priority actions, the most important things are to densify, provide transit, and green the buildings.
Published in association with
, a print, online and multimedia magazine for environmental thought leaders produced by the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment.
Image by Mikael Colville-Anderson / Copenhagenize.com.
Wednesday, February 08, 2012 9:30 AM
What would it take to shape a planet on which people, other living things, and the systems that support us can sustainably coexist? For a special issue,
magazine invited experts from around the world to share their thoughts on how we might craft solutions to some of earth’s toughest challenges. Wendee Holtcamp spoke with ocean advocate Alexandra Cousteau, a National Geographic Emerging Explorer and the granddaughter of Jacques-Yves Cousteau, about how to create sustainable ocean fisheries.
What would it take to create sustainable ocean fisheries?
It is going to take coordination at the highest levels, coordination between different government entities responsible for managing resources. Nations are struggling to set catch limits and quotas, while still trying to figure out how many fish are there. We don’t know enough about the oceans, yet we’re reducing the amount of money we’re spending on research. A lot of very smart people around the world are working on the problem of sustainable fisheries, but we need to invest more in science. We also need to get the fishermen on board. We need to get them to embrace devices like the Turtle Excluder Devices (TEDs), and to use nets with wider filaments so they’re catching their target species, rather than tighter nets that catch everything. It will take fishermen staying out of marine protected areas and catching the species they’re allowed to fish and not overexploited species. If we’re able to get everyone on the same page, we still can achieve sustainability. But we are running out of time.
How are we doing so far?
Right now we are failing miserably. It’s a free-for-all out in the ocean. There’s no ownership of common spaces, and there’s a “get it before the next guy gets it” mentality.
What can consumers do to help?
People should avoid fish that are overexploited, such as Chilean sea bass, swordfish, shark, irresponsibly caught shrimp and all sorts of other species on the brink. In the U.S. alone we have almost 700 different species that are not only safe to eat but also tasty, but we eat the same dozen species every time because we know what they look like, we know our family will eat them. We need to make different choices. If it continues to go on as now, we’re going to see some major collapses.
How does your organization, Blue Legacy, work with sustainable water issues?
Last year, we converted John McCain’s Straight Talk Express into a biodiesel mobile workstation, and then went on a 17,100-mile expedition across North America, stopping on many spots along the way to tell the water stories of local communities and local water-keepers. Through film and expeditionary filmmaking, we work to reconnect people with the water in their life, water that shapes the land they live on, shapes the places they live, the communities they have and the quality of life they depend on. The short films are distributed primarily online to media partners, schools, nonprofits and all sorts of organizations so they can tell their stories online to advance their objectives in the communities they serve. When we stopped in a community, we made that day all about them.
Has having a baby affected your outlook?
When I think about projections on what we’ll have in 5, 10, 50 years, all of a sudden that’s a time frame of Clémentine’s life, and those milestones are very poignant. When I was young, I had great opportunity to see a lot of extraordinary places, but now they’re gone or fundamentally different from how I knew them. That grieves me. There were places that broadened my view of the world, and as we lose those places we impoverish ourselves. I want there to be places she can spend weeks exploring tide pools, and pristine creeks where she can catch tadpoles. I want her to know those things. Our generation is the last generation to be able to save some of these treasures we have. It’s our “space race” to protect the quantity and quality of water systems. If we fail, her generation will have lost some really irreplaceable natural places and species.
Published in association with
, a print, online and multimedia magazine for environmental thought leaders produced by the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment. Image by Bil Zelman.
Wednesday, January 25, 2012 10:30 PM
Excrement is an unexpected hero. While not a subject discussed in polite company, in both medical and environmental arenas poop is coming to the rescue.
Take, for example, the positive buzz surrounding fecal transplants, which are heralded as possible cures for everything from asthma and depression to Crohn’s disease, MS, and the bacterial gut infection c. difficile.
As its name suggests, a fecal transplant is the transfer of feces from a healthy donor to an ailing patient. The transfer, explains Pagan Kennedy in The Atlantic is performed using colonoscopy instruments to squirt a diluted stool sample from the donor into the large intestine of the patient. If all goes as it should, the donor sample repopulates the recipient’s intestine with a healthy amount of good bacteria.
While it doesn’t sound pleasant, the simple procedure yields surprisingly positive results—sometimes clearing up chronic symptoms in only two days. “Lately, stories about the success of at-home fecal transplants have been spreading across the Internet,” Kennedy writes. Such DIY fecal transplants are becoming popular due to the hesitation of mainstream clinicians who have yet to embrace poop as a miracle cure. “So far,” says Scientific American, “fecal transplants remain a niche therapy, practiced only by gastroenterologists who work for broad-minded institutions and who have overcome the ick factor.”
Still, some doctors are reporting remarkable successes, Scientific American continues: “[A]bout a dozen clinicians in the U.S., Europe and Australia have described performing fecal transplants on about 300 C. difficile patients. More than 90 percent of those patients recovered completely, an unheard-of proportion.”
Our health isn’t the only thing that can be improved with feces, adds Sierra magazine’s Dashka Slater (with tongue in cheek): “In the future, poop will solve all our problems,” including environmental ones. She offers three examples of excrement’s energy prowess:
1) Dried flakes of human feces can be burned to produce energy. “The flakes, which resemble instant-coffee granules,” Slater says, “are made from dehydrated sludge, the fecal goo left behind after wastewater is treated.” Sixteen percent of the energy used by British water and sewage company Thames Water comes from human poo.
2) Elephant and panda poop contain bacteria that easily converts plants’ woody pulp into sugars. “Researchers at Mississippi State University (working with pandas) and at the Dutch technology company DSM (working with elephants) say that such bacteria could be key to producing cellulosic ethanol from biomass like wood chips, switchgrass, and corn stover.”
3) Manure on large hog farms produces high levels of methane. “Now Duke University and Duke Energy have teamed up to harness pig-poop power, using the methane from a 9,000-head hog farm in North Carolina to run an electrical turbine,” says Slater. The project produces enough energy to light up the kitchens, bedrooms, living rooms—and bathrooms—of 35 area homes.
Sources: TheAtlantic, Scientific American, Sierra
Image by macaron*macaron(EstBleu2007), licensed under Creative Commons.
Margret Aldrich is an associate editor at Utne Reader. Follow her on Twitter at @mmaldrich.
Friday, November 11, 2011 4:28 PM
Boulder, Colorado, took a landmark step toward energy independence when its voters chose to allow the city to consider dumping Xcel Energy as its power provider and creating its own municipal power utility. Triple Pundit calls the news “the start of a transition in American power” because the driving force behind the measure was concern about climate change. Supporters of the measure want their power provider to include more renewable energy sources and fewer fossil fuels than Xcel was willing to consider.
Reports Triple Pundit:
Going beyond standard renewable portfolio standards of 20 or 30 percent is increasingly difficult for big centralized power providers who need to recoup costs for their investments in power plants and return profits to investors. As a result, as more renewable options enter the market, it makes sense for communities to seek smaller, more decentralized power options.
As Ann Butterfield explained in her article for the Huffington Post, this ballot measure reflects the community’s desire for renewable energy and the sentiment that big companies—or utilities—can no longer externalize risks they are taking to maximize profits.
Xcel-funded opponents spent money mightily in a campaign to defeat the measure, sensing a bad precedent for Big Power, but Boulder residents went for it by a slim majority. John Farrell of Energy Self-Reliant States wrote in a postrepublished by Grist:
The victory margin was small, but the clean energy and economic opportunity is enormous. According to a citizen-led and peer-reviewed study, the city could increase renewable energy production by 40 percent from multiple local sources without increasing rates.
If the city uses its new authority to become a utility, future generations may look back at Nov. 1, 2011, as the shot heard round the world—a shot fired for clean, local energy—and ask why more Americans didn’t “go Boulder” sooner.
(In related indie-media news, Triple Pundit has announced it has teamed up with another of Utne Reader’s favorite green-biz news sources, Sustainable Industries. We’re looking forward to seeing their talents and energies combined in a multimedia green mashup.)
Energy Self-Reliant States
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Wednesday, November 09, 2011 9:56 AM
It’s been an uplifting several days for anyone who’s opposed to the massive Keystone XL oil pipeline, which had seemed to be rapidly steamrolling toward presidential approval.
First, on Sunday, an impressively large crowd of 10,000 to 12,000 protesters showed up to encircle the White House and pressure President Obama to give the pipeline a thumbs down. On the same day, the Los Angeles Times reported that the administration may now put off the Keystone XL decision until after the election. On Monday, Think Progress reported that the State Department’s office of the Inspector General would conduct a review the pipeline approval process, which has been dogged by accusations of inadequate environmental review and potential conflicts of interest.
All in all, it’s a remarkable turnaround of Keystone XL’s prospects, offering some hope—remember that word?—to environmentally conscious Americans who might have started to think that green activism is no more effective than video-game playing in changing the world.
There may be more than a little political calculus in Obama’s move to delay a pipeline decision until after the election. Last week, Reuters foreshadowed the delay when it reported that some of the president’s advisers were uneasy about the support that a Keystone XL approval could cost the campaign—especially among young, enthusiastic, door-knocking volunteers.
The situation may be a sign that times are changing. Conventional pundit wisdom holds that the environment is a minor player at presidential election time, writes Keith Kloor at the Yale Forum on Climate Change and the Media, taking a back seat to “kitchen table concerns like the economy, health care, and war.” But the current political environment, with Keystone raising a ruckus and virtually all the Republican candidates rejecting climate-change concerns, writes Kloor, has
Juliet Eilperin, a Washington Post reporter, thinking that global warming may yet be a big issue in the 2012 election. Just yesterday, in a talk at Stanford University’s Woods Institute for the Environment, Eilperin said:
“I actually think this is a really interesting moment. It is a moment that is challenging a position I’ve held for a long time, which is that the environment doesn’t play a role in elections.”
She added that climate change “has the potential to become a wedge issue. What is so interesting is whether it will be a wedge issue for the left or a wedge issue for the right.”
Still, for pipeline backers, hope—unlike oil—springs eternal. Reuters now reports that the State Department is considering rerouting the pipeline to avoid ecologically sensitive areas of Nebraska and improve its chances of success. This is despite the fact that “TransCanada said last month that it was too late in the federal approval process to move the proposed path for the line.”
Sources: Inside Climate, Los Angeles Times, Think Progress, Reuters, Yale Forum on Climate Change and the Media
Image by Emma Cassidy and
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Sunday, October 23, 2011 4:53 PM
As I read OnEarth magazine’s no-holds-barred story condemning Canada’s past and present environmental record—billed on the cover as “Blame Canada: Our Rapacious Neighbor to the North”—I thought, wow, Canadians are going to be mad at the American who wrote this. Then I realized that the author, Andrew Nikiforuk, is a Canadian himself, and so are many of the harshest critics quoted in the piece.
Which makes the story a particularly tough pill to swallow for any Canadian who still harbors the illusion that his or her country is a beacon of environmental enlightenment. Sure, Canada has sensible gun laws, universal health care, gay marriage, and a refreshing lack of religious fanaticism—but, writes Nikiforuk:
Although Canada pretends to be a Jolly Green Giant, it is actually a resource-exploiting Jekyll and Hyde. Whenever global demand for metals and minerals booms, Canada takes on a sinister personality. And whenever export markets shrivel, the country temporarily retreats into a kindly figure with memory of the misdeeds of his alter ego. But for most of Canada’s history, the nasty Mr. Hyde has dominated the nation’s economic life as a hewer of wood, a netter of fish, a dammer of rivers, and a miner of metals.
Well, then. Canada’s current earthly plunder is of course the tar sands of Alberta, but Nikiforuk makes the convincing case that this is just the latest in a long line of environmental transgressions, tempered by a brief spell of admirable anti-climate-change moves, as one expert tells him:
“Canada used to be a leader in climate-change policy and action,” says Andrew Weaver of the University of Victoria, one of Canada’s leading climate-change researchers. But that was before it became America’s number-one oil supplier. Now, Weaver says, “Canada has an ideological agenda all built around the export of one resource.”
Furthermore, it would be bad enough if Canada were simply destroying its own environment, but the country’s reach extends far beyond its borders thanks to the global nature of 21st century extraction industries, Nikiforuk points out:
When not digging up their own backyard, Canada’s energetic engineers and drillers are busy abroad, with almost half their investments concentrated in Mexico, Chile, and the United States.
It’s easy to take this blame game too far; we Americans are of course culpable in any environmental destruction committed to feed our insatiable needs for energy, food, and products. But perhaps it is time to see Canada in a more nuanced light.
One U.S. green activist, writes Nikiforuk, “ had a benign view of Canada as a forested country with funky rock bands such as the Barenaked Ladies.” This is much too narrow a view; to be fair, she should have remembered that along with Neil Young and Arcade Fire, Canada has also given us Celine Dion and Nickelback.
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Monday, October 17, 2011 10:21 AM
Tim DeChristopher is the only person to have been named an Utne Reader visionary while in prison: He’s serving a two-year sentence for disrupting a federal oil and gas lease auction in Utah in an act of environmental protest.
One reason I nominated DeChristopher as a visionary is because he became a hugely inspirational figure to other environmentalists as he wrote and spoke about his principled act of civil disobedience right up until he was led to his cell. But make no mistake: He is in prison mainly because he dared to continue speaking out.
Utah environmentalist and author Terry Tempest Williams writes in The Progressive about the farcical nature of DeChristopher’s four-day trial, which she attended along with a legion of other supporters:
It was a shattering display of politics on the bench, beginning with jury selection. The judge [Dee V. Benson] delivered a lengthy lecture on the importance of impartiality, after which he said to the entire jury pool, “And there should be no discussion between you and the ‘kumbaya’ crowd in the courtroom.” …
But the most egregious remarks were made by Judge Benson himself during the sentencing hearing.
He reprimanded DeChristopher for speaking out after his conviction in March. He stated that DeChristopher might not have faced prosecution, let alone prison, if it were not for that “continuing trail of statements.”
This “continuing trail of statements” is called freedom of speech, your honor, not “anarchy.” The criminal is not DeChristopher but our justice system.
Judge Benson actually stated during the sentencing hearing, “The offense itself, with all apologies to people actually in the auction itself, wasn’t that bad.”
DeChristopher himself, in an August letter from prison published by Grist, showed that he understood all too clearly the connection between his ongoing outspokenness and his sentence:
Judge Benson said that had it not been for the political statements I made in public, I would have avoided prosecution entirely. As is generally the case with civil disobedience, it was extremely important to the government that I come before the majesty of the court with my head bowed and express regret. So important, in fact, that an apology with proper genuflection is currently fair trade for a couple years in prison. Perhaps that’s why most activist cases end in a plea bargain.
Source: The Progressive, Grist
Tuesday, October 11, 2011 3:56 PM
Electric vehicles are creating a lot of promise in the green world, but they don’t necessarily lead to lower greenhouse gas emissions. Consider the cases of China and Sweden, which have both heavily encouraged electric car ownership among their citizens but have failed to enjoy an attendant drop in transportation-sector carbon emissions.
What’s going on here? Firmin DeBrabander reports in Common Dreams on the Swedish experience, in which greener cars are being driven more miles:
Sweden … leads the world in per capita sales of “green cars.” To everyone’s surprise, however, greenhouse gas emissions from Sweden’s transportation sector are up.
Or perhaps we should not be so surprised after all. What do you expect when you put people in cars they feel good about driving (or at least less guilty), which are also cheap to buy and run? Naturally, they drive them more. So much more, in fact, that they obliterate energy gains made by increased fuel efficiency. … Based on Sweden’s experience with green cars, it’s daunting to imagine their possible impact here. Who can doubt that they’ll likely inspire Americans to make longer commutes to work, live even further out in the exurbs, bringing development, blacktop and increased emissions with them?
China is encountering a different problem: Its huge numbers of electric vehicles aren’t leading to greatly reduced emissions because of their power source, dirty coal. Andrew Revkin reports on the Dot Earth blog at the New York Times that “in all but three grid regions in China, electric vehicles produce more CO2 per mile because of the coal source for the power than the equivalent gasoline-powered car.”
