Environment

How to Get Solar Panels Onto More Affordable Apartment Buildings

This is a guest post from Laurie Mazur, editor for the Kresge Foundation/Island Press Urban Resilience Project.

solar

Solar power seems like the ultimate no-brainer. Free energy from the sun! And the cost of installing solar panels — like other renewables — has plummeted in recent years. Still, solar power has not yet penetrated one of the markets that needs it the most: affordable multifamily housing.

That could change, thanks to the advent of solar photovoltaic systems with backup battery storage (solar + storage). A new report, “Closing the California Clean Energy Divide,” shows how solar + storage can overcome technical and financial problems that discourage owners of affordable apartments from embracing solar. Coauthored by the California Housing Partnership, Center for Sustainable Energy, and Clean Energy Group, the report says solar + storage systems could nearly eliminate electric bills for owners of affordable apartment buildings in California. And those savings could — with the right policies and strategies — be passed on to tenants.

The first problem solved by solar + storage is the bane of all solar energy systems: night. We expect our electric meters to keep spinning along, even when the sun doesn’t shine. (This is the dreaded “intermittency” that challenges other renewable energy sources as well.) Solar + storage handily defeats this problem, by banking excess energy generated in the daytime to be used after the sun goes down.

In this way, solar + storage tackles another insidious problem: utility demand charges. These are fees that utilities charge commercial customers based on their highest peak power use during a billing period, and such fees can make up half of the electric bill for some apartment buildings. A stand-alone solar system without battery storage might not be able to shrink peak demand — because, for example, demand could still be high on a cloudy day. But solar + storage can reduce overall demand for grid power and lower peak use, thereby helping some building owners avoid demand charges. And adding storage to a solar system isn’t prohibitively expensive; it adds only about a third on top of the cost of stand-alone solar.

These cost savings also can hedge against future electricity price increases, which are poised to become a real problem. As solar gets big enough to threaten their bottom line, utilities are trying to roll back incentives like “net metering,” which lets solar-powered households sell their surplus energy back to the grid for a profit. Without those incentives, affordable housing owners who invest in stand-alone solar systems will see higher electric bills. But solar + storage can make the economics work better and bring more financial benefits to developers and tenants. “Installing solar without batteries is leaving money on the table,” says Lewis Milford, president of the Clean Energy Group and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

There are other benefits, too. Solar + storage can make affordable housing more resilient. When the larger grid goes down, a solar system with battery backup can power life-saving services like water pumps, fire alarms, heating, and cooling. That means apartment dwellers can “shelter in place” during an emergency — which can be a lifeline for low-income residents, the disabled, and others who are vulnerable in times of disaster. And, of course, by reducing carbon emissions, solar power helps mitigate climate change, making disasters less likely for everyone.

So, is solar + storage the game changer that finally brings clean energy to the masses?

It certainly could be in California, where owners of affordable housing have many reasons to go solar. The state legislature recently established a groundbreaking Multifamily Affordable Housing Solar Roofs Program and earmarked up to $1 billion in cap-and-trade funding over 10 years to incentivize solar installations on such buildings. But even in states with a less favorable regulatory climate, the benefits of battery storage may tip the scales in favor of solar for many building owners.

Still, if owners of affordable housing adopt solar en masse, will the cost savings get passed on to tenants? While the answers to that question are beyond the scope of “Closing the California Clean Energy Divide,” its authors suggest a few ways to make that happen — including a shared savings model that ensures tenants get a portion of demand charge savings. The authors are planning a series of papers that will explore how additional benefits could be delivered to tenants.

“There are lots of ways to make sure that tenants benefit from solar in affordable multifamily housing,” says Milford. “But first, you have to make sure that the owners and developers want to install solar.” As this report makes clear, there has never been a better time to do so.


Laurie Mazur is the editor of the Island Press Urban Resilience Project, which is supported by The Kresge Foundation and The JPB Foundation. Follow the project @IP_URP

Photo by Fotolia/Gekon

Protecting Communities from Climate Change (Hint: It’s not Just About Seawalls)

Little Village
Youth Summit in Little Village, Chicago

Climate change is here, and it is already affecting our health and wellbeing. That’s the conclusion of the National Climate and Health Assessment, released in April by the prestigious U.S. Global Change Research Program. Fortunately, it is possible to make even our most vulnerable communities more climate-resilient. In fact, it’s already happening—but not in the way you might expect.

To make our communities more resilient, we first have to understand the threats we face, and the factors that make us vulnerable. The National Climate and Health Assessment details a litany of threats: heat waves; poorer air quality; food and water shortages; and mental stress. The Assessment also shows that, while climate change affects us all, some are more vulnerable than others.

Of course, geography and weather patterns determine our communities’ exposure to risk. But social factors shape our vulnerability, and our ability to bounce back after disaster.

Children and the elderly are among the most vulnerable to climate-change impacts, as are the one in four Americans who live in high-poverty areas. As we saw during Katrina, communities of color are often hit hard, as are immigrants, Indigenous peoples, and those with limited English. And anyone with an existing health condition—heart disease, asthma, diabetes—is especially at risk.

Climate change takes its greatest toll in low-income neighborhoods that concentrate many kinds of vulnerability. These neighborhoods are dealing with multiple challenges: poverty, unemployment, failing schools, crime, crumbling infrastructure and poor quality housing. Many also face environmental problems like lead-tainted water, polluted air, and contaminated soil. And too often, these neighborhoods lack clinics and grocery stores, much less trees and parks.

Not surprisingly, many residents in these neighborhoods already suffer from poor physical and mental health. In some cities, the difference in life expectancy between neighborhoods just a few miles apart is as much as 25-30 years. As the health impacts of climate change increase, those disparities will only widen—unless we can build resilience in our most troubled neighborhoods.

Those efforts are already under way. And the most innovative resilience-building strategies are not just about building seawalls and levees; they seek to address the factors that make some people more vulnerable than others. That means thinking holistically about what makes a healthy community, and working to create high quality housing, access to healthy foods, good education, cleaner environments, and economic development.