The researcher behind these numbers, Lucia Green-Weiskel, takes care to point out that “electric vehicles are still a key (if not central) part of a low-carbon future in any country” and that her study shouldn’t be seen as anti-EV. But she notes that EV development must be accompanied by a move to cleaner energy sources if it is to make a dent in carbon emissions.
There’s a surefire step both the Swedes and the Chinese—and you and I, for that matter—could take to cut emissions: Drive and consume less. Writes DeBrabander:
In its current state, the green revolution is largely devoted to the effort to provide consumers with the products they have always loved, but now in affordable energy efficient versions. The thinking seems to be that through this gradual exchange, we can reduce our collective carbon footprint. Clearly, however, this approach is doomed if we don’t reform our absurd consumption habits, which are so out-of-whack that they risk undoing any environmental gains we might make.
Sources: Common Dreams, Dot Earth
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Friday, September 16, 2011 11:45 AM
Whisky fuels lots of things—rebellions, country and western songs, and Shane MacGowan, to name just a few. Now it’s going to power 9,000 homes in Scotland.
More specifically, whisky byproducts are going to power the homes, in the distillery-rich region of Speyside, by helping to fuel a local biomass energy plant.
“Waste products from around 16 of the area’s 50 distilleries will be used at the site, including well-known brands such as Glenlivet, Chivas Regal, Macallan, and Famous Grouse,” the Guardian reports.
Spent grains from the whisky distilling process, known as draff, will be burned along with wood to create electricity at the combined heat and power (CHP) plant. Another byproduct, a high-protein liquid residue called pot ale, will be made into a syrup for animal feed—which will be conveniently made at a plant next door.
Construction of the biomass plant is set to begin soon, the London Press Service reported last month, and it should be up and running by early 2013.
The Scots aren’t the only whisky makers who are seriously thinking green. On this side of the pond (where we spell it with an “e,” thank you), fine bourbon whiskey distiller Maker’s Mark has made waves with its sustainability initiatives, which according to Inhabitat include biogas reuse, aggressive waste reduction, an on-site nature preserve, and a mostly local, no-GMO grain supply chain.
(Thanks, World Rivers Review.)
Sources: The Guardian, London Press Service, Inhabitat
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Wednesday, August 17, 2011 4:20 PM
The nuclear industry is teaching its vision of a bright nuclear future to schoolchildren by offering teachers free guides that extol “the beneficial uses of radiation,” The New Republic reports. The guides are the marketing brainchild of the EnergySolutions Foundation, the charitable arm of a large nuclear-waste processor, and they’ve been doled out to eager recipients including the Mississippi Department of Education.
Among the materials for sixth- to 12th-graders is a trivia game that points out the ecological destruction wrought by wind towers (bird killers!) and solar farms (desert destruction!). One video game in the works by EnergySolutions “revolves around a broken-down reactor buried in the jungle,” according to The New Republic. Presumably, the possible outcomes do not include slow, excruciating death by radiation poisoning or cancer.
Industry-funded school propaganda initiatives have a decades-old history, the magazine points out—“but they’re making a comeback as the once-moribund nuclear industry gears up for a revival.”
If you’re not outraged yet, you may be when you find out that government is getting into the act, too, using our taxpayer dollars. The New Republic also reports that the U.S. Department of Energy has updated a pro-nuclear curriculum called the Harnessed Atom, which it will be promoting in schools nationwide, and its website hosts an interactive, animated city called Neutropolis where nuclear power is cool, fun, safe, and secure.
“We’re always looking for new ways to reach kids,” EnergySolutions’ executive director, Pearl Wright, tells TNR about the firm’s educational efforts.
They might want to be aware that such efforts can backfire, too. One natural-gas firm tried to cozy up to the kids with a coloring-book dinosaur called the Friendly Frackosaurus, only to pull it after the creature was incisively satirized by Stephen Colbert on The Colbert Report last month. And earlier this year, the schoolbook publisher Scholastic severed its ties with the coal industry after a host of organizations criticized a fourth-grade pro-coal energy curriculum that had been paid for by the American Coal Foundation.
In the meantime, the schoolchildren near Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant have also been learning a lot about nuclear energy lately—but for them, the scary part hasn’t been edited out.
UPDATE 8/19/2011: It’s not just energy companies that are getting into the curriculum-revision game. California Watch reports that the plastics industry edited the state’s new 11th-grade environmental curriculum to put a more positive spin on plastic bags.
Source: The New Republic
(full article available only to subscribers), DeSmog Blog, Grist, New York Times, California Watch
Marshall Astor – Food Pornographer
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Friday, August 05, 2011 11:48 AM
President Obama speaks of “clean coal.” So does his energy secretary, Steven Chu, and a host of senators from Democrat John Kerry to Republican Lindsey Graham. But don’t let the cozy-sounding, alliterative buzz phrase fool you: Clean coal is a myth.
That’s the conclusion of James B. Meigs, who looks at the science, technology, and politics behind clean coal in a Popular Mechanics analysis and is unswayed:
Coal will never be clean. It is possible to make coal emissions cleaner. In fact, we’ve come a long way since the ’70s in finding ways to reduce sulfur-dioxide and nitrogen-oxide emissions, and more progress can be made. But the nut of the clean-coal sales pitch is that we can also bottle up the CO2 produced when coal is burned, most likely by burying it deep in the earth. That may be possible in theory, but it’s devilishly difficult in practice.
Meigs picks apart the reasons why the technology known as carbon capture and sequestration, or CCS, is still a slim hope: It’s expensive, it’s energy-intensive, and, most important, it’s completely unproven. “It is a dangerous gamble to assume that it will become technically and economically feasible anytime soon,” he writes.
Why, then, are so many politicians slinging the phrase “clean coal” around so liberally? Because of, um, politics, Meigs explains:
Sadly, although it might make little economic or scientific sense, the political logic behind clean coal is overwhelming. Coal is mined in some politically potent states—Illinois, Montana, West Virginia, Wyoming—and the coal industry spends millions on lobbying. The end result of the debate is all too likely to resemble Congress’s corn-based ethanol mandates: legislation that employs appealing buzzwords to justify subsidies to a politically favored constituency—while actually worsening the problem it seeks to solve.
Many green news outlets and commentators have debunked the “clean coal” fallacy, the normally apolitical Coen brothers mocked it in a faux ad (above), and Michael Bloomberg recently took a rhetorical and financial swipe at it with a $50 million gift to the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign. But to see it roundly smacked down in a science-minded mainstream newsstand publication like Popular Mechanics is yet another sign that our collective denial about coal may be coming to an end.
You might even compare it to the end of an affair, as the title of the new interactive video series Coal: A Love Story does. Stephen Lacey at Climate Progress calls the video “must-watch journalism” and “one of the best pieces of storytelling I’ve seen on energy.” See one of the vignettes here and watch the full series at Powering a Nation:
“Interactive” is an understatement in describing activists’ real-life fight against mountaintop-removal (MTR) coal mining, which continues at a fever pitch in Appalachia. Jeff Biggers reports at Alternet that a tree-sitting protest is now in its third week on West Virginia’s Coal River Mountain, the subject of The Last Mountain, the latest in a string of awareness-raising MTR film documentaries. And on Tuesday, August 9, a public hearing will be held on a permit renewal for a controversial West Virginia strip mine. Activists are drawing national attention to the hearing. Things are heating up, in more ways than one.
Sources: Popular Mechanics, Grist, Beyond Coal, Coal: A Love Story, Climate Progress, Powering a Nation, Alternet, The Last Mountain
Monday, June 27, 2011 12:50 PM
Let’s see: today, it’s a story about rising sea levels. Now, close your eyes, take a few seconds, and try to imagine what word or words could possibly go with such a story.
Time’s up, and if “faster,” “far faster,” “fastest,” or “unprecedented” didn’t come to mind, then the odds are that you’re not actually living on planet Earth in the year 2011. Yes, a new study came out in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that measures sea-level rise over the last 2,000 years and -- don’t be shocked -- it’s never risen faster than now.
Earlier in the week, there was that report on the state of the oceans produced by a panel of leading marine scientists. Now, close your eyes and try again. Really, this should be easy. Just look at the previous paragraph and choose “unprecedented,” and this time pair it with “loss of species comparable to the great mass extinctions of prehistory,” or pick “far faster” (as in “the seas are degenerating far faster than anyone has predicted”), or for a change of pace, how about “more quickly” as in “more quickly than had been predicted” as the “world’s oceans move into ‘extinction’ phase.”
Or consider a third story: arctic melting. This time you’re 100% correct! It’s “faster” again (as in “than the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change forecasts” of 2007). But don’t let me bore you. I won’t even mention the burning southwest, or Arizona’s Wallow fire, “the largest in state history,” or Texas’s “unprecedented wildfire season” (now “getting worse”), or the residents of Minot, North Dakota, abandoning their city to “unprecedented” floods, part of a deluge in the northern U.S. that is “unprecedented in modern times.”
It’s just superlatives and records all the way, and all thanks to those globally rising “record” temperatures and all those burning fossil fuels emitting “record” levels of greenhouse gases (“worst ever” in 2010) that so many governments, ours at the very top of the list, are basically ducking. Now, multiply those fabulous adjectives and superlative events—whether melting, dying, rising, or burning—and you’re heading toward the world of 2041, the one that TomDispatch energy expert and author of Rising Powers, Shrinking Planet Michael Klare writes about [at TomDispatch]. It's a world where if we haven't kicked our fossil-fuel habit, we won’t have superlatives strong enough to describe it.
Thirty years from now, for better or worse, the world will be a far different place: hotter, stormier, and with less land (given the loss of shoreline and low-lying areas to rising sea levels)…. New powers, corporate and otherwise, in new combinations will have risen with a new energy universe. No one can know, of course, what our version of the Treaty of Westphalia will look like or who will be the winners and losers on this planet. In the intervening 30 years, however, that much violence and suffering will have ensued goes without question.
Image by adamfarnsworth, licensed under Creative Commons.
Thursday, June 09, 2011 10:22 AM
This article was originally published at
Here’s the good news about energy: thanks to rising oil prices and deteriorating economic conditions worldwide, the International Energy Agency (IEA) reports that global oil demand will not grow this year as much as once assumed, which may provide some temporary price relief at the gas pump. In its May Oil Market Report, the IEA reduced its 2011 estimate for global oil consumption by 190,000 barrels per day, pegging it at 89.2 million barrels daily. As a result, retail prices may not reach the stratospheric levels predicted earlier this year, though they will undoubtedly remain higher than at any time since the peak months of 2008, just before the global economic meltdown. Keep in mind that this is the good news.
As for the bad news: the world faces an array of intractable energy problems that, if anything, have only worsened in recent weeks. These problems are multiplying on either side of energy’s key geological divide: below ground, once-abundant reserves of easy-to-get “conventional” oil, natural gas, and coal are drying up; above ground, human miscalculation and geopolitics are limiting the production and availability of specific energy supplies. With troubles mounting in both arenas, our energy prospects are only growing dimmer.
Here’s one simple fact without which our deepening energy crisis makes no sense: the world economy is structured in such a way that standing still in energy production is not an option. In order to satisfy the staggering needs of older industrial powers like the United States along with the voracious thirst of rising powers like China, global energy must grow substantially every year. According to the projections of the U.S. Department of Energy (DoE), world energy output, based on 2007 levels, must rise 29% to 640 quadrillion British thermal units by 2025 to meet anticipated demand. Even if usage grows somewhat more slowly than projected, any failure to satisfy the world’s requirements produces a perception of scarcity, which also means rising fuel prices. These are precisely the conditions we see today and should expect for the indefinite future.
It is against this backdrop that three crucial developments of 2011 are changing the way we are likely to live on this planet for the foreseeable future.
Tough-Oil RebelsThe first and still most momentous of the year’s energy shocks was the series of events precipitated by the Tunisian and Egyptian rebellions and the ensuing “Arab Spring” in the greater Middle East. Neither Tunisia nor Egypt was, in fact, a major oil producer, but the political shockwaves these insurrections unleashed has spread to other countries in the region that are, including Libya, Oman, and Saudi Arabia. At this point, the Saudi and Omani leaderships appear to be keeping a tight lid on protests, but Libyan production, normally averaging approximately 1.7 million barrels per day, has fallen to near zero.
When it comes to the future availability of oil, it is impossible to overstate the importance of this spring’s events in the Middle East, which continue to thoroughly rattle the energy markets. According to all projections of global petroleum output, Saudi Arabia and the other Persian Gulf states are slated to supply an ever-increasing share of the world’s total oil supply as production in key regions elsewhere declines. Achieving this production increase is essential, but it will not happen unless the rulers of those countries invest colossal sums in the development of new petroleum reserves—especially the heavy, “tough oil” variety that requires far more costly infrastructure than existing “easy oil” deposits.
In a front-page story entitled “Facing Up to the End of ‘Easy Oil,’” the Wall Street Journal noted that any hope of meeting future world oil requirements rests on a Saudi willingness to sink hundreds of billions of dollars into their remaining heavy-oil deposits. But right now, faced with a ballooning population and the prospects of an Egyptian-style youth revolt, the Saudi leadership seems intent on using its staggering wealth on employment-generating public-works programs and vast arrays of weaponry, not new tough-oil facilities; the same is largely true of the other monarchical oil states of the Persian Gulf.
Whether such efforts will prove effective is unknown. If a youthful Saudi population faced with promises of jobs and money, as well as the fierce repression of dissidence, has seemed less confrontational than their Tunisian, Egyptian, and Syrian counterparts, that doesn’t mean that the status quo will remain forever. “Saudi Arabia is a time bomb,” commented Jaafar Al Taie, managing director of Manaar Energy Consulting (which advises foreign oil firms operating in the region). “I don’t think that what the King is doing now is sufficient to prevent an uprising,” he added, even though the Saudi royals had just announced a $36-billion plan to raise the minimum wage, increase unemployment benefits, and build affordable housing.
At present, the world can accommodate a prolonged loss of Libyan oil. Saudi Arabia and a few other producers possess sufficient excess capacity to make up the difference. Should Saudi Arabia ever explode, however, all bets are off. “If something happens in Saudi Arabia, [oil] will go to $200 to $300 [per barrel],” said Sheikh Zaki Yamani, the kingdom’s former oil minister, on April 5th. “I don’t expect this for the time being, but who would have expected Tunisia?”
Nuclear Power on the Downward SlopeIn terms of the energy markets, the second major development of 2011 occurred on March 11th when an unexpectedly powerful earthquake and tsunami struck Japan. As a start, nature’s two-fisted attack damaged or destroyed a significant proportion of northern Japan’s energy infrastructure, including refineries, port facilities, pipelines, power plants, and transmission lines. In addition, of course, it devastated four nuclear plants at Fukushima, resulting, according to the U.S. Department of Energy, in the permanent loss of 6,800 megawatts of electric generating capacity.
This, in turn, has forced Japan to increase its imports of oil, coal, and natural gas, adding to the pressure on global supplies. With Fukushima and other nuclear plants off line, industry analysts calculate that Japanese oil imports could rise by as much as 238,000 barrels per day, and imports of natural gas by 1.2 billion cubic feet per day (mostly in the form of liquefied natural gas, or LNG).
This is one major short-term effect of the tsunami. What about the longer-term effects? The Japanese government now claims it is scrapping plans to build as many as 14 new nuclear reactors over the next two decades. On May 10th, Prime Minister Naoto Kan announced that the government would have to “start from scratch” in devising a new energy policy for the country. Though he speaks of replacing the cancelled reactors with renewable energy systems like wind and solar, the sad reality is that a significant part of any future energy expansion will inevitably come from more imported oil, coal, and LNG.
The disaster at Fukushima—and ensuing revelations of design flaws and maintenance failures at the plant—has had a domino effect, causing energy officials in other countries to cancel plans to build new nuclear plants or extend the life of existing ones. The first to do so was Germany: on March 14th, Chancellor Angela Merkel closed two older plants and suspended plans to extend the life of 15 others. On May 30th, her government made the suspension permanent. In the wake of mass antinuclear rallies and an election setback, she promised to shut all existing nuclear plants by 2022, which, experts believe, will result in an increase in fossil-fuel use.
China also acted swiftly, announcing on March 16th that it would stop awarding permits for the construction of new reactors pending a review of safety procedures, though it did not rule out such investments altogether. Other countries, including India and the United States, similarly undertook reviews of reactor safety procedures, putting ambitious nuclear plans at risk. Then, on May 25th, the Swiss government announced that it would abandon plans to build three new nuclear power plants, phase out nuclear power, and close the last of its plants by 2034, joining the list of countries that appear to have abandoned nuclear power for good.
How Drought Strangles EnergyThe third major energy development of 2011, less obviously energy-connected than the other two, has been a series of persistent, often record, droughts gripping many areas of the planet. Typically, the most immediate and dramatic effect of prolonged drought is a reduction in grain production, leading to ever-higher food prices and ever more social turmoil.
Intense drought over the past year in Australia, China, Russia, and parts of the Middle East, South America, the United States, and most recently northern Europe has contributed to the current record-breaking price of food—and this, in turn, has been a key factor in the political unrest now sweeping North Africa, East Africa, and the Middle East. But drought has an energy effect as well. It can reduce the flow of major river systems, leading to a decline in the output of hydroelectric power plants, as is now happening in several drought-stricken regions.
By far the greatest threat to electricity generation exists in China, which is suffering from one of its worst droughts ever. Rainfall levels from January to April in the drainage basin of the Yangtze, China’s longest and most economically important river, have been 40% lower than the average of the past 50 years, according to China Daily. This has resulted in a significant decline in hydropower and severe electricity shortages throughout much of central China.
The Chinese are burning more coal to generate electricity, but domestic mines no longer satisfy the country’s needs and so China has become a major coal importer. Rising demand combined with inadequate supply has led to a spike in coal prices, and with no comparable spurt in electricity rates (set by the government), many Chinese utilities are rationing power rather than buy more expensive coal and operate at a loss. In response, industries are upping their reliance on diesel-powered backup generators, which in turn increases China’s demand for imported oil, putting yet more pressure on global fuel prices.
Wrecking the PlanetSo now we enter June with continuing unrest in the Middle East, a grim outlook for nuclear power, and a severe electricity shortage in China (and possibly elsewhere). What else do we see on the global energy horizon?
Despite the IEA’s forecast of diminished future oil consumption, global energy demand continues to outpace increases in supply. From all indications, this imbalance will persist.
Take oil. A growing number of energy analysts now agree that the era of “easy oil” has ended and that the world must increasingly rely on hard-to-get “tough oil.” It is widely assumed, moreover, that the planet harbors a lot of this stuff—deep underground, far offshore, in problematic geological formations like Canada’s tar sands, and in the melting Arctic. However, extracting and processing tough oil will prove ever more costly and involve great human, and even greater environmental, risk. Think: BP’s Deepwater Horizon disaster of April 2010 in the Gulf of Mexico.
Such is the world’s thirst for oil that a growing amount of this stuff will nonetheless be extracted, even if not, in all likelihood, at a pace and on a scale necessary to replace the disappearance of yesterday’s and today’s easy oil. Along with continued instability in the Middle East, this tough-oil landscape seems to underlie expectations that the price of oil will only rise in the coming years. In a poll of global energy company executives conducted this April by the KPMG Global Energy Institute, 64% of those surveyed predicted that crude oil prices will cross the $120 per barrel barrier before the end of 2011. Approximately one-third of them predicted that the price would go even higher, with 17% believing it would reach $131-$140 per barrel; 9%, $141-$150 per barrel; and 6%, above the $150 mark.
The price of coal, too, has soared in recent months, thanks to mounting worldwide demand as supplies of energy from nuclear power and hydroelectricity have contracted. Many countries have launched significant efforts to spur the development of renewable energy, but these are not advancing fast enough or on a large enough scale to replace older technologies quickly. The only bright spot, experts say, is the growing extraction of natural gas from shale rock in the United States through the use of hydraulic fracturing (“hydro-fracking”).
Proponents of shale gas claim it can provide a large share of America’s energy needs in the years ahead, while actually reducing harm to the environment when compared to coal and oil (as gas emits less carbon dioxide per unit of energy released); however, an expanding chorus of opponents are warning of the threat to municipal water supplies posed by the use of toxic chemicals in the fracking process. These warnings have proven convincing enough to lead lawmakers in a growing number of statesto begin placing restrictions on the practice, throwing into doubt the future contribution of shale gas to the nation’s energy supply. Also, on May 12th, the French National Assembly (the powerful lower house of parliament) voted 287 to 146 to ban hydro-fracking in France, becoming the first nation to do so.
The environmental problems of shale gas are hardly unique. The fact is that all of the strategies now being considered to extend the life-spans of oil, coal, and natural gas involve severe economic and environmental risks and costs—as, of course, does the very use of fossil fuels of any sort at a moment when the first IEA numbers for 2010 indicate that it was an unexpectedly record-breaking year for humanity when it came to dumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
With the easily accessible mammoth oil fields of Texas, Venezuela, and the Middle East either used up or soon to be significantly depleted, the future of oil rests on third-rate stuff like tar sands, shale oil, and extra-heavy crude that require a lot of energy to extract, processes that emit added greenhouse gases, and as with those tar sands, tend to play havoc with the environment.
Shale gas is typical. Though plentiful, it can only be pried loose from underground shale formations through the use of explosives and highly pressurized water mixed with toxic chemicals. In addition, to obtain the necessary quantities of shale oil, many tens of thousands of wells will have to be sunk across the American landscape, any of one of which could prove to be an environmental disaster.
Likewise, the future of coal will rest on increasingly invasive and hazardous techniques, such as the explosive removal of mountaintops and the dispersal of excess rock and toxic wastes in the valleys below. Any increase in the use of coal will also enhance climate change, since coal emits more carbon dioxide than do oil and natural gas.
Here’s the bottom line: Any expectations that ever-increasing supplies of energy will meet demand in the coming years are destined to be disappointed. Instead, recurring shortages, rising prices, and mounting discontent are likely to be the thematic drumbeat of the globe’s energy future.
If we don’t abandon a belief that unrestricted growth is our inalienable birthright and embrace the genuine promise of renewable energy (with the necessary effort and investment that would make such a commitment meaningful), the future is likely to prove grim indeed. Then, the history of energy, as taught in some late twenty-first-century university, will be labeled: How to Wreck the Planet 101.
Image by spaceamoeba, licensed under Creative Commons.
Tuesday, May 24, 2011 4:09 PM
How many times have we been told, since the Fukushima nuclear crisis began, that we’re not being told everything? The revelation that three reactors suffered fuel meltdowns soon after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami—a scenario vigorously denied by plant and government officials at the time—only reinforces my view that whatever the technological wonders of nuclear fission, it’s humans that can’t be trusted. The continually shifting “facts” and belated revelations about the disaster have me wondering how nuclear proponents can continually be seduced by the wonders of this “clean” energy while completely overlooking how miserably it’s being managed, and how the cover-ups keep piling up.
Science journalist John Horgan writes in the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Chronicle Review about his on-and-off status as a nuclear proponent, noting that he “jumped on the pro-nuclear bandwagon” again last fall after being convinced of its safety and its low emissions relative to coal.
Fukushima took a bit of the green glow out of him, though: “I was still congratulating myself for my open-mindedness when the tsunami smashed into Japan, which had been a paragon of nuclear competence.”
The past competence of Japan’s nuclear industry is not very impressive when you dig into it. But setting that aside, Horgan’s main point—that Fukushima ought to at least give us pause—is a rare admission for a nuclear proponent. Horgan, who teaches a class in the history of science and technology at the Stevens Institute of Technology, concludes his commentary by noting that he encourages a healthy skepticism in his classrooms full of techno-optimists:
Here’s what I say to my students: I wish I could encourage you to make a career in nuclear power. Given the current limits of wind and solar energy, we need more nuclear generators to reduce our reliance on coal and other fossil fuels and to curb the effects of global warming. But given the checkered history of nuclear power both in this country and elsewhere, I don’t blame the public for opposing new plants, or for not wanting to live as close to one as I do.
This opposition may thwart the nuclear revival in America. If you want to help solve our energy problems, I tell the young engineers in my classes, you should probably look for a more stable industry. In short, I’m staying on the nuclear bandwagon, but I’m not encouraging anyone to join me.
It seems to all come down to who, and what, you believe and trust. Nuclear power is like a religion, and you’re either a true believer or a skeptic.
Rod Adams pushes a hard pro-nuclear line at his Atomic Insights blog and was one of the people who helped usher Horgan back into the pro-nuke fold after they appeared together on a post-tsunami Bloggingheads.tv discussion. Adams spends a lot of time hashing over the technological arguments surrounding nuclear power, but ultimately even his views are largely an act of faith. One of his most telling personal revelations came in a recent comments-field back-and-forth over a blog post questioning whether Nation environmental reporter Mark Hertsgaard is “a nuclear skeptic or a nuclear crank.” Adams wrote:
. . . I am unabashedly in favor of personal mobility, fresh vegetables in the middle of winter, and moderate indoor temperatures even in July and August in the steamy southeast U.S. I like fast boats, cruising back roads with the top down, and flying to exotic vacation spots every once in a while. I think our creator has offered us a technology that makes it possible to both eat cake today and to have some available tomorrow.
So there you have it. Adams is very well-practiced at debunking nuclear-energy opponents with oodles of techie talk, but at the end of the day he believes God wants us to drive deluxe motorboats and convertibles and live lives of comfort and convenience—thus he’s given us the knowledge and power to split atoms. To me, this makes Adams little more credible than the anti-nuke zealot who has a gut feeling, deep down inside, that nuclear power is just wrong.
Source: Chronicle of Higher Education, Bloggingheads.tv, Atomic Insights
Image by Sakucae, licensed under Creative Commons.
Monday, May 16, 2011 4:20 PM
Would you want to go camping, hiking, biking, or trail running with the Koch brothers? Me neither. Well, then, why on earth would you want to do any of those things with the products they help make?
That’s the thorny question that may face many green-minded outdoor recreationists when it sinks in that a host of material brands used in their gear are controlled by the right-wing brothers David and Charles Koch, who have been widely outed as major funders of anti-environment politics and climate-change denial PR campaigns.
Like what materials, you ask?
Like the Polarguard insulation in your sleeping bag, the Coolmax fabric in your running outfit, the Lycra in your swimwear, the Supplex in your windbreaker, and—woe upon woe—the Cordura that’s ubiquitous in the gear world. I own duffels, backpacks, stuff sacks, fanny packs, bike bags, luggage, gaiters, and binocular cases made of the stuff.
Now, it’s no surprise to me that these materials are all made from petroleum, so I had an inkling they weren’t exactly the most sustainable products: Using “dinosaur squeezin’s” to make fabric and insulation is as problematic as using it to fuel our cars. But it pains me to think that the very gear that helps me journey out into inspirational natural settings is tainted because it’s part of a corporate machine that is quite literally and demonstrably destroying the very same natural world.
What’s the answer?
Well, for me, it’s going to start with taking a close look at the “ingredients” in any gear I consider buying and trying my best to avoid Koch-related components. I have considered replacing my well-worn canvas Duluth canoe pack with a lighter, more rain-repellent Cordura-based model—but hey, what’s the hurry? I’ve started to check out new bike commuter panniers as mine wear out, but I’ll look into rubber, hemp, and other materials before I’ll go for a straight-up replacement. And sorry, ladies, but my new body-hugging Speedo purchase is indefinitely postponed.
The sad fact is, you’d have to work really hard to keep the Kochs entirely out of your life—Daily Kos rounded up a full roster of Koch-controlled brands, and it’s dauntingly broad, from Brawny paper towels and Quilted Northern toilet paper to Georgia Pacific building products and Stainmaster carpet. But I’m one of those idealistic types who thinks that individual spending decisions really can make a difference, and if “outdoorsy” people aren’t going to go up against these modern-day barons, who will?
Some folks might claim that politics and commerce should remain separate realms, but the Kochs certainly wouldn’t claim any such compartmentalization. In fact, as The Nation recently reported, Koch Industries has aggressively moved to influence its own workers’ voting decisions in the wake of the Citizens United Supreme Court ruling, which held that corporations hold political lobbying rights akin to human rights.
There’s been a bit of chatter about the Koch-Cordura connection—a question on an REI forum, mutterings in green circles after boycott-Koch lists were posted—but frankly I think a lot of people conveniently avoid thinking too hard about how their gear-store decisions are tied to the planet. (Just like their SUV and air travel and sushi habits.) PR-savvy Cordura, perhaps aware that a storm may be a-brewin’, is running a hip new “Most Durable Person” sweepstakes that’s being co-sponsored and hyped by the Gear Junkie, the gear fetishist’s top online enabler, who in a breathless 30th birthday post in 2007 called Cordura “the fabric of our lives” and “a mainstay miracle fabric.”
Describing it as “a commodity material used by hundreds of outdoors gear companies,” the Gear Junkie noted that Koch acquired the brand in 2004 from Dupont—meaning that nearly all of my Cordura gear, since it predates the sale, is 100 percent Koch-free. Which will allow me to sleep just a little better in my tent at night.
I’ve previously called for the outdoor gear industry to step up and start greening up its act. Many gear companies could start, it seems, by looking at their supply chains and seeing if anyone named Koch is involved.
Sources: Daily Kos, The Nation, REI, Gear Junkie
Image by mariachily, licensed under Creative Commons.
Tuesday, May 03, 2011 4:16 PM
President Obama’s tenacity in clinging to nuclear power is astounding. With the Fukushima disaster still spewing radiation into the atmosphere and brutal budget cuts on the table, Obama wants to extend another $36 billion in taxpayer-guaranteed loans to the nuclear industry to build new plants—in addition to the $18.5 billion he has already offered.
Writes Nation environmental correspondent Mark Hertsgaard, “As health, education, and other social services are being sacrificed on the false altar of deficit reduction, $54.5 billion is a massive amount of money. Worse, Obama is shoveling money at nuclear energy at the very same time he has diverted funds from renewable energy.”
Hertsgaard sees Obama’s nuclear ambitions as playing into “a larger meta-narrative dominating discussion of the Fukushima disaster here in the United States”:
Yes, Fukushima is scary, the narrative goes, but it is far away, our own nuclear plants pose little danger and, besides, neither our economy nor the fight against climate change can succeed without more nukes. Even the usually sensible nonprofit journalism enterprise ProPublica is publishing articles implying that anything less than a Chernobyl-scale disaster amounts to only “limited” impact.
The supreme tragedy here is that more nuclear power is not only unnecessary but downright unhelpful to securing America’s, and the world’s, economic and environmental future. Countless studies have shown that the enormous financial cost and long construction times of nuclear power plants make them the costliest, slowest way to supply electricity and reduce greenhouse gas emissions (which is exactly why investors demand loan guarantees rather than risk their own money to build new nukes).
Even with Obama’s bully-pulpit backing, the phenomenally bad economics of building new plants are dogging the industry, reports the New York Times’ Matthew L. Wald. One expert tells Wald that he thinks nuclear plant construction will “go quiet” for two to five years, and Wald notes that “of the four nuclear reactor construction projects that the Energy Department identified in 2009 as the most deserving for the loans, two have lost major partners and seem unlikely to recover soon.”
Obama’s strategy is for U.S. taxpayers to take on the risk that energy investors are afraid to touch. Having already committed us to $18.5 billion, he wants to effectively triple our exposure.
“A federal loan guarantee is a little like a parent co-signing a child’s car loan; if the child makes the payments, the parent pays nothing,” writes Wald. But “If the builders default, as happened on some nuclear construction projects in the 1980s, the taxpayer liabilities could run into the billions of dollars.”