Case in point: the Villages of East Lake in Atlanta, Georgia—a whole-neighborhood revitalization of what had been the most troubled and violent public housing project in the Atlanta area.

East Lake
East Lake, a Residential Neighborhood in Atlanta, GA

Working closely with residents of public housing, the East Lake Foundation corralled public and private investments to build a neighborhood with opportunity for all. In addition to new, mixed-income townhouses, East Lake now boasts a top-notch charter school; a grocery store; a YMCA; and a public golf course that anchors both youth development and community events—all in a leafy, appealing, walkable neighborhood.

The benefits for the residents of East Lake are stunning. Since the revitalization began in 1995, educational outcomes have risen to among the best in the Atlanta school system, and violent crime is down by 95 percent. In East Lake’s subsidized housing, only five percent of healthy working-age adults receive welfare. More than three fourths of the teens involved in the local afterschool academic support program in 2012 went on to college.

East Lake Students
East Lake School Children

Other neighborhoods are building resilience by tackling threats to public health. For example, Little Village, a Mexican-American neighborhood in southwest Chicago, was just a mile from two of the oldest and dirtiest coal power plants in the U.S. As a result, residents faced high rates of asthma and respiratory diseases. A Harvard study found that pollution from these two plants was causing 40 premature deaths, 550 ER visits, and 2,800 asthma attacks per year. So the community organized, and in 2012, pushed the plants to shut down.

The people of East Lake and Little Village may not know it, but they are reducing vulnerability and building resilience to a changing climate. Their efforts are not focused on climate change, per se, though they do include “green” elements. Perhaps that’s the point: much of what we must do to adapt to climate change are things we should be doing anyway, to make our communities healthier, more equitable, and more sustainable. East Lake and Little Village show us that it can be done.


Jeni Miller is a senior public health researcher based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Follow her @JeniMiller.

This post was produced as part of the Island Press Urban Resilience Project, with support from The Kresge Foundation and The JPB Foundation.

Top photo by Little Village Environmental Justice Organization

Bottom two photos by East Lake Foundation

Two, Three ... Many Flints

Building

Reprinted with permission from TomDispatch.

“I know if I was a parent up there, I would be beside myself if my kids’ health could be at risk,” said President Obama on a recent trip to Michigan.  “Up there” was Flint, a rusting industrial city in the grip of a “water crisis” brought on by a government austerity scheme.  To save a couple of million dollars, that city switched its source of water from Lake Huron to the Flint River, a long-time industrial dumping ground for the toxic industries that had once made their home along its banks.  Now, the city is enveloped in a public health emergency, with elevated levels of lead in its water supply and in the blood of its children.

The price tag for replacing the lead pipes that contaminated its drinking water, thanks to the corrosive toxins found in the Flint River, is now estimated at up to $1.5 billion. No one knows where that money will come from or when it will arrive.  In the meantime, the cost to the children of Flint has been and will be incalculable.   As little as a few specks of lead in the water children drink or in flakes of paint that come off the walls of old houses and are ingested can change the course of a life. The amount of lead dust that covers a thumbnail is enough to send a child into a coma or into convulsions leading to death. It takes less than a tenth of that amount to cause IQ loss, hearing loss, or behavioral problems like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and dyslexia. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the government agency responsible for tracking and protecting the nation’s health, says simply, “No safe blood lead level in children has been identified.”

President Obama would have good reason to worry if his kids lived in Flint.  But the city’s children are hardly the only ones threatened by this public health crisis.  There’s a lead crisis for children in Baltimore, Maryland, Herculaneum, MissouriSebring, Ohio, and even the nation’s capital, Washington, D.C., and that’s just to begin a list.  State reports suggest, for instance, that "18 cities in Pennsylvania and 11 in New Jersey may have an even higher share of children with dangerously elevated levels of lead than does Flint." Today, scientists agree that there is no safe level of lead for children and at least half of American children have some of this neurotoxin in their blood.  The CDC is especially concerned about the more than 500,000 American children who have substantial amounts of lead in their bodies. Over the past century, an untold number have had their IQs reduced, their school performances limited, their behaviors altered, and their neurological development undermined.  From coast to coast, from the Sun Belt to the Rust Belt, children have been and continue to be imperiled by a century of industrial production, commercial gluttony, and abandonment by the local, state, and federal governments that should have protected them.  Unlike in Flint, the “crisis” seldom comes to public attention.

Two, Three ... Many Flints

In Flint, the origins of the current crisis lay in the history of auto giant General Motors (GM) and its rise in the middle decades of the twentieth century to the status of the world’s largest corporation. GM’s Buick plant alone once occupied “an area almost a mile and a half long and half a mile wide,” according to the Chicago Tribune, and several Chevrolet and other GM plants literally covered the waterfront of “this automotive city.” Into the Flint River went the toxic wastes of factories large and small, which once supplied batteries, paints, solders, glass, fabrics, oils, lubricating fluids, and a multitude of other materials that made up the modern car. In these plants strung out along the banks of the Flint and Saginaw rivers and their detritus lay the origins of the present public health emergency.

The crisis that attracted President Obama’s attention is certainly horrifying, but the children of Flint have been poisoned in one way or another for at least 80 years. Three generations of those children living around Chevrolet Avenue in the old industrial heart of the city experienced an environment filled with heavy metal toxins that cause neurological conditions in them and cardiovascular problems in adults.

Fish

Industrial pollution affects numerous cities, not only in the Rust Belt but throughout industrial areas in America.

As Michael Moore documented in his film Roger and Me, GM abandoned Flint in a vain attempt to stave off financial disaster.  Having sucked its people dry, the company ditched the city, leaving it to deal with a polluted hell without the means to do so.  Like other industrial cities that have suffered this kind of abandonment, Flint’s population is majority African American and Latino, and has a disproportionate number of families living below the poverty line.  Of its 100,000 residents, 65% are African American and Latino and 42%  are mired in poverty. 

The president should be worried about Flint’s children and local, state, and federal authorities need to fix the pipes, sewers, and water supply of the city. Technically, this is a feasible, if expensive, proposition. It’s already clear, however, that the political will is just not there even for this one community. Gina McCarthy, the Environmental Protection Agency’s administrator, has refused to provide Flint’s residents with even a prospective timetable for replacing their pipes and making their water safe. There is, however, a far graver problem that is even less easy to fix: the mix of racism and corporate greed that have put lead and other pollutants into millions of homes in the United States. The scores of endangered kids in Flint are just the tip of a vast, toxic iceberg.  Even Baltimore, which first identified its lead poisoning epidemic in the 1930s, still faces a crisis, especially in largely African American communities, when it comes to the lead paint in its older housing stock.

Just this month, Maryland’s secretary of housing, community, and development, Kenneth C. Holt, dismissed the never-ending lead crisis in Baltimore by callously suggesting that it might all be a shuck.  A mother, he said, might fake such poisoning by putting “a lead fishing weight in her child's mouth [and] then take the child in for testing.” Such a tactic, he indicated, without any kind of proof, was aimed at making landlords “liable for providing the child with [better] housing.” Unfortunately, the attitudes of Holt and Governor Rick Snyder of Michigan have proven all too typical of the ways in which America’s civic and state leaders have tended to ignore, dismiss, or simply deny the real suffering of children, especially those who are black and Latino, when it comes to lead and other toxic chemicals.

There is, in fact, a grim broader history of lead poisoning in America.  It was probably the most widely dispersed environmental toxin that affected children in this country.  In part, this was because, for decades during the middle of the twentieth century, it was marketed as an essential ingredient in industrial society, something without which none of us could get along comfortably.  Those toxic pipes in Flint are hardly the only, or even the primary, source of danger to children left over from that era.

In the 1920s, tetraethyl lead was introduced as an additive for gasoline.  It was lauded at the time as a "gift of God" by a representative of the Ethyl Corporation, a creation of GM, Standard Oil, and Dupont, the companies that invented, produced, and marketed the stuff. Despite warnings that this industrial toxin might pollute the planet, which it did, almost three-quarters of a century would pass before it was removed from gasoline in the United States.  During that time, spewed out of the tailpipes of hundreds of millions of cars and trucks, it tainted the soil that children played in and was tracked onto floors that toddlers touched.  Banned from use in the 1980s, it still lurks in the environment today.

Meanwhile, homes across the country were tainted by lead in quite a different way. Lead carbonate, a white powder, was mixed with linseed oil to create the paint that was used in the nation’s homes, hospitals, schools, and other buildings until 1978.  Though its power to harm and even kill children who sucked on lead-painted windowsills, toys, cribs, and woodwork had long been known, it was only in that year that the federal government banned its use in household paints.

Paint

Lead paint is still common in low-income housing where it affects the lives of millions of children.

Hundreds of tons of the lead in paint that covered the walls of houses, apartment buildings, and workplaces across the United States remains in place almost four decades later, especially in poorer neighborhoods where millions of African American and Latino children currently live.  Right now, most middle class white families feel relatively immune from the dangers of lead, although the gentrification of old neighborhoods and the renovation of old homes can still expose their children to dangerous levels of lead dust from the old paint on those walls. However, economically and politically vulnerable black and Hispanic children, many of whom inhabit dilapidated older housing, still suffer disproportionately from the devastating effects of the toxin. This is the meaning of institutional racism in action today.  As with the water flowing into homes from the pipes of Flint’s water system, so the walls of its apartment complexes, not to mention those in poor neighborhoods of Detroit, Baltimore, Washington, and virtually every other older urban center in the country, continue to poison children exposed to lead-polluted dust, chips, soil, and air.

Over the course of the past century, tens of millions of children have been poisoned by lead and millions more remain in danger of it today. Add to this the risks these same children face from industrial toxins like mercury, asbestos, and polychlorinated biphenyls (better known as PCBs) and you have an ongoing recipe for a Flint-like disaster but on a national scale.

In truth, the United States has scores of “Flints” awaiting their moments.  Think of them as ticking toxic time bombs — just an austerity scheme or some official’s poor decision away from a public health disaster.  Given this, it’s remarkable, even in the wake of Flint, how little attention or publicity such threats receive.  Not surprisingly, then, there seems to be virtually no political will to ensure that future generations of children will not suffer the same fate as those in Flint.  

The Future of America’s Toxic Past

A series of decisions by state and local officials turned Flint’s chronic post-industrial crisis into a total public health disaster.  If clueless, corrupt, or heartless government officials get all the blame for this (and blame they do deserve), the larger point will unfortunately be missed — that there are many post-industrial Flints, many other hidden tragedies affecting America’s children that await their moments in the news. Treat Flint as an anomaly and you condemn families nationwide to bear the damage to their children alone, abandoned by a society unwilling to invest in cleaning up a century of industrial pollution, or even to acknowledge the injustice involved.

Flint may be years away from a solution to its current crisis, but in a few cities elsewhere in the country there is at least a modicum of hope when it comes to developing ways to begin to address this country’s poisonous past. In California, for example, 10 cities and counties, including San Francisco, San Diego, Los Angeles, and Oakland, have successfully sued and won an initial judgment against three lead pigment manufacturers for $1.15 billion. That money will be invested in removing lead paint from the walls of homes in these cities. If this judgment is upheld on appeal, it would be an unprecedented and pathbreaking victory, since it would force a polluting industry to clean up the mess it created and from which it profited.

There have been other partial victories, too. In Herculaneum, Missouri, for instance, where half the children within a mile of the nation’s largest lead smelter suffered lead poisoning, jurors returned a $320 million verdict against Fluor Corporation, one of the world’s largest construction and engineering firms. That verdict is also on appeal, while the company has moved its smelter to Peru where whole new populations are undoubtedly being poisoned.

President Obama hit the nail on the head with his recent comments on Flint, but he also missed the larger point. There he was just a few dozen miles from that city’s damaged water system when he spoke in Detroit, another symbol of corporate abandonment with its own grim toxic legacy. Thousands of homes in the Motor City, the former capital of the auto industry, are still lead paint disaster areas. Perhaps it’s time to widen the canvas when it comes to the poisoning of America’s children and face the terrible human toll caused by “the American century.”