That’s a loan I wouldn’t co-sign. Would you?
UPDATE 5/6/11: Apparently, Rep. Ed Markey wouldn’t. The Massachusetts Democrat today released a letter he sent to the Office of Management and Budget demanding answers to several questions regarding loan guarantees for new nuclear reactors and the risk to taxpayers, reports the Nuclear Information and Research Service.
Sources: The Nation, New York Times
, licensed under
Friday, April 08, 2011 5:25 PM
In Canada’s tar sands, oil is extracted from the earth in a destructive, laborious, energy-sucking process that makes the end product one of the dirtiest forms of oil. It leaves behind a denuded landscape and is blamed for a host of ills, including cancer, in local people. The industry also employs many people and fills a need: Our insatiable thirst for energy.
Earth Island Journal editor Jason Mark journeys to the heart of tar sands country in Northern Alberta, wrestles with thorny ethical dilemmas, and comes away with a stark insight:
In the simplest language, the debate over the morality of the tar sands comes down to a plain choice of who and what we are willing to destroy.
Mark reveals that we may end up destroying people like Marlene and Mike Orr, two residents of the mostly indigenous residents of Fort McKay, Alberta, who became whistleblowers when they spoke out against a dangerous mining waste disposal pond—and now fear the consequences of doing so. For as Mark points out, “There is not a person [in Fort McKay] who doesn’t understand that without the multibillion-dollar oil sands industry they would likely would have no likelihood at all.”
Marlene Orr describes to Mark some of the contradictions in play:
“What people outside of here need to understand when you’re talking about the impacts of oil sands, it’s not black and white. Everybody gets the health concerns, the traffic problems, the light pollution. But people are unwilling to speak out because this community is 100 percent dependent on the oil sands. There’s not a job here that’s not connected to the oil sands. Every one of us here in this community has ambivalent feelings—the health impacts, the cultural impacts, the impacts on band governance. But what do you do? Bite the hand that feeds you?”
In his editor’s note in the same issue, “Don’t Blame Canada,” Mark takes issue with environmental groups that aim to cripple the mighty tar sands machine, and notes that there’s plenty of blame to go around, even to you and me:
Convinced that they can slow the razing of the boreal forest if they can only plug the oil outflow, environmental groups in the U.S. and Canada have set their sites on stopping the expansion of cross border pipelines, halting the retrofitting of American refineries, and preventing the shipment of mining technologies. The basic idea seems to be that by squeezing supply we can increase the price of fossil fuels—and discourage their use. …
Environmental campaigners can do all the blaming and shaming of Canadian oil tycoons and financiers that they like. The fact is, there’s no way to halt the tar sands at the source. The only way to shut down the mines is to make them obsolete. And that will require finally getting over our addiction to oil. Given that more than half of the tar sands petroleum is consumed in the United States, the responsibility for the destruction up north lies with those of us who live south of the 49th parallel.
Source: Earth Island Journal
Panel image by sbamueller, licensed under Creative Commons.
Wednesday, March 09, 2011 1:01 PM
A common criticism of electric cars is that they’ve simply got “long tailpipes”—that is, they still pollute, albeit at the power plant where their power is generated rather than at the auto itself. But this critique ultimately doesn’t hold much air, our sister publication Mother Earth News has found after crunching the numbers on electric car emissions:
In terms of climate change emissions, electric cars are generally much cleaner than conventional gas vehicles. In areas of the country that have the cleanest power generation (more wind, solar and hydropower), electric cars emit far less greenhouse gases, not only compared with conventional vehicles, but also compared with efficient hybrid-electric vehicles. In areas of the country with the dirtiest power generation (coal), an efficient hybrid may be your best environmental bet, though if you’re gentle on the pedal, an electric car may yield comparable results. On a national average basis, an efficient electric car emits about half the amount of carbon dioxide as a conventional car, and roughly the same amount as an efficient hybrid.
Read the full article to learn about all the factors that determine auto efficiency and emissions, and see the accompanying U.S. map of electric car CO2 emissions by region to get a sense of how your area stacks up.
The next time you hear the long-tailpipe argument, you’ll know enough to challenge this bit of common nonsense.
Source: Mother Earth News
Image by frankh, licensed under Creative Commons.
Wednesday, February 02, 2011 2:36 PM
Most zoologists would be thrilled to find an animal species yet unknown to science—but Kim Howell’s 1996 discovery of a rare toad in Tanzania has turned out to be a mixed blessing, since it lived near a river waterfall that was slated to be dammed for hydropower. In a gripping conservation tale called simply “The Toad,” Guernica recounts Howell’s discovery and the ensuing conflict it has brought—to him, to Tanzania, and to the beleaguered amphibian at the center of the fight:
Discovering a new species can define a zoologist’s career and Howell’s big find came in 1996 when he reached into some vegetation at the base of a waterfall and pulled out a little toad, believed to inhabit the smallest native habitat of any vertebrate on Earth. Following his discovery, the Kihansi spray toad became the focus of one of the most controversial conservation efforts in recent decades, a crucible for the clash between biodiversity conservation and Tanzania’s need for economic development.
“I’ve often said I wish I had never discovered the toad,” reflected Howell.
In plot turns that recall an outrageous T.C. Boyle story but are in fact true, author Maura R. O’Connor describes an elaborate artificial spray system set up to mist the wild toads’ habitat after the dam was built; an airlift in which 500 toads were flown, in boxes lined with foil and wet paper towels, to a captive breeding program at the Bronx Zoo; and the wild toads’ subsequent extinction, probably from a fungus that has endangered amphibians worldwide. Now scientists are considering reintroducing the Kihansi spray toad to its native gorge at great cost—and with great uncertainty.
Ultimately, story prods us to ask hard questions. How far should we go in attempting to save endangered species? Is an animal removed from its native habitat really “saved”? One ethicist lays out some of the terrain to O’Connor:
“We’ll never know with any degree of certainty whether these animals can be reintroduced or not,” said Mark Michael, a professor of environmental ethics at Austin Peay State University in Tennessee. “There are a lot of environmentalists who say, ‘If you take a species out of the wild and there is very little possibility of reintroducing them, then you shouldn’t do it.’”
But proponents of captive breeding believe it’s better to have the species in the world than to let them disappear, even if the animals that remain in zoos are essentially, as Michael said, “museum pieces.”
Image by Julie Larsen Maher ©
Wildlife Conservation Society
Wednesday, January 05, 2011 2:52 PM
Judy Bonds, the environmental activist who fought against destructive and toxic coal mining in her native Appalachia and was named an Utne visionary in 2009, has died of cancer.
It’s a huge loss for those who are fighting against mountaintop removal coal mining: Bonds was a brave and defiant front-line combatant in the coal wars, a morale-boosting speaker to fellow activists, and a mentor and teacher to many young environmentalists.
I interviewed Judy Bonds when we chose her as an Utne visionary, and she essentially summed up the reason for her fight in just a few words:
“Basically, I’m a coal miner’s daughter and granddaughter, and I’m an eighth generation resident here in the Coal River Valley. I lived in a little holler in Marfork, and Massey [Energy] moved into my holler and began to mine coal so irresponsibly that it just really smacked me in the face. I realized somebody’s got to do something.”
Bonds did something, all right. She became the codirector of Coal River Mountain Watch and helped raise the profile and tenor of the mountaintop removal debate, turning it an issue that many Americans are now aware of—even if we haven’t collectively figured out how to wean ourselves off dirty coal.
I hope that before Bonds passed, she heard the good news reported in the Washington Post that no new coal plants were built in 2010, with one banker calling coal “a dead man walkin’” in terms of attracting investment.
At Huffington Post, Jeff Biggers rounds up reactions to Judy Bonds’ death from all over the green activism world, and at Grist fellow activist and West Virginian Mary Anne Hitt pens a very personal reminiscence of Bonds’ inspirational qualities.
Judy, we’ll miss you.
Sources: Washington Post,
Image courtesy of Coal River Mountain Watch.
Tuesday, November 16, 2010 12:27 PM
Under the Democratic-led Congress, action against climate change went essentially nowhere. Under the coming Republican-led Congress, it appears to be headed backward.
Republican Illinois Representative John Shimkus, who according to the New York Times Green blog stands a dark-horse chance of chairing the House Energy and Commerce Committee, has gone so far as to suggest that climate change won’t destroy the planet because God promised Noah it wouldn’t. His 2009 comments, recounted here by London’s Daily Mail, sent a shockwave of amazement through the progressive and environmental blogospheres:
Speaking before a House Energy Subcommittee on Energy and Environment hearing in March, 2009, Shimkus quoted Chapter 8, Verse 22 of the Book of Genesis.
He said: “As long as the earth endures, seed time and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, will never cease.”
The Illinois Republican continued: “I believe that is the infallible word of God, and that’s the way it is going to be for his creation.
“The earth will end only when God declares its time to be over. Man will not destroy this earth. This earth will not be destroyed by a flood.”
Speaking to Politico after his comments went viral, Shimkus stood behind them, clarifying that while he believes climate change is occurring, he thinks it’s folly to spend taxpayer dollars trying to stop “changes that have been occurring forever.”
See Shimkus’ 2009 remarks on the Bible and climate change in this video:
UPDATE 11/19/2010: At least one brave Republican in Congress concedes that global warming is real and should be aggressively addressed. There’s a problem, though: He’s just been voted out of office.
Sources: New York Times Green, Daily Mail, Politico
Monday, October 18, 2010 4:50 PM
Are our institutions of higher learning becoming dens of corporate complicity? That’s the thread running through a spate of recent stories that reveal how a trio of heavies—Big Oil, Big Agriculture, and Big Pharma—are pulling strings at U.S. universities. Each tale, on its own, is unsettling. Taken together, they paint a picture of collusion in which intellectual freedom and moral decency take a back seat to the mighty promise of profit:
• Oil giants spent $880 million over the last decade to support energy research at 10 large universities, according to a report covered by Kate Sheppard on the Mother Jones website. The report by the left-leaning Center for American Progress, “Big Oil Goes to College,” concludes that these ties constitute a threat to academic independence and good science.
• Mother Jones details in its Sept.-Oct. issue how a young man having psychotic episodes was coerced into a pharmaceutical industry study at the University of Minnesota—and ended up dead. The tragic tale, based on a great piece of newspaper reporting by Paul Tosto and Jeremy Olson of the St. Paul Pioneer Press, is a vivid glimpse into the dark side of market-driven drug trials.
• The Chronicle of Higher Education reports on “The Secret Lives of Big Pharma’s ‘Thought Leaders,’” also known as key opinion leaders, or KOLs: the influential academic physician-researchers who are paid by drug companies to basically shill for their brands—but not overtly, of course. That would be unseemly. Instead, they deftly blend their conflicting roles and realize substantial payouts for their credibility-lending efforts. “The KOL is a combination of celebrity spokesperson, neighborhood gossip, and the popular kid in high school,” writes Carl Elliott for The Chronicle. The piece makes me want to read Elliot’s new book, White Coat, Black Hat: Adventures on the Dark Side of Medicine (Beacon Press).
• The Chronicle of Higher Education also recently reported on an incident in which Big Ag seemed to be calling shots at the University of Iowa: A shoo-in candidate for a sustainability program position was brushed off after he suggested that cows eat grass—not a message that sits well with the factory-farm titans who are entwined with the university.
• Finally, a recent blowup at the University of Minnesota carried another strong whiff of Big Ag influence. An environmental documentary film, Troubled Waters, that ascribed water pollution in part to farming practices was pulled from a public television broadcast amid criticism from a university dean that it “vilified agriculture.” Ultimately, the film was reinstated after a public backlash to the move—and the university vice president who canceled it publicly apologized. Paula Crossfield covered the controversy at the blog Civil Eats (later reposted at Grist and Huffington Post), although Twin Cities Daily Planet reporter Molly Priesmeyer broke the story and stayed on it.
It’s not lost on me that several of these conflicts of interest occurred at my alma mater, the University of Minnesota. If I were the type of person who displayed my degrees on the wall, my B.A. from the university would be losing a bit of its luster right now. University of Minnesota President Robert Bruininks said after the film imbroglio that academic freedom is the “cornerstone of all great American universities.” I see signs of that cornerstone crumbling—and I hope that hard-working journalists keep drawing attention to it before there’s a complete structural failure.
Sources: Mother Jones, Chronicle of Higher Education, Civil Eats, Grist, Huffington Post, Twin Cities Daily Planet
Image by minnemom, licensed under Creative Commons.
Tuesday, October 12, 2010 12:19 PM
Ecuador has struck a historic agreement to leave one-fifth of its oil reserves untapped forever. The move protects a marvelously rich area of the Amazon rainforest and will net Ecuador $3.6 billion in compensation—half the oil’s estimated value at today’s market rates—from a United Nations trust fund supported by developed countries.
Reports Positive News:
The region is considered to be one of the most biodiverse on the planet and was declared a World Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO in 1989. It has more tree species in a single hectare than the U.S. and Canada combined and is teeming with a diverse array of insects, birds, amphibians, and mammals, a significant number of which are endangered. The 675-square-mile Ishpingo Tambococha Tiputini sector is the ancestral territory of the Huaorani people, as well as the Tagaeri and Taromenane—two of the last remaining “uncontacted” tribes in the world.
Before U.N. conspiracy theorists get all worked up about this, they should keep in mind that the fund, run by the United Nations Development Program, is a voluntary endeavor in which “donor countries, philanthropists and individuals around the world are being invited to pay the money in return for a non-exploitation guarantee,” reports Britain’s Guardian. So far, Germany has indicated it will pay $800 million over 13 years, while Spain, France, and Switzerland are considering chipping in. Writes the Guardian:
The idea of rich countries paying poor countries not to exploit their forests in return for financial compensation is being promoted [in global climate change discussions] … But the idea of paying poor countries not to develop valuable oil reserves is believed to be the most radical and most forward-looking yet.
Of course, the recent unrest in Ecuador, including an incident that President Rafael Correa described as a coup attempt, doesn’t bode well for these sorts of deals—if Correa were unseated by hostile forces, would his successor honor the no-drilling pact? Join a debate at United Nations University about the pros and cons of this new approach to conservation.
Source: Positive News
(article not available online), The Guardian, United Nations University
Image by ggallice, licensed under Creative Commons.
Wednesday, September 01, 2010 3:06 PM
Greenpeace is at it again, getting in the way of what some would call progress: Yesterday, four daring and well-trained Greenpeace activists climbed and occupied an oil rig in Greenland’s Baffin Bay to halt exploratory drilling by Cairn Energy, Environment News Service reports. If they hold out long enough, they may disrupt drilling plans for another year.
I recently tipped Utne.com readers to a commentary by Icelander Miriam Rose on the rush to extract resource riches from Greenland. But Greenpeace’s action shows that not everyone is willing to sit by and watch it happen. Greenpeace and other environmental groups contend that drilling in Baffin Bay is particularly risky because of its northern clime and sensitive ecosystem.
The protesters had been at the scene for days, staying outside a perimeter guarded by the Danish military. (Greenland is an autonomous state under the Danish crown.) They evaded the Danish military in a crafty predawn move on the rig, speeding to it in inflatable boats and quickly scaling to suspended climbing platforms. I know that more and more people are doing good green works on adventurous eco-vacations, but these guys take the cake. Here’s a video report from Sim McKenna, a U.S. Greenpeace activist who’s spending his “holiday” dangling from a rig over choppy ocean waters:
UPDATE 9/2/2010: The activists were forced to end their occupation by “harsh arctic weather conditions” after about 40 hours. “We stopped this rig drilling for oil for two days, but in the end the Arctic weather beat us,” McKenna said in a statement via satellite phone from the rig before being arrested. “Last night was freezing and now the sea below us is churning and the wind is roaring. It’s time to come down, but we’re proud we slowed the mad rush for Arctic oil, if only for a couple of days.” Soon after this news was reported, an oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico, located just west of the recent Deepwater Horizon spill site, exploded.