David Rosner and Gerald Markowitz, TomDispatch regulars, are co-authors and co-editors of seven books and 85 articles on a variety of industrial and occupational hazards, including Deceit and Denial: The Deadly Politics of Industrial Pollution and, most recently, Lead Wars: The Politics of Science and the Fate of America’s Children.  Rosner is a professor of sociomedical sciences and history at Columbia University and co-director of the Center for the History of Public Health at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health. Markowitz is a professor of history at John Jay College and the Graduate Center, City University of New York. Both have been awarded a certificate of appreciation by the United States Senate through the office of Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, who has recognized the importance of their work on lead and industrial poisoning.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Book, Nick Turse’s Tomorrow’s Battlefield: U.S. Proxy Wars and Secret Ops in Africa, and Tom Engelhardt's latest book, Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World.

Copyright 2016 David Rosner and Gerald Markowitz

Top photo by Fotolia/spiritofamerica

Middle photo by Fotolia/Narin Sapaisarn

Bottom photo by Fotolia/photoeyestock

Night of the Living Dead, Climate Change-Style

Reprinted with permission from TomDispatch.

Drill

Oil drills and fracking for natural gas cause far-reaching damage to natural environments.

When I was a kid, I was creepily fascinated by the wrongheaded idea, current in my grade school, that your hair and your fingernails kept growing after you died. The lesson seemed to be that it was hard to kill something off — if it wanted to keep going.

Something similar is happening right now with the fossil fuel industry. Even as the global warming crisis makes it clear that coal, natural gas, and oil are yesterday’s energy, the momentum of two centuries of fossil fuel development means new projects keep emerging in a zombie-like fashion.

In fact, the climactic fight at the end of the fossil fuel era is already underway, even if it’s happening almost in secret. That’s because so much of the action isn’t taking place in big, headline-grabbing climate change settings like the recent conference of 195 nations in Paris; it’s taking place in hearing rooms and farmers’ fields across this continent (and other continents, too).  Local activists are making desperate stands to stop new fossil fuel projects, while the giant energy companies are making equally desperate attempts to build while they still can. Though such conflicts and protests are mostly too small and local to attract national media attention, the outcome of these thousands of fights will do much to determine whether we emerge from this century with a habitable planet. In fact, far more than any set of paper promises by politicians, they really are the battle for the future.

Here’s how Diane Leopold, president of the giant fracking company Dominion Energy, put it at a conference earlier this year: “It may be the most challenging” period in fossil fuel history, she said, because of “an increase in high-intensity opposition” to infrastructure projects that is becoming steadily “louder, better-funded, and more sophisticated.” Or, in the words of the head of the American Natural Gas Association, referring to the bitter struggle between activists and the Canadian tar sands industry over the building of the Keystone XL pipeline, “Call it the Keystone-ization of every project that’s out there.”

Pipelines, Pipelines, Everywhere

I hesitate to even start listing them all, because I’m going to miss dozens, but here are some of the prospective pipelines people are currently fighting across North America: the Alberta Clipper and the Sandpiper pipelines in the upper Midwest, Enbridge Line 3, the Dakota Access, the Line 9 and Energy East pipelines in Ontario and environs, the Northern Gateway and Kinder Morgan pipelines in British Columbia, the Piñon pipeline in Navajo Country, the Sabal Trail pipeline in Alabama and Georgia, the Appalachian Connector, the Vermont Gas pipeline down the western side of my own state, the Algonquin pipeline, the Constitution pipeline, the Spectra pipeline, and on and on.

And it’s not just pipelines, not by a long shot. I couldn’t begin to start tallying up the number of proposed liquid natural gas terminals, prospective coal export facilities and new oil ports, fracking wells, and mountaintop removal coal sites where people are already waging serious trench warfare. As I write these words, brave activists are on trial for trying to block oil trains in the Pacific Northwest. In the Finger Lakes not a week goes by without mass arrests of local activists attempting to stop the building of a giant underground gas storage cavern. In California, it’s frack wells in Kern County. As I said: endless.

Pipeline

Pipeline projects are springing up across America as fossil fuel companies seek to continue growing their infrastructure.

And endlessly resourceful, too. Everywhere the opposition is forced by statute to make its stand not on climate change arguments, but on old grounds. This pipeline will hurt water quality. That coal port will increase local pollution. The dust that flies off those coal trains will cause asthma. All the arguments are perfectly correct and accurate and by themselves enough to justify stopping many of these plans, but a far more important argument always lurks in the background: each of these new infrastructure projects is a way to extend the life of the fossil fuel era a few more disastrous decades.

Here’s the basic math: if you build a pipeline in 2016, the investment will be amortized for 40 years or more. It is designed to last -- to carry coal slurry or gas or oil -- well into the second half of the twenty-first century. It is, in other words, designed to do the very thing scientists insist we simply can’t keep doing, and do it long past the point when physics swears we must stop.

These projects are the result of several kinds of momentum. Because fossil fuel companies have made huge sums of money for so long, they have the political clout to keep politicians saying yes. Just a week after the Paris accords were signed, for instance, the well-paid American employees of those companies, otherwise known as senators and representatives, overturned a 40-year-old ban on U.S. oil exports, a gift that an ExxonMobil spokesman had asked for in the most explicit terms only a few weeks earlier. “The sooner this happens, the better for us,” he’d told the New York Times, at the very moment when other journalists were breaking the story of that company’s epic three-decade legacy of deceit, its attempt to suppress public knowledge of a globally warming planet that Exxon officials knew they were helping to create. That scandal didn’t matter. The habit of giving in to Big Oil was just too strong.

Driving a Stake Through a Fossil-Fueled World

The money, however, is only part of it. There’s also a sense in which the whole process is simply on autopilot. For many decades the economic health of the nation and access to fossil fuels were more or less synonymous. So it’s no wonder that the laws, statutes, and regulations favor business-as-usual. The advent of the environmental movement in the 1970s and 1980s introduced a few new rules, but they were only designed to keep that business-as-usual from going disastrously, visibly wrong. You could drill and mine and pump, but you were supposed to prevent the really obvious pollution. No Deepwater Horizons.  And so fossil fuel projects still get approved almost automatically, because there’s no legal reason not to do so.

In Australia, for instance, a new prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, replaced the climate-change-denying Tony Abbott. His minister for the environment, Greg Hunt, was a particular standout at the recent Paris talks, gassing on at great length about his “deeply personal” commitment to stopping climate change, calling the new pact the “most important environmental agreement ever.” A month earlier, though, he’d approved plans for the largest coal mine on Earth, demanding slight revisions to make sure that the habitat of the southern black-throated finch would not be destroyed. Campaigners had hung much of their argument against the mine on the bird’s possible extinction, since given the way Australia’s laws are written this was one of the few hooks they had. The fact that scientists have stated quite plainly that such coal must remain in the ground if the globe is to meet its temperature targets and prevent catastrophic environmental changes has no standing. It’s the most important argument in the world, but no one in authority can officially hear it.

It’s not just Australia, of course. As 2016 began in my own Vermont — as enlightened a patch of territory as you’re likely to find — the state’s Public Service Board approved a big new gas pipeline. Under long-standing regulations, they said, it would be “in the public interest,” even though science has recently made it clear that the methane leaking from the fracked gas the pipeline will carry is worse than the burning of coal. Their decision came two weeks after the temperature in the city of Burlington hit 68 on Christmas Eve, breaking the old record by, oh, 17 degrees. But it didn’t matter.

This zombie-like process is guaranteed to go on for years, even decades, as at every turn the fossil fuel industry fights the new laws and regulations that would be necessary, were agreements like the Paris accord to have any real teeth. The only way to short-circuit this process is to fight like hell, raising the political and economic price of new infrastructure to the point where politicians begin to balk. That’s what happened with Keystone — when enough voices were raised, the powers-that-be finally decided it wasn’t worth it. And it’s happening elsewhere, too.  Other Canadian tar sands pipelines have also been blocked. Coal ports planned for the West Coast haven’t been built. That Australian coal mine may have official approval, but almost every big bank in the world has balked at providing it the billions it would require.

There’s much more of this fight coming — led, as usual, by indigenous groups, by farmers and ranchers, by people living on the front lines of both climate change and extractive industry. Increasingly they’re being joined by climate scientists, faith communities, and students in last-ditch efforts to lock in fossil fuels. This will undoubtedly be a key battleground for the climate justice movement. In May, for instance, a vast coalition across six continents will engage in mass civil disobedience to “keep it in the ground.”

Solar panels

Renewable energy sources are necessary to keep the planet livable for humans.

And in a few places you can see more than just the opposition; you can see the next steps unfolding. Last fall, for instance, Portland, Oregon — the scene of a memorable “kayaktivist” blockade to keep Shell’s Arctic drilling rigs bottled up in port — passed a remarkable resolution. No new fossil fuel infrastructure would be built in the city, its council and mayor declared. The law will almost certainly block a huge proposed propane export terminal, but far more important, it opens much wider the door to the future. If you can’t do fossil fuel, after all, you have to do something else — sun, wind, conservation. This has to be our response to the living-dead future that the fossil fuel industry and its allied politicians imagine for our beleaguered world: no new fossil fuel infrastructure. None. The climate math is just too obvious.

This business of driving stakes through the heart of one project after another is exhausting. So many petitions, so many demonstrations, so many meetings. But at least for now, there’s really no other way to kill a zombie.


Bill McKibben is the founder of 350.org and Schumann Distinguished Scholar at Middlebury College. He was the 2014 recipient of the Right Livelihood Award, often called the “alternative Nobel Prize.” His most recent book is Oil and Honey: The Education of an Unlikely Activist. 

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Book, Nick Turse’s Tomorrow’s Battlefield: U.S. Proxy Wars and Secret Ops in Africa, and Tom Engelhardt's latest book, Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World.

Copyright 2016 Bill McKibben

Top photo: Fotolia/Steve Oehlenschlager

Middle photo: Fotolia/James

Bottom photo: Fotolia/diyanadimitrova

How to Measure Indoor Air Pollution

Spreck Monitor 

Gas infrastructure will increase tenfold over the next ten years, according to the Clean Air Council, bringing gas pipelines, compressors, metering stations, and power plants to communities around the country. With them come emissions that have increased air pollution in rural areas to levels exceeding urban pollution, resulting in widespread adverse health effects, according to David Brown, environmental health consultant for Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project.

 Making such invisible pollution problems visible and measureable to community residents, has become a compelling project for Illah Nourbakhsh, professor of robotics at the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.

“When fracking started, people didn’t know if they were being harmed by their water and air. Their tap water could be set on fire. Their horse’s hair might be falling out. People felt completely disempowered,” he said.

The Pittsburgh area was an early hub of fracking activity, and Nourbakhsh noticed discussions about it all over the city.

“We wanted to allow people to own the data and decide what to do,” said Beatrice Dias, project director at the Robotics Institute. “With air monitoring, an agency usually owns the data and makes decisions.”

Aided by grants from the Heinz and Fine foundations, they invented the Speck air monitor, size of a small clock, to enable people to monitor particulate matter at home. Increased pollutants from the gas industry include large quantities of fine particulate matter, also called PM 2.5, which creates inflammation throughout the body, particularly exacerbating lung and heart disease, according to Harvard Environmental Epidemiology Professor Joel Schwartz. In recent research, he found that even small increases in PM 2.5 levels raise mortality rates from all causes for people 65 and over, the population addressed by the study.


More from Minisink


The Speck monitor has the capacity to collect data to be uploaded to the web at www.SpeckSensor.com, with an option to share data publicly and create sources of air quality information within communities and between cities around the U.S. The data is more specific in both location and content than the U.S. air quality index, which reflects a combination of particulate matter, ozone, and other pollutants, says Nourbakhsh.

Indoor readings are affected by both outdoor air and activities like vacuuming and cooking, potentially also providing information about triggers for personal health problems, like asthma, he says. Additionally, the Speck can indicate how well an air purifier is working.