Source: Environment News Service, Greenpeace
Wednesday, August 04, 2010 11:24 AM
Nuclear power plants have a life expectancy of about 40 years. Many U.S. plants are near the end of that span—and like many humans at a similar stage, their plumbing is going to hell, writes Terry J. Allen in In These Times. “America’s nuclear power plants are more incontinent than a nonagenarian with an enlarged prostate,” she warns, noting that pipes at 27 of America’s 65 nuclear power sites have leaked radioactive material.
Nonetheless, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has grandfathered in lower standards and rubberstamped all 59 applications it received for extending the operating life of reactors for another 20 years, and is … expected to consider 37 more renewals in the next seven years.
Allen notes that a leak was discovered this spring at the 38-year-old Vermont Yankee plant, which was the site of a fire in 2004 and a partially collapsed cooling tower in 2007. The Vermont legislature refused to relicense the facility beyond its 2012 license expiration, and just a couple of weeks ago Rep. Edward Markey (D.-Mass), the chairman of the House energy and environment subcommittee, cited Vermont Yankee as a poster child for derelict nuclear plants in a letter to the NRC that was reported by the Washington Independent:
“After decades underground, neither the NRC nor the plant operators can be absolutely certain that the pipes are intact. I am appalled by the safety procedures not only at Vermont Yankee, but at other nuclear facilities across the country who have failed to inspect thousands of miles of buried pipes at their facilities.”
Another nuclear plant leak in Vermont, reported by the Boston Globe the day before Markey sent his letter, had put an exclamation point on the issue. Tritium was discovered in a monitoring well outside the Pilgrim Nuclear Station in Plymouth, and while the NRC said the leak wasn’t a threat to public health, the official line from Pilgrim wasn’t exactly reassuring:
David Tarantino, Pilgrim spokesman, said that a team of environmental engineers, chemists, maintenance, and operations specialists, and others are now trying to pinpoint the source of the tritium.
“It’s in an area where there’s lots of underground systems that carry radioactive water, but we can’t even say for certain that it’s a leaking system yet,’’ he said.
Sources: In These Times, Washington Independent, Boston Globe
Image by AmyZZZ1, licensed under Creative Commons.
Tuesday, July 06, 2010 1:33 PM
Think of it this way: When you’re on your iPhone, the tap is running. The technology magazine IEEE Spectrum considers just how much water is used in creating the energy that runs our everyday electronic devices—and our society at large:
Plug your iPhone into the wall, and about half a liter of water must flow through kilometers of pipes, pumps, and the heat exchangers of a power plant. That’s a lot of money and machinery just so you can get a 6–watt-hour charge for your flashy little phone. Now, add up all the half-liters of water used to generate the roughly 17 billion megawatt-hours that the world will burn through this year. Trust us, it’s a lot of water. In the United States alone, on just one average day, more than 500 billion liters of freshwater travel through the country’s power plants—more than twice what flows through the Nile.
This illuminating bit of number crunching is part of an ambitious IEEE Spectrum special report, “Water vs. Energy,” that explores the intertwined, sometimes oppositional relationships of these two resources. It’s well worth reading in order to prepare for a dryer, warmer world.
Source: IEEE Spectrum
Image by www.jzx100.com, licensed under Creative Commons.
Wednesday, June 30, 2010 4:51 PM
Wendell Berry is truly a man of letters: The famously computer-hating agrarian writer still pens all his essays and books by hand. So it’s got to hurt the University of Kentucky to hear that it won’t be getting his voluminous archives as it had expected. Why? Because Berry, a man of rock-hard principle, is offended that the university is naming a new dorm for basketball players the Wildcat Coal Lodge in order to please coal-friendly donors.
The Lexington Herald-Leader got its hands on the acid letter Berry sent to the university regarding the matter. “It is now obviously wrong, unjust and unfair,” he wrote, “for your space and work to be encumbered by a collection of papers that I no longer can consider donating to the University.”
The papers measure 60 cubic feet in volume and would fill about 100 boxes, the Herald-Leader reports. They remain at the school while Berry negotiates their transfer to the Kentucky Historical Society in Frankfort.
Are university officials surprised? They wouldn’t be if they looked back to this passage in a 2005 essay by Berry, which originally appeared in the book Missing Mountains: We Went to the Mountaintop But It Wasn’t There: Kentuckians Write Against Mountaintop Removal (Wind Publications):
Coal is undoubtedly something of value. And it is, at present, something we need—though we must hope we will not always need it, for we will not always have it. But coal, like the other fossil fuels, is a peculiar commodity. It is valuable to us only if we burn it. Once burned, it is no longer a commodity but only a problem, a source of energy that has become a source of pollution. And the source of the coal itself is not renewable. When the coal is gone, it will be gone forever, and the coal economy will be gone with it. … If Kentuckians, upstream and down, ever fulfill their responsibilities to the precious things they have been given—the forests, the soils, and the streams—they will do so because they will have accepted a truth that they are going to find hard: the forests, the soils and the streams are worth far more than the coal for which they are now being destroyed.
See the full essay at the website of ILoveMountains.org.
Source: Lexington Herald-Leader, ILoveMountains
Image by David Marshall, licensed under Creative Commons.
Tuesday, June 29, 2010 4:57 PM
It’s the season of air conditioning in the Northern Hemisphere, which means spiking energy demands. Environmental writer Stan Cox breaks down just what this means in his book Losing Our Cool: Uncomfortable Truths About Our Air-Conditioned World (and Finding New Ways to Get Through the Summer), which came out in spring from The New Press.
German researchers, he reports, have projected that because of global warming and rising populations, cooling demand will rise by 65 to 72 percent in the next four decades. Writes Cox:
Even though the majority of people now living in the world’s hottest climates cannot afford air-conditioning now and probably still won’t have access to it in 2050, millions of homes, offices, other buildings, and vehicles on every continent will be newly air-conditioned or be reinforced with beefed-up cooling systems; that will add to energy demand and put greater stress on global efforts to cultivate sources of energy that will not further worsen global warming.
In this arena, the United States is the undisputed champion. Already, air-conditioning is approaching 20 percent of year-round electricity consumption by American homes, the highest percentage in our history. In the commercial sector, it uses 13 percent. Air-conditioning by homes, businesses, and public buildings together was consuming a total of 484 billion kilowatt-hours per year by 2007. Compare this to 1955, when I was born into Georgia’s late August heat. That year, the nation consumed a total of 497 billion kilowatt-hours for all uses, not just air-conditioning. We use as much electricity for air-conditioning now as is consumed by all 930 million residents of the continent of Africa.
So what are we supposed to do, shut off our units and sweat it out? Cox covers the myriad ways that policy, design, and architecture can help create a less AC-addicted society, but also suggests that we might need to readjust some of our most treasured notions of comfort:
Without the extremes, enjoyment of moderate conditions declines. After I have worked outdoors through a broiling-hot day, I find that walking into a supercooled office or grocery store is satisfying in the extreme—at first. Yet what I look forward to most is that moment at seven or nine or ten at night when, as I’m sitting on a porch or near a window, I feel that first slightly cool breeze come through. It can make all the preceding hours in the heat worthwhile. That, I realize, may make me seem a little daft, but the world provides a delicious spread of thermal variations from which to choose … .
Anyone looking to cool their home sans AC should check out the articles and blog posts on whole-house fans and ceiling fans by our sister publication, Mother Earth News. And over at our other sibling, Natural Home, editor Robyn Griggs Lawrence has just written about a superefficient new air conditioner design that’s still five years from market but offers hope that on this subject cooler heads may yet prevail.
Sources: Losing Our Cool, Mother Earth News, Natural Home
Image by ToddMorris, licensed under Creative Commons.
Friday, June 18, 2010 3:12 PM
If the BP oil spill were a practice drill for an even larger environmental disaster—say, out-of-control climate change—our society and particularly our leaders have failed the drill with their ineffective response. Bradford Plumer of The New Republic describes what “absolutely terrifies” him about the spill:
What’s especially unnerving … is that the recklessness that helped bring about the spill, and the political reaction that followed, seem to indicate a larger inability to prevent and cope with other large-scale ecological catastrophes—particularly climate change. … With both the oil spill and climate change, there seems to be a lingering sense that technology can come along and save us if things ever get too ominous. … And yet, as we’ve seen with the flailing cleanup efforts in the Gulf, there’s not always a technological solution. Nature, once despoiled, can’t always be fixed. Sometimes disaster strikes and there’s simply nothing we (or even James Cameron) can do. What’s more, when dealing with complex ecological systems, quick fixes can often make the situation worse. The chemical dispersants that BP is using to break up the surface oil could end up wreaking havoc on the food chain on the seafloor—no one really knows. Likewise, we have little idea about whether those wacky geoengineering schemes could end up, say, disrupting rainfall patterns around the globe.
Source: The New Republic
Tuesday, May 04, 2010 3:15 PM
Last week, a few alternative and environmental news outlets drew attention to a newly published science book that put the cumulative death toll of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear accident at more than a million—a story that had particular resonance on the 24th anniversary of the reactor meltdown, the book’s publication date. But the story did not bleed out into the mainstream media, and even the progressive website Alternet seemed suspicious, calling the 1 million estimate an “astounding allegation” in its headline.
The number is dramatically higher than the estimate of 4,000 deaths presented in a 2005 report by the International Atomic Energy Agency, the World Health Organization, and the United Nations Development Program—a figure that has often been criticized as being far too low and influenced by the IAEA’s pro-nuclear agenda.
Where is the truth here? It’s an awfully long way from 4,000 to one million—996,000, in fact. If the truth is somewhere in between the two figures, neither one is of much help to people who are trying to decide whether new nuclear plants—such as those President Obama has proposed—are a safe energy source.
The book that raised eyebrows last week was published by the New York Academy of Sciences, a well respected, almost 200-year-old scientific society, so it carried a whiff of academic rigor. But just six days after the book’s publication, NYAS issued an online statement in which it downplayed the currency of the information and distanced itself from it. The statement notes that the book was based on a report originally published online in November 2009, which itself was the translation of a 2007 publication:
The Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences issue “Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment,” therefore, does not present new, unpublished work, nor is it a work commissioned by the New York Academy of Sciences. The expressed views of the authors, or by advocacy groups or individuals with specific opinions about the Annals Chernobyl volume, are their own. Although the New York Academy of Sciences believes it has a responsibility to provide an open forum for discussion of scientific questions, the Academy has no intent to influence legislation by providing such forums.
The messages I take away from this not-very-deeply-coded missive are threefold: 1) The information isn’t all that new, so move along; 2) We’re not backing up the scientists, so caveat emptor; and 3) Corporate partners and foundation heavyweights, please don’t cut our funding because you think we’re anti-nuke.
While both studies appear to have credibility problems, the larger question is this: If the United States is going to enter a new era of nuclear power, as a host of observers have predicted, we’re going to have to get a firmer handle on its potential downside in a worst-case scenario. Techno-optimists who believe in the awesome power of science should create a panel of independent medical and public health experts—outside the IAEA—to arrive at a Chernobyl death estimate that both pro- and anti-nuclear forces can trust. Until then, potential supporters of both camps have 996,000 reasons to doubt what they’re told.
Sources: New York Academy of Sciences, Alternet, IAEA
Friday, April 30, 2010 5:08 PM
It’s easy to avert your eyes from disasters like the Gulf of Mexico oil rig spill, but for people willing to hold their gaze and witness our oil addiction’s worst side effects, there’s plenty of excellent media coverage of this slowly unfolding tragedy. Among our favorites:
The New York Times published an interactive map detailing the wildlife that could be at risk. Audubon’s blog The Perch also covers the wildlife angle, including not just birds but whales, turtles, and sharks.
Agence France Presse (via Grist) reports that Louisiana shrimpers have filed a lawsuit against rig operator BP, accusing it of negligence, seeking millions of dollars in damages for the catch they’re going to lose.
The Houston Chronicle reports that investigators had been noticing more oil rigs having “blowouts” during a procedure in which they cement the walls of undersea wells.
Grist has ongoing coverage—much from Agence France Presse—and commentary, including a piece by Keith Harrington speculating that the accident may lead to a better climate bill. Harrington points out that before Obama approved new drilling, “10 coastal state senators wrote a letter to their colleagues John Kerry (D-Mass.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) pressing the trio to keep expanded offshore drilling out of their now floundering climate and energy package.”
At The Atlantic, Andrew Sullivan writes, “If the Democrats do not use this disaster to advance the energy bill ASAP, they may miss a critical moment to escape the oil addiction even George W. Bush acknowledged in his final years.”
Grist’s Jonathan Hiskes thinks Sullivan has it only “half right,” though: “It is a critical moment that Democrats are insane not to use, but the KGL [Kerry-Graham-Lieberman] energy bill isn’t the plan we need—it’s the least-terrible bill that was believed to have a chance of passing in the Senate. Now, with this ongoing crisis changing the political climate, there should be an opening for a better bill.”
Kate Sheppard at Mother Jones noted that political winds were already shifting: “On Friday, environmental groups, many of which had indicated a willingness to accept some offshore drilling in a climate and energy bill in exchange for components like a price on carbon pollution and a renewable energy standard, were rallying in opposition to Obama’s plan. “We were willing to accept some new drilling, but this changes everything,” said Athan Manuel, director of the lands protection program at Sierra Club. “I can’t imagine there’s going to be any offshore drilling in this bill.”
Sources: New York Times, Audubon, Grist, Houston Chronicle, The Atlantic, Mother Jones
Tuesday, April 27, 2010 5:43 PM
In the campaign against mountaintop removal coal mining in Appalachia, many of the leading organizers are women. There’s Judy Bonds of Coal River Mountain Watch, whom we named an Utne visionary last year (and who is pictured here with another Utne visionary, Majora Carter of Sustainable South Bronx ). There’s Maria Gunnoe of the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, who along with Bonds has won the Goldman Environmental Prize for her efforts. And, reports make/shift, there are front-line activists like Zoe Beavers, who did grunt work on a ground support crew for tree-sitters at a West Virginia mine site last August. (She was rewarded with trespassing charges.) Make/shift puts the work of these women in historical perspective:
Today’s activists are part of a long tradition. In 1965, Ollie “Widow” Combs laid down in front of the bulldozer readying to strip-mine her Kentucky farm. In the courtroom where she was sentenced to 20 hours in jail, the 61-year-old expressed her desire simply: to go back to her hollow and live out the rest of her life in peace. Contemporary activists take this demand a step further: they don’t want coal-related industries devastating anyone’s home.
Source: make/shift (article not available online)
Image by James Chase, courtesy of Coal River Mountain Watch.
Friday, April 02, 2010 5:33 PM
The Environmental Protection Agency has finally taken a tougher stance on mountaintop removal coal mining, announcing Thursday that it would clamp down on the industry practice of blasting apart mountains and dumping the rubble into mountain streams. It’s not clear whether last week’s colorful protest outside the EPA played a role, but it certainly couldn’t have hurt.
The announcement came as very good news to environmentalists dispirited by Obama’s support earlier in the week for massively expanded offshore oil drilling. The administration’s new automobile fuel efficiency deadline—a fleet average of 35.5 mpg by 2016—also announced Thursday added even a little more spring to the step of greens.
Writes Jeff Biggers at Huffington Post:
… the nightmare of mountaintop removal appears to be coming to the end of a long and tortuous road of regulations.
Lorelei Scarbro, a Coal River Mountain Watch community organizer and resident in West Virginia, declared: “We are so thankful that the EPA is basing their decision on science, environmental justice and the health and welfare of coalfield residents. This is a biggy. This is the beginning of the end for valley fills and mountaintop removal. We are not leaving our mountains.”
Coal River Mountain Watch co-director Judy Bonds was chosen as a 2009 Utne Visionary.
Source: Huffington Post
Image by the Sierra Club, licensed under Creative Commons.