To facilitate community access and collaboration, Nourbakhsh and his cohorts created a pilot public library program in Pittsburgh, donating several Speck monitors to be loaned like books.

“It’s become a popular program that got people involved in community advocacy,” says Dias.

Consequently, Nourbakhsh and Dias decided to launch Speck library programs nationally in 2016, providing the monitors to libraries at a discount.

In Minisink, the monitor was instrumental in identifying relationships between compressor emissions and symptoms experienced by people living in the community around it, when Brown and his SWPEHP colleagues conducted their health survey there. The monitors showed that the compressor tripled ambient levels of PM 2.5 within the 1.5 mile radius around the compressor. Ambient PM 2.5 rose from 6 micrograms (1/1000 milligram) per cubic meter, a typically low rural level, to 17, a level 50% greater than Environmental Protection Agency limits, with intermittent surges to levels 40 times the EPA’s limit.

Nourbakhsh and his colleagues also invented the Cattfish, a small $200 device that can be dropped in a toilet back tank to measure changes in total dissolved solids in well water. Although the Cattfish does not identify what chemicals the solids contain, a TDS increase indicates when contamination occurs, said Josh Schapiro, a robotics engineer at the Robotics Institute, who collaborated with Nourbakhsh on the project.

“The Cattfish provides easy access to well water TDS readings,” he said.

The Robotics Institute group is now working on technology that would monitor smaller particles that penetrate the lungs more deeply, as research published this year showed significant increases in babies with low birth weight, ADHD, and autism when mothers are exposed to high levels of fine particulate matter during pregnancy, Nourbakhsh said.

For information about the Speck library program, contact Sara Longo and Beatrice Dias at outreach@specksensor.com.

The Politics of Extinction

Elephants

The demand for ivory carvings in China has resulted in the deaths of roughly 100 African elephants every day.

Reprinted with permission by TomDispatch.

Maybe baby steps will help, but the world needs a lot more than either the United States or China is offering to combat the illegal traffic in wildlife, a nearly $20-billion-a-year business that adds up to a global war against nature. As the headlines tell us, the trade has pushed various rhinoceros species to the point of extinction and motivated poachers to kill more than 100,000 elephants since 2010.

Last month China announced that it would ban ivory imports for a year, while it “evaluates” the effectiveness of the ban in reducing internal demand for ivory carvings on the current slaughter of approximately 100 African elephants per day. The promise, however, rings hollow following a report in November (hotly denied by China) that Chinese diplomats used President Xi Jinping’s presidential plane to smuggle thousands of pounds of poached elephant tusks out of Tanzania.

Meanwhile, the Obama administration has launched its own well-meaning but distinctly inadequate initiative to curb the trade. Even if you missed the roll-out of that policy, you probably know that current trends are leading us toward a planetary animal dystopia, a most un-Disneyesque world in which the great forests and savannas of the planet will bid farewell to the species earlier generations referred to as their “royalty.” No more King of the Jungle, while Dorothy’s “Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!” will truly be over the rainbow. And that’s just for starters.

The even grimmer news that rarely makes the headlines is that the lesser subjects of that old royalty are vanishing, too. Though largely unacknowledged, the current war is far redder in tooth and claw than anything nature has to offer. It threatens not just charismatic species like elephants, gibbons, and rhinos, but countless others with permanent oblivion.

If current trends hold, one day not so very long from now our children may think of the T. rex and the tiger as co-occupants of a single Lost World, accessible only in dreams, storybooks, and the movies. Sure, some of the planet’s present megafauna will be bred in zoos for as long as society produces enough luxury to maintain such institutions. Even the best zoo, however, is but a faint simulacrum of wild habitat and its captives are ghosts of their free-roaming forebears.

That’s why the Obama administration deserves some credit for highlighting the urgent need to curb the wildlife trade. Its plan calls for using assets of the National Intelligence Council to advance enforcement efforts. Unfortunately, the administration proposes boosting the enforcement budget of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the agency with primary responsibility in this area, by only $8 million. Such an increase would lift its force of inspectors just slightly above the levels of 30 years ago when the illicit trade in wildlife was far smaller.

To grasp the breadth of the carnage now going on, it’s essential to realize that the war against nature is being waged on an almost infinite number of planetary fronts, affecting hundreds of species, and that the toll is already devastating. Among the battlefields, none may be bloodier than the forests of Southeast Asia, for they lie closest to China, the world’s most ravenous (and lucrative) market for wildlife and wildlife parts.

China’s taste for wildlife penetrates even the least visited corners of the region, where professional poachers industriously gather live porcupines and turtles, all manner of venison, monkey hands, python fat, pangolin scales, otter skins, gall bladders, antlers, horns, bones, and hundreds of other items. These goods, dead or alive, are smuggled to markets in China and elsewhere. Meanwhile, an expanding economy enables ever more millions of people to purchase expensive animal commodities they believe might stave off disease or provide the fancy restaurant meals that will impress in-laws and business associates.

To put the present war in perspective, think of it this way: every year, more and more money chases fewer and fewer creatures.

Slaughter at the Ground Level

In a typical forest in Southeast Asia you might encounter a snare line stretching a kilometer or more along a mountain ridge or running down one side of a canyon and all the way up the other. These barriers are waist-high walls of chopped brush, with gaps every few meters. They are hedges of death.

Almost any mammal traveling in this landscape, if larger than a tree shrew (which would fit in a modest handbag), sooner or later will have to pass through one of these gaps, and in each a snare awaits. Powered by a bent-over sapling, it lies beneath a camouflage of leaves and hides a loop of bicycle brake cable — or truck winch cable for larger animals like tigers. The trigger controlling each snare is made of small sticks and can be astonishingly sensitive. I’ve seen snares set for deer and wild pig that were no less capable of capturing creatures as light of foot as a jungle fowl, the wild cousin of the domestic chicken, or a silver pheasant, the males of which shimmer in the dusky forest like bundles of fallen moonbeams.

Jungle

Southeast Asia, including the Philippines and Indonesia, has the highest proportion of endemic birds and mammals anywhere in the world; it also leads the world in the proportion of species in imminent danger of extinction.

On an expedition to central Laos, my companions and I made our way into a forest distinguished mainly by its remoteness. The Vietnamese border lay perhaps a dozen kilometers to the east, closer by far than the nearest village, four days’ hard march away, where we’d recruited the guides and porters traveling with us. That village, in turn, lay two days by foot and motorized pirogue from the end of the nearest road. The head of our expedition, conservation biologist William Robichaud, the only other westerner in our group of 14, told me that, unless a distressed American pilot had parachuted into the sprawling watershed that lay before us during the Vietnam War, ours were the first blue eyes that had glimpsed it.

Isolation, however, failed to protect the canyons and ridges we surveyed. Evidence lay everywhere of commercial poachers who had crossed the mountains from Vietnam to feed the Chinese market. In a matter of days, we collected wires from almost a thousand snares. In them, we found the decaying carcasses of ferret badgers, hog badgers, mongooses, various species of birds, and several critically endangered large-antlered muntjacs, a species of barking deer, one of which, in its struggle to free itself, had pulled off its own foot before dying nearby.

We camped by fish-rich rivers that had been stripped of their otters and saw the remains of dozens of poachers’ camps, some elaborately equipped with butchering tables and smoking racks. Saddest of all was the sight of a red-shanked douc (also called a douc langur), perhaps the most beautiful monkey in the world, dangling upside down at the end of a snare pole, having succumbed to as slow and cruel a death as might be imagined.

The indiscriminate wastefulness of this massive trapping enterprise is hard to absorb even when you see it yourself. Poachers check their snare lines haphazardly and leave them armed when they depart the area. This means the killing goes on indefinitely, no matter if the bodies languish and rot.

A Unicorn Still in the Wild?

Though we were in that forest in part to remove snares and assess the nature of the ongoing damage, our main goal was to find a unicorn — or actually an animal almost as rare, a creature that might indeed have already moved, or might soon move, from Earth’s natural realms to the realm of mythology. We were searching for any sign of saola (Pseudoryx nghetinhensis), one of the rarest large mammals on the planet. Its very existence, though known to locals, was revealed to science only in 1992, when researchers spotted a strange set of horns on the wall of a hunter’s shack high in the mountains of Vietnam.

Saola proved to be much more than a new species. It represented a new genus, possibly even a new taxonomic tribe, although the jury is still out on that. A kind of bovid, a ruminant with cloven hooves, its nearest evolutionary relatives appear to be wild cattle, yet it looks nothing like a cow or bison. A saola stands a little higher than a carousel pony. Deer-like, but thicker in form, its powerful build helps it push through the densest vegetation. Its muzzle is splashed with camo patterns of white, and its tri-colored tail — white, chocolate brown, and black — blends with similar bands of color on its rump. Its long, nearly straight horns are elegantly tapered, and in profile they seem to blend into a single horn, giving the creature the otherworldly look of a unicorn.

At best, the existing population of saola numbers between a few dozen and a few hundred, making it nearly as rare and hard to find as a unicorn. Even stranger, its disposition, except when the animal is directly threatened, appears to be as gentle as that of the unicorns of medieval European lore.

In 1996, Robichaud spent two weeks in a rough crossroads town in central Laos observing a captive saola. The unfortunate creature did not survive long in the menagerie in which it was held — no saola has lasted more than a few months in confinement and none is held anywhere today — but he had ample opportunity to note that it reacted alertly, even violently, to the presence of a dog outside its enclosure. (Wild dogs, or dholes, are among its natural enemies.)

Eerily, however, the saola was calm in the presence of humans — far more so than the barking deer or the serow (a species of mountain goat) in nearby cages, even though they had been in the menagerie far longer. Captured in the wild just before Robichaud arrived, the saola proved calmer than any domestic goat, sheep, or cow he had known from farms in his native Wisconsin. The captive saola even let him pick ticks from its ears. Local information buttressed Robichaud’s sense of the creature’s almost unearthly serenity. A Buddhist monk from a nearby temple told him that people in the area had dubbed the creature “sat souphap,” which translates roughly as “the polite animal.”

Today, no one knows if the clock of extinction for the species stands at two minutes before midnight or two minutes after. The greatest threat to its survival is the kind of snaring we witnessed on our expedition, which is doubly tragic, for saola do not appear to be a target of the poachers. In spite of its exotic horns, the animal is unknown in traditional Chinese medicine. (Its omission from that medical tradition's encyclopedic command of Asian fauna and flora testifies to its profound isolation from the rest of the world.) Rather, the last living remnants of the species risk being taken as by-catch, like sea turtles in a shrimper’s net.

The Politics of Extinction

The situation may be terrible, but at least there are parks and protected areas in Southeast Asia where wild creatures are safe, right?

Alas, wrong. Our travels took place in an official National Protected Area in Laos where snaring of the kind we witnessed is blatantly illegal. Yet the deadly harvest continues, there and elsewhere, thanks to insufficient investment in protection and law enforcement, not to mention insufficient political will in countries whose overriding priority is economic development. Last year in the protected area of more than 4,000 square kilometers (1,544 square miles) that we visited, a small number of government patrols removed nearly 14,000 snares, undoubtedly a small fraction of what’s there.

The same is true elsewhere. According to the Saola Working Group, a committee sponsored by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, patrols that its members help to fund and supervise in just five protected areas in Laos and Vietnam (including the one in which we traveled) have destroyed more than 90,000 snares since 2011. And yet that, too, is just a drop in the bucket of the wildlife trade.

While the trade’s reach is global, the stakes may be highest in Southeast Asia (including Indonesia and the Philippines). About half the world’s people live there or in the adjacent countries of China, Bangladesh, and India. The region leads the world in the proportion of its birds and mammals that are endemic; that is, found nowhere else. Unfortunately, it also leads in the proportion in imminent danger of extinction, due in large measure to the wildlife trade. Worse yet, no country in Southeast Asia possesses a tradition of effective biological conservation.