Friday, April 02, 2010 9:41 AM
Berkeley, California, is proving that municipal composting of urban food and yard waste is possible—but the city’s program is also experiencing growing pains, according to “Compost Confidential” in the Northern California environmental magazine Terrain:
Good ideas—like enriching the soil of organic farms with compost made from urban food waste—are not necessarily meshing with other good ideas, like using compostable plant-based plastics rather than disposable petroleum-based plastics. Pesticides approved for use on lawns are persisting all the way through the industrial composting process and contaminating the end product, making it unsuitable for organic agriculture. And the development of alternative composting technologies—namely biogas digesters—is provoking a debate over what food and yard waste should be used for.
In other words, large-scale composting is not as simple as it might seem—and it might not always be as grass-roots as some advocates hope. Terrain points out that “composting is an up-and-coming industry” that corporate waste haulers are eager to get into. Texas-based Waste Management Inc. has invested in British Columbia’s Harvest Power, the largest food and yard waste composting facility in North America.
Other cities are getting into the act. Portland, Oregon, plans to start a pilot food-waste program this spring, according to Sustainable Industries, which also reports that Portland, Corvallis, and Salem, Oregon, already have limited commercial food-waste collection.
In related news, Grist reported on April 1 that McDonald’s ditch a planned composting program “after scientists confirmed that no item on the McDonald’s menu is compostable.” Now that smells funny.
Source: Terrain, Sustainable Industries (article not available online), Grist
Image by John Winfield, licensed under Creative Commons.
Monday, March 29, 2010 2:42 PM
Producing beer or wine can leave a significant eco-footprint: Both require water-intensive processes and, as the Berkeley-based environmental magazine Terrain reports, “even mid-size breweries can generate tens of thousands of tons of solid waste each year.” But Terrain brings good tidings, too, of a handful of Northern California breweries and wine companies making sustainable strides, harnessing their waste and byproducts to power their own production processes. Here's just one example:
The view from atop Chico, California’s Sierra Nevada Brewing Company roof is breathtaking. Blue skies and sun—the first clear day the region has seen in weeks—shine on a dizzying quilt of 10,000 rectangular solar panels. The brewery’s 200,000 square feet of blue silicon plates make it one of the country’s largest private solar arrays, but a row of large silos off to the left offers another glimpse of the company’s attempts to operate off the grid.
Each of those silos contains almost 25,000 gallons of beer. To craft that beer, brewers boil the grains, filter out the solids, cool the product, then add yeast to the liquid. That slurry sits in fermenters—the silos—for ten to fourteen days. Yeast, a single-celled organism, eats sugars from the malt and hops. As it digests its food, the yeast exhales carbon dioxide and produces alcohol. But instead of releasing the greenhouse gas into the air, Sierra Nevada diverts it to a storage tank, where it is cleaned and pressurized. It later plays a vital role in the brewery’s operations, adding carbonation to some of the brews and pushing beer from one boiler to another via a labyrinthine series of tubes and pipes. “Our philosophy is a closed-loop approach,” says Cheri Chastain, Sierra Nevada’s sustainability coordinator. “We take the byproducts of brewing and use them for something we need.”
This both saves money and reduces greenhouse gasses, she says. “Carbon dioxide is usually a big purchase for carbonation and dispensing,” Chastain explains. “With the recovery system in place, we’re not releasing carbon dioxide and we’re supplying a hundred percent of what we need. It’s a free fuel source and we have it on-site, so we might as well use it.”
Tuesday, March 23, 2010 3:32 PM
While the health care bill was being hammered out, a different sort of political drama unfolded in Washington at the headquarters of the Environmental Protection Agency, where environmental activists camped out for 32 hours to send a strong message to administrator Lisa Jackson: End mountaintop removal coal mining. The protest didn’t attract many prominent headlines in the shadow of the health care fracas, but like Obama and the Democrats it got the job done.
The protesters’ “purple mountains majesty” tents, built around tripods on which protesters perched, attracted just the sort of attention they were looking for, according to the blog It’s Getting Hot in Here, which publishes “dispatches from the youth climate movement”:
Almost every person who passed through our ‘Purple Mountain’s Majesty’ and underneath the banner “EPA: Pledge to End Mountaintop Removal Coal Mining in 2010” has been incredibly encouraging of our action. EPA employees, tourists and DC residents all demonstrated their support on the issue.
In addition to the many comments from EPA employees that “we are doing a great job” and “please keep doing what you’re doing,” Lisa Jackson personally tweeted her response. Administrator Jackson said in her tweet: “People are here today expressing views on MTM, a critical issue to our country. They’re concerned abt human health & water quality & so am I.”
Sure, it’s just a tweet, but parsing Jackson’s no-doubt-carefully constructed missive is telling. As Jeff Biggers notes at Common Dreams, she uses the acronym MTM, for “mountaintop mining,” a term favored by the coal industry over the more specifically descriptive MTR, for “mountaintop removal.”
Also, Jackson’s focus on human health and water quality sticks to the agency line on this issue. Biggers notes that an EPA spokeswoman yesterday said the protest was “based on a fundamental misunderstanding of EPA’s role” and explained that the EPA does not regulate the mining industry, but is only “responsible for ensuring that projects comply with the Clean Water Act.”
“Except,” notes Biggers, “it’s the mining industry that isn’t complying with the Clean Water Act.”
At Grist, Joshua Kahn Russell writes that actions speak louder than tweets:
At this point in the battle to end mountaintop removal coal mining, the question isn’t about whether Administrator Jackson is concerned about the issue. The question is what is her agency going to really do about it? …
Based on Jackson’s statements on March 8 at the National Press Club, it appears that the EPA is seeking ways to “minimize” the ecological damage of mountaintop mining rather than halt the most extreme strip mining practice. A paper released in January by a dozen leading scientists in the journal Science, however, concluded that mountaintop coal mining is so destructive that the government should stop giving out new permits all together.
One of the chief goals of the EPA protest, which was organized by the Rainforest Action Network, was to get Jackson to accept a citizen-guided flyover of mountaintop removal sites in Appalachia. We’re still waiting for her to tweet her RSVP.
Sources: It’s Getting Hot in Here, Common Dreams, Grist
Images by Chris Eichler, courtesy of Rainforest Action Network.
Tuesday, March 02, 2010 5:40 PM
I like beer, especially distinctive and flavorful craft brews, and I’m an environmentalist. So I was disappointed to learn that the beer-brewing process is incredibly water-intensive, using six to eight gallons of water for every gallon of beer produced. Fortunately, some green-minded brewers are finding ways to reduce their water use, as well as to conserve energy and other resources.
Sustainable Industries reports in its February issue that Full Sail Brewing in Hood River, Oregon, the nation’s ninth largest craft brewery, has taken on water conservation with great zeal, reducing its water use to just 3.45 gallons for each gallon of beer brewed. The brewery also operates on a four-day workweek to cut down on water and energy use.
“We’re dedicated to operating our brewery in the most socially and environmentally sustaining manner possible, while producing world-class ales and lagers of the highest quality,” Full Sail’s website states, throwing in a nod toward the Columbia Gorge area’s natural beauty: “Let’s face it—without this heavenly environment, there would be no heavenly brews.” Read more on the “Responsibility” page of the Full Sail website.
Since I live in the Midwest, near the Great Lakes watershed, I was encouraged to see that many brewers in the Great Lakes region attended an event last October, the Great Lakes Craft Brewers and Water Conservation Conference, that’s been called the first independent gathering to bring together craft brewers, policymakers, and nonprofit organizations to discuss water conservation.
A blogger known unfortunately as the Beer Wench, Ashley Routson, wrote about the conference and the underlying water resource issues. Despite Routson’s limited grasp of environmental issues—she states that water shortages and global warming “are extremely controversial and both are disputed,” which sounds like Denial Inc. talking—she nonetheless compiles some enlightening statistics about declining worldwide water supplies.
One commenter on her post, home brewer Brian Cendrowski, conjures a vivid picture of brewery water use: “I spent a few days interning at a small craft brewer, and it was an eye-opening experience how much water was used throughout the process. It was a like a water park. I felt like I should have had my bathing suit on. Part of the issue for breweries is that everything has to be cleaned and sanitized so thoroughly. That requires water.”
How does the green-beer discussion affect my world? Well, I often drink a local craft brew, Summit Extra Pale Ale, in part because it’s a great beer and in part because I don’t like to buy brews shipped across the country or the world, a carbon-intensive undertaking. (Eat locally, drink locally.) But I don’t see any evidence of environmental consciousness on Summit’s website, let alone in its beer packaging: The 12-pack cartons that hold the best-selling Extra Pale Ale don’t boast of recycled content or even indicate their own recyclability. However, I was encouraged to catch a glimpse of Summit owner Mark Stutrud in a YouTube video report from the Great Lakes conference. Perhaps he was taking notes and is about to unveil some great new green initiatives. In the meantime, I think I’ll pick up a six-pack of Full Sail as a vote of confidence with my wallet.
The next Great Lakes Craft Brewers and Water Conservation Conference will be held October 18 and 19 in Milwaukee and Plain, Wisconsin.
Source: Sustainable Industries (article not available online), Beer Wench, Great Lakes Craft Brewers and Water Conservation Conference
Image by wickenden, licensed under Creative Commons.
Wednesday, February 24, 2010 2:12 PM
Across the globe, people are coming up with innovative ways to generate energy to aid their communities. Clean drinking water flows into a tank every time children play on a merry-go-round in a small town in South Africa. In Essam, Ghana, another merry-go-round built by BYU students generates battery-stored electricity that kids can take home at night.
Through a similar project called Kids Climb-It, a group of graduate students at Columbia University is aiming to educate future generations about energy and social interaction. The Columbia students, along with their professor, Alice Chun, are designing an playground to be built on a 16,000-square-foot lot in Manhattan. The structure will be made of a series of tripods covered in rubber balls and spanned by large climbing nets. Other so-called rubber donuts will be scattered throughout the playground floor for children to jump and climb on. The different components of the park will trigger various effects as children play, such as spraying water
or creating sounds, encouraging children to explore the entire structure. The group also plans to incorporate an energy stopwatch so kids can learn how much energy they can generate as they play.
Although generators positioned throughout the park create enough energy to light the fixtures up at night, the project’s purpose is more focused on education than creating energy. The project’s blog states, “As sustainable energy practices take on ever-increasing importance, Kids Climb-It aims to educate the next generation on the potential power each of us has to affect our surroundings while providing new and unparalleled experiences of fun and exercise.”
D. Sharon Pruitt
, licensed under
Wednesday, February 17, 2010 2:17 PM
On an island in the Baltic Sea, Finland is building what it calls a permanent underground repository for spent nuclear fuel—but that depends on your definition of permanent. IEEE Spectrum writer Sandra Upson takes a trip to Olkiluoto Island to report on the construction of the Onkalo facility, bringing a science-literate but smartly skeptical view to her topic:
Posiva, the Finnish company building an underground repository here, says it knows how to imprison nuclear waste for 100,000 years. These multimillennial thinkers are confident that copper canisters of Scandinavian design, tucked into that bedrock, will isolate the waste in an underground cavern impervious to whatever the future brings: sinking permafrost, rising water, earthquakes, copper-eating microbes, or oblivious land developers in the year 25,000. If the Finnish government agrees—a decision is expected by 2012—this site will become the world’s first deep, permanent repository for spent nuclear fuel.
The plan has its doubters. “It’s deep hubris to think you can contain it,” Charles McCombie, executive director of the Switzerland-based Association for Regional and International Underground Storage, tells IEEE Spectrum.
Upson notes that the island’s residents welcomed the storage facility and the jobs it will bring, but also that
Their confidence that the project will be safe and well managed is unusual and not strongly supported by the historical record of government handling of other forms of high-level nuclear waste.
The United States, Upson points out, has finally canceled funding for a storage facility at Yucca Mountain, Nevada (even as it hands out new nuclear plant loan guarantees), and Sweden is building a “less advanced” facility—leaving the Finnish site as a leader and a bellwether for the success of such repositiories worldwide. The $4.5 billion project, she writes,
will either demonstrate that the technical, social, and political challenges of nuclear waste disposal can be met in a democratic society, or it will scare other such countries away from the repository idea for decades to come.
Correction: This post was revised since it was first published to correct an error. The third through fifth paragraphs are new.
Source: IEEE Spectrum
Wednesday, December 09, 2009 1:49 PM
What’s going on at the Copenhagen climate talks? Behind the mainstream media headlines, the independent and alternative press are doing what they do best: pursuing and parsing lots of interesting angles behind this potentially world-changing conference. Here’s where we’re finding coverage that cuts through the chatter coming out of Denmark:
The Copenhagen News Collaborative is a great one-stop site for conference coverage by talent-rich progressive and environmental news outlets including Grist, Mother Jones, the Nation, Tree Hugger, the UpTake, Huffington Post, and Discover. You’ve got to love Grist’s slogan for its Copenhagen coverage: “HOW FØCKED ARE WE?”
Blogs and news feeds by environmental advocacy organizations can be excellent sources of information on sub-issues such as forest conservation and carbon trading rules. We’re looking to, among other groups, the Rainforest Action Network, Global Witness, and the Natural Resources Defense Council, including both the NRDC Switchboard and the NRDC-published magazine OnEarth. Do these organizations have agendas? Sure—so does everyone at Copenhagen. That doesn’t mean they don’t know many of these issues inside and out.
One other approach is to get rid of the filter. Watch live and on-demand webcasts of official meetings and press conferences from Copenhagen at the conference website.
Sources: United Nations Climate Change Conference, Copenhagen News Collaborative, Rainforest Action Network, Global Witness, Natural Resources Defense Council
Tuesday, November 24, 2009 4:23 PM
We chose Julia “Judy” Bonds as an Utne visionary because we saw in her a rare sort of courage and conviction. As the codirector of Coal River Mountain Watch in Whitesville, West Virginia, Bonds has for more than a decade been at the fore of the battle against what she calls “King Coal.” After she began witnessing firsthand how mountaintop removal coal mining was irreparably damaging her region’s land, wildlife, and people, she fought back by speaking out forcefully against the practice and working to end it—persuasively, legislatively, and, if necessary, bodily. (She has been arrested twice at protests.) Now a matriarch to the anti-mountaintop removal movement, she spends part of her time traveling to share advice and tactics with college students and other green groups. I interviewed Bonds about the state of the movement, her inspirations, and her resolve in the face of daily danger.
How did you get started in the fight against mountaintop removal?
“Basically, I’m a coal miner’s daughter and granddaughter, and I’m an eighth generation resident here in the Coal River Valley. I lived in a little holler in Marfork, and Massey [Energy] moved into my holler and began to mine coal so irresponsibly that it just really smacked me in the face. I realized somebody’s got to do something, because nobody’s paying attention to what’s going on.”
“What started it was black water spills along the creek where generations of my family had recreated and survived there. But what really did it was the fish kill that my grandson found in 1997 when he was 6 years old when we were walking. He was standing in a stream full of dead fish. When you see a child standing in a stream full of dead fish, asking, ‘What’s wrong with these fish?’ I don’t see how anyone cannot react to that. I watched Massey Energy poison the whole town of Whitesville several times, because I lived three miles directly upstream of their drinking water intake. And I realized, my god, they’re poisoning the whole town of Whitesville—my friends, my relatives. It just dawned on me in a couple of years there that somebody has to do something, and it’s time to speak out.”
Sometimes things get personal at protests. I saw that you were slapped in the face by a woman at a rally earlier this year. Is it tough to maintain your resolve and your dignity in the face of opposition like this?
“In a way it is, because you know that living here, where we live and where our office is, is basically ground zero—it’s the front lines of the battlefield. And you face that battle every day. I could walk out of this office and get in my car and be run off the road or run over by a coal truck. Or any night that I go to bed in my home, I could be burned down in my home or I could walk out to my car and turn it one and have it blow up. It’s a day-to-day battle. You worry about your loved ones. It’s dangerous to even walk into a convenience store around here because you never know when there’s a coal miner or strip miner or heavy equipment operator in that store who’s got it out for you and wants to hurt you. So yes, it’s tough, but you just have to be cautious and try not to think about what could happen.”
“And I’m not the only one. [Fellow activists] Maria Gunnoe, Larry Gibson—anybody here that works against coal and against the abuses of the coal industry here is subject to be beat up or possibly suffer a fatality.”
There seems to be momentum building lately around the issue of mountaintop removal coal mining. Is that your sense?
“Yes, there is a sense that there is a lot of momentum building. We had a strategic plan to ramp it up this year, particularly on the Obama administration so as to basically give him a mandate to say we’ve got to do something about this. Essentially, we’re doing this to give him the intestinal fortitude he needs to stand up to the coal industry.
“And of course the coal industry senses that it’s in its last throes. It’s like a dying animal, and it’s scratching and clawing, reaching out any way it can, and basically, its solution is to use violence, threats, and intimidation against those of us who are committed to nonviolent civil disobedience and nonviolent tactics. So they’re using violence and threats and intimidation back, and lies. They’ve already been caught up in writing fake letters, and they were caught up again using fake pictures on a website called Faces of Coal. Their response to our honest, nonviolent plea for sanity and for help is threats, violence, and lies.”
Do you think the American public is finally waking up and catching on about where their coal comes from?
“Yes, I think it is. The new movie Coal Country is coming out, and United Artists is adapting the book Michael Shnayerson wrote called Coal River into a major motion picture [On Coal River].
“So I think America is waking up, particularly after the disaster in Tennessee [the December 2008 sludge spill] and a lot of arrests, and I think a large part of it is due to the progressive movement on college campuses, called the Campus Climate Challenge, to reduce greenhouse gases. So I think coal and global warming and climate change are running hand in hand, and I think mountaintop remove is an ugly poster child, probably the strongest weapon that activists who want a future can use against the coal industry.
“So it’s definitely ramping up. Americans are becoming more aware of what’s going on, and of course the coal industry has—I think they had almost $60 million to use in campaigns and TV ads. And that’s a dangerous two-edged sword for the coal industry, because once they get the word ‘coal’ out there and people actually do start to look deeper into the coal issue, they find our issues: They find mountaintop removal. They find sludge water. They find disasters. So I think it’s a double-edged sword for the coal industry to use so much of their money on PR and advertising. Because once you go on the Internet and you type in ‘coal,’ well, there we pop up. Basically, they’re helping us spread the word, and for some reason they just don’t realize that. (laughs) And the Internet is becoming the new TV set for this new generation of college students and for kids, and we have spent the last 10 years producing so many movies, producing a lot of websites and getting information out there, that when you do cruise the Internet, we pop up everywhere. So it’s becoming quite an advertisement for us as well.”
What kinds of moments give you gratification in your work?
“Well, the most gratification in my work comes from setting in my backyard, listening to the summer insects, watching lightning bugs and fireflies, and talking to my grandson and playing with my hound dogs. That’s a calming moment for me.
“Other than that, it’s every time a new citizen or a new college student speaks out about the abuses of coal and about the need for a transition to a clean, renewable energy future—that gratifies me. Every time a new student comes up to me and says thank you so much, you’ve opened up my eyes. Or a new coalfield resident gets blasted [by mining explosions] and says I’ve had enough, I’m ready to speak out. Just recently, a couple of security guards have become disgusted with the tactics of the coal industry and have quit. So it’s those little things, those little successes, that make me feel good.
“And it’s hard for a local resident to speak out, because of all the threats and intimidation. People have been threatening to burn down people’s homes. Larry Gibson has had a couple of dogs shot, and they burned down his cabin. And every time there’s a new threat, a new intimidation. I don’t know if you’ve seen the video called Mountain Madness, Invasion of the Coal Thugs. You might want to look at that. It was a video taken on Kayford Mountain on July 4 this year, after I was assaulted at the protest.
“Every time locals see something like that, it just takes a little bit more for them to speak out. And see, the coal industry knows that they can’t intimidate those of us who are already invested in speaking out. Who they’re trying to intimidate is the other coalfield residents, our neighbors, from speaking out. It becomes very hard for people to speak out when you know that Judy Bonds got assaulted for speaking out, when there are intimidating and threatening comments and letters to the editor, when Larry Gibson’s dog got shot, or when Maria Gunnoe’s dog got shot—it makes it very hard for locals to speak out.
“This is a war zone. A lot of people don’t understand that when you live in southern West Virginia, you’re no longer living in the United States of America, you’re living in King Coal’s country. And he owns 95 percent of the media here, 98 percent of the elected officials, and the judges, the legal system as well. And that makes it almost impossible for an average citizen on their own to try to seek out justice. A lot of people don’t realize that, but if you come down here you’ll see: It is basically another country here.”
Sources: Coal River Mountain Watch, Goldman Environmental Prize, Planet Green, Politico, Huffington Post, Coal Country, On Coal River, Campus Climate Challenge
Image courtesy of Coal River Mountain Watch.
Wednesday, November 18, 2009 9:37 AM
Will there be a nuclear power renaissance in the United States, as a host of rosy-glassed prognosticators have predicted? Not as long as it remains such an abysmal investment opportunity, Matthew Wald writes in Technology Review’s November-December issue.
Wald, a New York Times reporter, contends that nuclear has come a long way in reliability and efficiency but still carries some serious financial baggage. “As the possibility of an accident that panics or injures the neighbors has diminished,” he writes, “the likelihood has grown that even a properly functioning new reactor will be unable to pay for itself.”
Wald cites three factors, all in flux, that make nuclear a huge financial risk. One is the sheer cost of building a new reactor, $4,000 per kilowatt of capacity using optimistic math, which is more than coal ($3,000) and far more than natural gas ($800). Another is the future competitive landscape in energy, and thus the price of electricity. And finally, no one is certain of the future price of fossil fuels, especially natural gas, which could change the whole equation.
The upshot is that prospective builders want government help in the form of federal loan guarantees—help that is not currently forthcoming. “The odds are probably not good enough for the nuclear industry to place a bet with its own money,” Wald concludes. “Only the government can agree to back up that bet, and has yet to do so.”
Elsewhere on the Technology Review website is another chink in the reactor for the nuclear renaissance crowd: The Physics arXiv Blog reports that the world’s supply of uranium is running short, citing a detailed analysis of the global nuclear industry by Michael Dittmar of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich.
“Countries that rely on uranium imports such as Japan and many Western countries will face uranium shortages, possibly as soon as 2013,” the blog states. “Far from being the secure source of energy that many governments are basing their future energy needs on, nuclear power looks decidedly rickety.”
Source: Technology Review (subscription or payment required), Physics arXiv Blog
Image by Topato, licensed under Creative Commons.
Friday, June 05, 2009 5:30 PM
What’s the thirstiest industry in the United States? If you thought of agriculture, you’re spot on. But coming in second—guzzling 40 percent of U.S. freshwater withdrawals—is a surprisingly different undertaking: electricity.
Environmentally motivated researchers and policymakers are just beginning to grasp the importance of illuminating the complex relationship between water and energy, Sustainable Industries reports. The clock is ticking. By 2025, the United Nations forecasts half the world will meet with freshwater shortages. By 2050, upgrade that pinch to scarcity spanning three-quarters of the planet. And, oh, wouldn’t you know: All forms of energy production require water (and on the flip side, heating, treating, and distributing water requires energy too).
“Increased implementation of renewable power sources is key to securing future water supplies, but when it comes to water use, not all renewables are created equal,” writes Sara Stroud, SI’s Bay Area correspondent.
Wind and solar photovoltics are among the lesser offenders; they require only one gallon of water for each megawatt hour of electricity produced (excluding water used in manufacturing). (A megawatt is one million watts, and one megawatt hour could power 400-900 homes for that hour.) Compare that to corn-derived ethanol, which sucks anywhere from 5 to 2,000 liters of water for each liter of fuel. That higher number comes courtesy of agriculture undertaken in arid states, like California and Colorado.
“Federal incentives happened so quickly without evaluating consequences,” Dulce Fernandes of Network for New Energy Choices told SI. “If we are investing in alternatives, we have to get it right.”
Source: Sustainable Industries
Wednesday, June 03, 2009 3:18 PM
Wind turbines don’t just collect energy. They collect attention. Environmental Building News writes in its May issue about the ways that many big green structures nowadays are incorporating “building integrated” wind power into their designs—and not always to generate much power but rather to make a loud and public statement about their greenness. EBN’s headline calls it “The Folly of Building Integrated Wind,” and for this rather staid publication that’s a pretty damning indictment.
Editor Alex Wilson, who reported the piece, doesn’t arrive at his conclusion lightly, however. In typical EBN style he come at the issue from an objective, information-driven approach that parses the pros and cons of wind turbines on buildings before concluding that “it’s usually a bad idea.”
“A green building is not green because it has [solar panels] on the roof—or a ground-source heat pump or a vegetated roof or integrated wind,” writes Wilson in his editor’s column in the same issue. “It’s green because it has an energy-conserving envelope, because it relies on natural daylighting, because it effectively controls unwanted heat gain, because it reduces dependence on automobiles, because it’s compact and resource-efficient, because it’s healthy, and because it’s stingy on water use. The heavy lifting in green design has to come from these measures, not from the window dressing. … Construction budgets are tight these days. Let’s not squander these limited budgets on high-profile visual statements.”
Image of Bahrain World Trade Center by Ahmed Rabea, licensed under Creative Commons.
Tuesday, June 02, 2009 3:36 PM
Carbusters—a Prague-based magazine defiant of all-things-gasoline-powered—spots a real doozy of an “activity” at the U.K. theme park Diggerland, which offers Bobcat-crazed children opportunities to ride in and drive construction machinery. (Which, admittedly, sounds pretty cool.) The new attraction, “Novice Driver,” puts young people (9 and up) behind the wheels of their parents’ cars, confined to a large off-road space. “If a parent’s car is too uncool, then a 4x4 is available for hire to teach kids how to be good citizens—one loves cars,” Carbusters observes. Imagine the blank stares of park execs were one to propose: “Walk or Bike to School: The Ride.”
Image by plasticrevolver, licensed under Creative Commons.
Thursday, May 21, 2009 4:35 PM
Last winter when we named Tzeporah Berman one of Utne Reader’s 50 Visionaries, we spoke to the Canadian activist about her latest project, PowerUp Canada, which challenges citizens to take the “next step” in addressing climate change—that is, pushing for greener legislation. Private actions, like switching to CFLs, still matter, Berman said, but it’s critical to extend that greenwill to the public level and start changing laws too.
Guess Chevron didn’t get the message. The May-June issue of World Watch contains a biting spoof of the energy company’s “I will” ad campaign, which depicts earnest, average-looking folks alongside statements such as “I will finally get a programmable thermostat.” The spoofs—brought to you by the League of Conservation Voters—pair Chevron execs with their own “I will” statements, such as, “I will think about cleaning up one or two of Chevron’s 94 Superfund toxic waste sites.”
Putting the focus on large-scale regulation doesn’t give individuals a pass on small-scale green choices, of course. The ads, writes World Watch, merely “suggest that the company could also do well to embrace greater corporate responsibility.”
Source: World Watch
Image by philosophygeek, licensed under Creative Commons.
Monday, April 20, 2009 10:04 AM
Ken Salazar is your new secretary of the interior. But “despite the title, he’s actually the de facto secretary of energy,” a petroleum industry source tells Alan Prendergast of Westword in the Denver alternative weekly’s April 2 issue.
“The Department of the Interior controls one-fifth of the land mass of the United States, and that land contains half of the country’s coal and a third of its oil and natural gas,” Prendergast writes.
The piece is the most detailed assessment we’ve seen yet of Salazar’s first two months in office, and while it’s ultimately too early to draw big conclusions—Salazar, true to his reputation, has so far displayed an “earnest, let’s-work-this-out centrism”—it does a good job of pointing out the challenges he faces as he makes grand pronouncements about “taking the moonshot of energy independence” and reaching a “New Energy Frontier.”
“He’s already presented glimpses of the kind of multi-layered agenda not seen since the dawn of the New Deal,” Prendergast writes. However, “true reform at Interior will require coming to terms with deep-rooted political realities that promote abuse of public lands and shortchange the public.”
Image by Mike Disharoon, licensed under Creative Commons.
Monday, April 06, 2009 5:30 PM
The Bush administration did a whole lot of overturning, overruling, rewriting, and deleting environmental regulations—but it also did a subtler kind of harm by allowing foot-dragging on all sorts of green initiatives.
One area where things were allowed to slide was in appliance efficiency: Laws already on the books required new energy standards for household and commercial appliances, but they were tied up in missed deadlines, bureaucratic disputes, and lawsuits. Without leadership from the White House, they languished.
The Obama administration has sent a clear message on the appliance standards: Get back on track. Its February order to the Department of Energy to start hitting deadlines “challenges DOE’s decades of failure to comply with laws dating to the Energy Policy and Conservation Act of 1975,” writes Environmental Building News.
The upshot is that the DOE has until August to meet the next set of deadlines, which cover lamps and lightbulbs, ovens, microwaves, vending machines, dishwashers, commercial boilers, and air-conditioning units. In other words, some serious energy gobblers, not just blenders and coffee makers.
Lane Burt, an energy analyst for the Natural Resources Defense Council, has tracked these issues on his blog and has especially championed a new lighting standard. “It is an amazing new reality,” he writes, “when the president of the United States speaks directly to the importance of efficiency standards and goes so far as to instruct his energy agency to be proactive rather than reactive in issuing those standards.”
Sources: The White House, Environmental Building News, NRDC Switchboard
Image by Joshua Davis, licensed under Creative Commons.
Thursday, February 26, 2009 5:24 PM
If I were a coal company executive, I’d feel like I was getting beat up on: The entire month of February has seen big coal being pummeled by politicians, environmental groups, and activists as if it were something dirty. But if I had any sense I’d realize I deserved a beating for shamelessly propagating the most polluting energy source we use—and I’d prepare for another thrashing next month.
Let’s recap. On February 4, the New York Times’ Green Inc. blog chronicled “A Tough Week for Coal,” but that was just the beginning. On February 17, Grist reported on a crowd of coal foes who marched on the Kentucky State Capitol to listen to speakers including actress Ashley Judd and novelist Silas House demand an end to mountaintop removal coal mining. The same day in Washington, writes SolveClimate, the Obama administration’s EPA said it would reconsider whether carbon dioxide should be regulated as a pollutant, a move that would target big coal burners. And yesterday, the anti-coal Reality Coalition released a new mock ad (below) directed by Joel and Ethan Coen that ridicules the spin-speak behind the phrase “clean coal.”
So that was coal’s bleak February. Its March starts off with another doozy, a civil disobedience march Monday on the coal-fired power plant that Congress owns. Among the marchers at the Capitol Climate Action event will be high-profile figures such as Bill McKibben, who writes for Yale Environment 360, “Why I’ll Get Arrested to Stop the Burning of Coal.” We wish him the best of luck in both endeavors.
UPDATE (3/2/09): Despite a late-winter D.C. snowstorm, more than 2,000 protesters turned out at the Capitol Climate Climate Action event Monday and blockaded the three main gates to the Capitol Power Plant, according to Jeff Biggers at Huffington Post. No arrests were made. See McKibben's account of the protest at Mother Jones' Blue Marble blog.
Sources: New York Times, Grist, SolveClimate, Reality Coalition, Capitol Climate Action, Yale Environment 360, Huffington Post, Blue Marble
Tuesday, January 20, 2009 2:14 PM
It’s President Obama now. And his cabinet and administration picks have all been rolled out. So how green is Team Obama? The online environmental magazine Grist provides a cheat sheet of an assessment and a look at Obama's treatment of of environmental and energy issues in his inaugural speech. The good people at Grist also take a look back with an interactive time line charting George W. Bush’s environmental legacy.
Monday, December 29, 2008 3:00 PM
The sting of cold in the winter is often accompanied by the shock of rising energy bills. Since not everyone can afford to install new, energy-efficient appliances throughout their homes, Utne Reader’s sister publication Mother Earth News published a guide to energy-saving and cost-reducing do-it-yourself projects.