Already many forests that once were rich in tigers, leopards, gaur, banteng, and gibbons are devoid of any mammals larger than a cocker spaniel. If the rest of the world truly wants to protect the planet’s endangered biodiversity, assisting the governments and NGOs of Southeast Asia in safeguarding their region’s natural heritage needs to be a global priority.

Leopard

Large animals like leopards are not the only species at stake. Countless smaller and less charismatic species are also endangered by the illegal wildlife trade.

Critics often point out that the West is hypocritical in urging the East to do what it failed to accomplish in its own grim history of development. Indeed, the present sacking of Asian forests is analogous to the stripping of beaver from western American streams and the subsequent extirpation of bison herds in the nineteenth century. Nevertheless, if the West has learned one thing, it’s that conservation in advance of calamity costs much less than repairs after the fact and that it is the only way to prevent irreparable mistakes. No matter what moral ground you stand on, the facts in the field are simple: our best chance to avert catastrophe lies before us, right now.

Other critics complacently observe that extinction has always been part of evolution and that other epochs have seen similar waves of species loss. New species, they say, will emerge to take the places of those we destroy. Such a view may be technically correct, but it commits an error of scale.

Evolution will continue; it cannot not continue. But the inexorable emergence of what Darwin called “endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful” proceeds at a nearly geological pace. By comparison, our human tenancy of Earth is a fleeting breath. Within the time frame of what we call civilization, the extinctions we cause are as eternal as any human accomplishment.

A Loneliness That Could Stretch to Infinity

The essential conservation task before the world is to protect key habitats and wildlife populations long enough for generational attitudes to change in China and its neighbors. At least in part, this means meeting the war on nature with a martial response. Whether protecting elephants in Kenya, mountain gorillas in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (a cause movingly depicted in the documentary film Virunga), tigers in Thailand, or saola in Laos, one has to prepare, quite literally, to meet fire with fire.

In the case of our expedition in Laos, three of our guides doubled as militia and carried AK-47s. The weapons were not for show. Poachers are generally similarly armed. On one occasion, such a band, traveling in the dead of night, nearly walked into our camp, only to melt back into the forest when they realized they’d been discovered.

Good news, however, glimmers amid the bad. Although the shift will take time, cultural values in Asia are beginning to change. Witness the recent abandonment of shark fin soup by Chinese consumers. The San Francisco-based NGO WildAid reports that sales of shark fins have plummeted 82 percent in Guangzhou (formerly Canton), the hub of the shark trade, and that two-thirds of the respondents to a recent poll cited public “awareness campaigns” against the global destruction of shark populations as a reason for ending their consumption.

Only by rising to the challenge of species protection — not “eventually,” but now — can we ensure that nature’s most magnificent creations will persist in the wild to delight future generations. Only through generous cooperation with Asian partners, boosting both law enforcement and political resolve, can we preserve the stunning, often cacophonous, and always mysterious diversity of a large share of the planet’s most biologically productive ecosystems.

The dystopian alternative is terrible to consider. Uncounted species — not just tigers, gibbons, rhinos, and saola, but vast numbers of smaller mammals, amphibians, birds, and reptiles — are being pressed to the brink. We’ve hardly met them and yet, within the vastness of the universe, they and the rest of Earth’s biota are our only known companions. Without them, our loneliness would stretch to infinity.


William deBuys, a TomDispatch regular, is the author of eight books. His latest, just published, is The Last Unicorn: A Search for One of Earth’s Rarest Creatures (Little, Brown and Company, 2015). His website is williamdebuys.com.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Book, Rebecca Solnit's Men Explain Things to Me, and Tom Engelhardt's latest book, Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World.

Copyright 2015 William deBuys

Top photo by Fotolia/artrush

Middle photo by Fotolia/mathess

Bottom photo by Fotolia/Vitezslav Halamka

Recycling a Big Box: From Abandoned Walmart to Award-Winning Public Library

 

Big box stores wield such a name for good reason: they are the architectural equivalent of a giant empty box, built to hold a warehouse-full of discount goods and accommodate as many people as possible. They take up large lots of space in central and commercial districts and when a store closes, the sign comes down but there’s still that big box. What is a community to do?

Walmart currently lists 355 former store locations for sale on their realty website. These are the “dark stores” that were probably replaced by larger "Supercenters," leaving communities with a 250,000 square-foot, crumbling husk of capitalism and general aesthetic eyesore. There have been many creative and community-enriching re-purposing projects that take advantage of the deserted box stores, including the especially innovative McAllen Main Library

Architecture and interior design firm Meyer, Scherer & Rockcastle (MSR), based in Minneapolis and well known for library designs, took on the interior conversion of the project led by Boultinghouse Simpson Gates Architects of McAllen. The transformation from big box to the largest single-story library in America resulted in an intuitively-organized, colorful and welcoming space. MSR also worked to maximize sustainability and reduce energy and water waste. These efforts resulted in a 45 percent reduction in potable water consumption, a condensate recovery system projected to save 180,000 gallons of water per year and a 38 percent reduction in energy usage compared to the national average for libraries. 

“Like the building, finishes and furnishings were also selected to keep materials and toxins out of the waste system. Low VOW paints and the use of glue-free adhesive carpet tiles virtually eliminate associated VOCs and odor, providing good indoor air quality. Covering 75 percent of the floor area, the carpet tile contains between 60-80 percent recycled content, is durable, easy to maintain, and easy to replace. When its useful life is over, the carpet is recyclable. Furnishings were similarly chosen for their high recycled content and recyclability. Examples include study chairs containing 80 percent recycled aluminum, which are also 100 percent recyclable, as well as others made from 111 recycled plastic bottles per chair.”


The real test of a project like the McAllen library is whether the space designed specifically for the participation of the community effectively engages the public. In the first month after the opening of the new location, new user registrations had increased by 23 times, and existing accounts were updated at a 2,000 percent rate. The project was also a success for MSR, as the firm received various accolades including a 2013 Institute Honor Award for Interior Architecture and Best of Category in the 2012 Library Interior Design Awards.

 

 Photos by Lara Swimmer, provided by Meyer, Scherer & Rockcastle.