Many of the projects are surprisingly simple. Managing the energy used by the computers in his house, writer Gary Reysa spent $20 and an hour of work, and it ended up saving an estimated $178 yearly. Reysa also suggests insulating windows with bubble wrap and buying an electric mattress pad. And since not every do-it-yourself project is good for every situation, Reysa includes a guide to choosing which projects are right for any given situation.
Sunday, December 28, 2008 11:21 AM
The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation has launched “One Million Acts of Green,” a campaign to mobilize everyone from TV studio execs to kids to commit basic green acts every day. Once you sign up, the site keeps track of your steps, and for every one you take, the website calculates its impact on the environment in kilograms of greenhouse gases saved.
The focus of the project is “not about overhauling your life; it’s about one act from each individual amassing to a million. It can be as simple as switching to compact fluorescent lightbulbs, starting a recycling program, or walking to work. You can do one act—or you can do all one million! It’s up to you… Together we can make an impact. Together we can make our lives, our communities, and our environment greener.”
Acts range from small changes in habit to home renovations, and the tangible impact on the environment gives the sense of working as a community. To date, participants have reported more than 634,000 green acts, saving an estimated 33 million kilograms of greenhouse gases.
Friday, December 19, 2008 12:05 PM
A few months after a British jury acquitted the “Kingsnorth Six” global warming activists, the U.K.'s attorney general is attempting to invalidate the “lawful excuse” defense frequently employed by direct-action protesters facing criminal charges.
The Kingsnorth Six were cleared of criminal damage charges for scaling and vandalizing the chimney of a coal-fired power plant on the grounds that their actions intended to prevent greater damages the plant’s greenhouse gas emissions would cause. The verdict was celebrated by environmentalists around the globe, but didn’t sit well with prosecutors, who according to the Guardian, “were understood to be furious” with the acquittal, “arguing that allowance for demonstrations did not extend to breaking the law.”
Now they’re trying to make sure it doesn’t happen again. The Guardian reports:
[T]he attorney general is considering using her power to refer cases to the court of appeal to "clarify a point of law". It is believed to be an attempt to limit the circumstances in which protesters could rely on "lawful excuse".
Should the "lawful excuse" defence prove to be unusable by protesters, Britain can expect many more environmental and peace activists to be convicted—something which could backfire against a government accused of drastically curtailing the right to protest in the last five years.
Image by izzie_whizzie, licensed under Creative Commons.
Friday, December 05, 2008 5:21 PM
There’s an untapped energy source right under your feet. Plenty (article not available online) reports on a new technology that captures and uses the heat from sun-warmed asphalt. Under the system, water is circulated through pipes embedded in streets, sidewalks, or parking lots, and then used directly for hot-water needs or tapped to produce electricity through a steam-powered turbine. Apart from using otherwise wasted heat energy, the system could help moderate the “urban heat island effect” by reducing pavement temps, adding a new literal twist to the phrase “cooling your heels.” The Roadway Energy System is best suited to hot climates with long hours of sunshine; the clean-tech firm Novotech hopes to begin commercial installations by 2010.
Image by tanakawho, licensed under
Tuesday, October 28, 2008 11:43 AM
With “drill baby drill” standing as one of the more enduring (and creepy) catch phrases of the 2008 election, John McCain and Barack Obama clearly have significant differences of opinion on U.S. energy policy. Sarah Palin mentioned energy 29 times in her debate with Joe Biden, saying “energy independence is the key to America's future.” Questions remain, however, on where the candidates actually stand.
Utne Reader’s sister publication, Mother Earth News, has broken down Obama's and McCain's votes and policy proposals on drilling for oil, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and improving fuel economy. My favorite part comes from the drilling for oil section.
John McCain voted:
-- For oil drilling in ANWR (2000)
-- Against oil drilling in ANWR (2002)
-- For banning drilling in ANWR (2005)
-- Against reducing oil usage by 40 percent by 2025 (2005)
Monday, October 20, 2008 2:03 PM
Solar energy is becoming a community effort, and more accessible than ever before. Married couple Sylvia Ventura and Dan Barahona have launched 1BOG, “One Block Off the Grid,” a volunteer group that organizes neighborhoods and communities to install solar power en masse. Those who go solar through 1BOG have access to bulk discounts on equipment and installation, whose high cost has been a main deterrent for many potential buyers. The all-volunteer program boasts over 700 member homes in 20 cities across the country, with more to come.
(Thanks, Conscious Choice)
Image courtesy of
, licensed under
Friday, October 10, 2008 10:37 AM
Although the environment has come up somewhat briefly in the recent presidential debates, do voters really know exactly how the candidates stack up on issues like drilling, animal protection, and conservation?
Advocacy for Animals, part of Encyclopedia Britannica’s website, has created a quick, four-part resource on those topics. "Environmental & Animal Welfare, Where the Candidates Stand" filters out the white noise of ads and accusations and leaves a clear, concise breakdown of each presidential and vice-presidential candidate’s position on environmental matters, citing their voting records, public statements, and official actions.
The summary is not exhaustive, but still gives readers a good idea of what they can expect from the nominees.
Part 1: Drilling, Mining, and Energy
Part 2: Animal Welfare and Protection
Part 3: Global Warming
Part 4: Environmental Conservation
Image courtesy of ccgd, licensed under Creative Commons.
Monday, September 29, 2008 1:43 PM
Finally, a little good news regarding the environment: A new report from the SUN DAY Campaign via EcoGeek reveals that renewable energy now makes up 10 percent of the domestically produced energy in the United States. Biomass and biofuels are in the lead, while hydroelectric comes in second and wind, geothermal, and solar energies trail far behind. But those energies with the smallest piece of the energy pie also have the most growth potential: wind power development is up almost 50 percent over its levels last year, and 2008 still has a few months to go. And, as reported earlier, geothermal energy is receiving much-needed attention and funding. Though investment in renewable energy still has a long way to go (especially after Congress caved on offshore drilling), the number is encouraging and shows a step in the right direction.
Image courtesy of
, licensed under
Tuesday, August 12, 2008 5:32 PM
“It’s a 9/11 thing.”
We’re all well-accustomed to hearing this rote justification as we stuff toiletries into a tiny Ziploc bag at airport security or question the aesthetic judgment behind the makeshift, gigantic cement pylons encircling downtown buildings. But here’s an unexpected use of this most 21st-century of mantras: The response above came from an escalator company representative explaining why the firm couldn’t give a reporter from Next American City information about their products’ energy use and pricing.
The industry has good cause to be cagey. These icons of modern ease are dinosaurs when it comes to energy efficiency. As Next American City reports, “[t]he national energy use of escalators is estimated at 2.6 billion kilowatt hours per year, equivalent to powering 375,000 houses.” That’s a lot of wattage for devices that keep draining electricity even when they’re not being used (which is much of the time).
There are some attempts to green escalators. Next American City notes the efforts of J. Dunlop Inc., which has applied for a patent on a design for a plastic elevator step whose lighter weight would require less energy than the current heavy aluminum versions.
The article does not make mention of “variable-speed escalators”—those that stay still or move very slowly until someone in need of a lift climbs aboard. New York City is in the midst of transitioning a handful of subway stations to this more energy-efficient version. But, as the New York Times reports, the escalators hit a few bumps on their inaugural voyages: only 22 of the 35 escalators slated to shift to variable speed at four stations were functioning properly by showtime on Monday.
An earlier piece announcing the initiative notes that such technology hasn’t yet been approved by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. (New York City Transit had to get a work-around OK from state code enforcers for the experimental program.) The “sleep mode” or “intermittent operation” technology is used, however, in Europe, Asia, Canada, and Israel.
So perhaps that’s one greener option for stateside escalators in the future. Or, there’s always the other route: Take the stairs. As one mechanical engineer puts it to Next American City: "If you have a place like a mall, you could install an elevator for the elderly and the disabled and tell everyone else to take a walk. It’s not the kind of machine that you can make practical. Because it’s not."
Image by Jan the manson, licensed under Creative Commons.
Monday, July 14, 2008 12:47 PM
Developing nations will soon benefit from personal stoves that combine energy efficiency and sustainable business models. Triple Pundit highlights efforts by EnviroFit and the Shell Foundation to distribute clean-burning biomass stoves in India.
EnviroFit, a Colorado-based nonprofit manufacturer, first became known for retrofitting two-stroke engines in Southeast Asia. Its stoves are designed to harness the power of “wood, crop waste, or animal dung” and produce nontoxic exhaust. This is valuable to India and other developing countries, where toxic indoor air pollution claims millions of lives every year. EnviroFit and Shell hope to subsidize the $12 to $50 cost of the stoves for families in need and eventually expand the program to Latin America and Africa.
Biomass stoves are part of an alternative-cooking trend that harnesses old technologies in new ways. Utne blogger Erik Helin pointed me to a spread in BackHome (article not available online) featuring the latest solar cooking technology, ranging from expensive high-tech cookers to do-it-yourself contraptions made from windshield shades and other materials. We’ve come a long way from the lukewarm hot dogs yielded up by the tin-foil-and-shoebox cookers my sixth-grade science class constructed.
Thursday, June 12, 2008 5:11 PM
You might think your home energy consumption is your own dirty little secret, but Lolly Merrell reports in the Bear Deluxe (#27; article not available online) that it is in fact probably public knowledge. “In most states, public service commissions require energy companies to provide the records of anyone’s power consumption upon request,” she writes. While making such requests is sometimes slow and cumbersome, she reports that more energy company websites “have made power snooping easy and inviting.”
Such snooping was famously used by a conservative group to shame Al Gore by publicizing the lavish energy use of his Nashville mansion. But Merrell points out that that the numbers can be used for constructive ends as well. She notes that a friend has gathered energy stats for her neighborhood and “plans to go door to door with a challenge: reduce each household’s consumption with the goal of lowering the entire neighborhood’s utility usage by 10 percent.” Now, if you’ll excuse me, my doorbell is ringing.
Friday, May 09, 2008 5:16 PM
If the future of nuclear power were as bright as its most enthusiastic supporters suggest it is, investors would be flocking to it like electrons to nuclei. But “the smart money is heading for the exits,” reports the Spring 2008 Solutions, the newsletter of the Rocky Mountain Institute energy think tank.
“The private capital market isn’t investing in new nuclear plants, and without financing, capitalist utilities aren’t buying,” write Amory Lovins, Imran Sheikh, and Alex Markevitch, in an article starkly titled “Forget Nuclear.” “In the United States, even government subsidies approaching or exceeding new nuclear power’s total cost have failed to entice Wall Street.”
The article goes on to crunch the numbers behind nuclear vs. renewable energy options, and lands, not surprisingly, yet authoritatively, on the side of renewables. In typical Rocky Mountain Institute style, the report is technical but not obtuse and even, in conclusion, quite impassioned:
“Isn’t it time we forgot about nuclear power?” the authors ask. “Informed capitalists have. Politicians and pundits should, too.”
Elsewhere in the issue, the institute thanks recent donors, and under the category of “Integrators”—those who gave $5,000 to $9,999—is R.E.M./Athens L.L.C., the business end of the little rock band from Georgia. I guess “Green” isn’t just the name of one of their albums.
Tuesday, April 15, 2008 9:55 AM
The nuclear energy industry isn’t just mounting a P.R. campaign about the great green hope of nuclear power. It’s also applying good old political pressure to get its way, the Texas Observer reports, strong-arming Texas environmental regulators in order to win approval for a huge nuclear waste landfill over scientists’ objections.
The Dallas-based firm Waste Control Specialists is close to securing approval for a low-level nuclear waste landfill in Andrews County, Texas, Forrest Wilder reports. If the company scores two more necessary licenses from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), “Waste Control could bury more than 60 million cubic feet of waste over the span of 30 years, more than half the volume of the new Dallas Cowboys stadium,” he writes. Which of course would be a radioactive dream come true for all the people who are talking about a nuclear renaissance but still unsure exactly where all that waste is going to go.
The licensing process has led to a clash at the TCEQ between the scientists and engineers who oppose Waste Control’s plans and agency managers bent on approving the licenses. Three employees have even quit because of frustration with the licensing process, Wilder reports. Chief among their reservations were indications that the dump might be dangerously close to the water table and that Waste Control had previous “radiation protection issues” with worker safety.
Wednesday, March 05, 2008 10:44 AM
February 9 was a historic day in the environmental shaming of the Unites States as Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates, broke ground on Masdar City, a $22 billion municipality that will be carless, solar powered, and almost entirely self-contained. Water will come from a seawater desalinization plant, produce will come from surrounding greenhouses, and all waste will be composted or recycled, writes the New York Times.
The groundbreaking came on the heels of a January announcement by the Masdar Initiative, a renewable energy investment company, that the UAE will commit $15 billion dollars for initial research on sustainable programs. This investment represents the biggest government-sponsored renewable energy program in the world, and it comes from a nation that gained much of its wealth through oil and natural gas. This fact has some wondering: Can one grand progressive step erase decades of carbon emissions irresponsibility?
(Thanks, Groovy Green.)
Thursday, February 14, 2008 2:29 PM
Gas prices continue to rise, but there’s one energy source that’s as cheap as ever: air. French engineer Guy Negre has figured out a way to run cars on compressed air, BBC News reports, and his air-powered inventions could go on sale in less than a year. The OneCAT will cost about $5,000 and can be filled up with an air compressor in just three minutes. To watch a video of the BBC report click here.
(Thanks, Raw Story and the Arlington Institute newsletter.)
Wednesday, January 16, 2008 3:30 PM
January means list time. Everyone feels entitled to publish an annual top ten list around the New Year, looking back on 2007’s notable scientific discoveries, blunders, and cat videos. But Sustainable Industries is looking ahead. The monthly green business magazine, nominated for a 2007 Utne Independent Press Award for its environmental coverage, has put out its annual Trend Watch, with in-depth articles on eight green business trends we can expect to see in 2008.
One thing to anticipate in 2008 is growth in the green building products industry. Despite worries over the U.S. housing slump, the green building market has been growing rapidly, with the market for green building materials increasing a whopping 23 percent annually from 2004 to 2006. Sustainable Industries attributes the growth to consumer demand, stricter building codes, and the reduced operating costs that come with green buildings.
But consumers aren’t satisfied with just living in green buildings—they also want to be able to keep tabs on their energy consumption within the home. Which is why Sustainable Industries predicts we will see an increase in technology that gives consumers easy access to energy usage information: “A growing number of savvy companies are providing value-added services that help individual users make sense of the environmental data available, using the now-ubiquitous cell phones, PDAs, laptops and other personal communication tools available.” One such tool, featured in Good magazine, shows how much energy is sucked up by common household appliances even when they are turned off. And Sustainable Industries reports that Nissan plans to add displays to vehicles that tell the driver how their acceleration and braking behaviors affect fuel efficiency.
Other predictions for 2008? Expect to see advances in battery operated cars, increased reliance on renewable energy sources, and a consolidation of green media sources.
Friday, October 19, 2007 12:00 AM
In Utne Reader’s latest issue, I tried to convince homeowners, builders, and buyers to get over their fear of the “green premium”—the price-tag hike for taking the eco-friendly path—and plunge into the green housing market. I argued that we could take a tip from corporate America, which has already realized that green buildings aren’t just better for the planet, they’re better for the people in them (happier, healthier employees) and they’re better for the bottom line (energy efficiency = big cost savings).
Then I read Environmental Building News
’ latest issue, which points out that our work is far from done when it comes to minimizing the environmental toll of our jobs. The September edition of this newsletter from the hyper-informed folks at BuildingGreen Inc. tallies the eco-footprint of American commuters. “Commuting by office workers accounts for 30 percent more energy than the [average office] building itself uses,” write Alex Wilson and Rachel Navaro. When you look at newer energy-efficient developments, that gap widens to 140 percent. The authors make a compelling case for green building professionals (and their clients) to place a greater emphasis on location and access to public transportation when it comes judging a project’s environmental credentials. Because an office can only be so green if you have to burn an hour’s worth of gas inching through exurbia to get there. —Hannah Lobel
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