Wednesday, May 31, 2006
Navigating the Seafood Menu
Ask your local fishmonger about Boston mackerel. That's the advice of the New York Times' Marian Burros, who researched and compiled a list of "guilt-free" fish for the paper's Dining section. What's nice about her list (which draws from resources like Oceans Alive and the Monterey Bay Aquarium) is that it looks at the both the health consequences of eating certain fish (exposure to toxins like mercury, PCBs, dioxins, etc) and the consequences for the future of certain fish stocks of being eaten (namely, collapse or extinction). On the other hand, not all the fish are readily available. Ask your fishmonger about Boston mackerel and, in most parts of the country, you're bound to be met with a blank stare -- at least until it catches on.
Already the largest supplier of foreign crude to the U.S., Canada is ramping up mining of its prodigious tar sands to slake America's (and the world's) ever-increasing thirst for oil. As the Washington Post reports, this Oil Rush has enormous environmental consequences. An obvious one is the wholesale destruction of large swaths of Alberta's Boreal Forest, where the bituminous sands are found. See the slide show. It's not a pretty picture. A less-obvious consequence has to do with global warming.
The Boreal Forest is considered an important carbon sink and a vital tool for controlling greenhouse gas emissions. Now, a large swath of that forest has been turned into a producer of greenhouse gases and a further impediment to Canada reaching its emissions targets under the Kyoto Protocol. As has been noted here before, Ottawa is committed, under the climate treaty, to a six per cent reduction in emissions from 1990 levels by 2012. Actual emissions have in fact risen by 30 per cent, and the mining of tar sands is the main contributor to that increase.
Fast, Cheap and Out-of-Control
Last week, my colleague Ethan Klein posted a short review of The Omnivore's Dilemma, a new book by journalist Michael Pollan. Today, Grist has a very insightful interview with the author. I especially like what Pollan says about our culture's priorities when it comes to food. He says we've been thoroughly sold on the virtues of food that's both fast and cheap, but asks, What did we do with the extra time and money? As any casual observer of American culture could tell you, we've happily spent it on non-essentials like cable tv, cell phones, and the Internet, while forsaking the pleasures of good food, cooked and eaten at a leisurely pace. As with so many "modern conveniences," it's important to step back once in a while and ask ourselves: What did we lose in the bargain? Was it a worthy trade-off, or did we just buy into the usual consumerist myths without thinking?
Tuesday, May 30, 2006
USA Today has the launched a four-day-long series called "Making Sense of Global Warming," featuring various multimedia components including interactive maps, quizzes and video snippets, like these from Alaska, which the paper calls the "poster state" of climate concerns.
A study of satellite-tagged loggerhead turtles off the coast West Africa offers surprising insights and new challenges for conservationists.
Mowing Down Regulations
Mowing season is in full swing -- that time of year when suburban neighborhoods across America are alive with the guttural roar of small-horsepower engines. Those gas-powered grass cutters not only create noise pollution, they're also big-time smog producers. With the simple, low-cost addition of a catalytic converter, they'd burn a lot cleaner -- something clean air regulators have been pushing for. So what's the hold up? This New York Times article from April tells how the Briggs and Stratton company and Senator Kit Bond (R-MO) have singlehandedly kept clean air regulations at bay and dirty mowers at full throttle.
Friday, May 26, 2006
Photojournalist and nature photographer Gary Braasch has been crossing the globe to document the immediate, real-world effects of climate change. He tells Nikon Net, "This was not a very well covered issue when I started six years ago. ... Even for people who believed in global warming and understood how bad it was, the pictures were a compelling message that it was really happening, not in the future, but right now." The bittersweet fruits of Braasch's labor will soon be published as a book called Earth Under Fire, but some of the work can already be seen on a website he maintains called World View of Global Warming.
A Reader's Feast
Curious about where your food comes from? In his new book, "The Omnivore's Dilemma," writer Michael Pollan tells the stories of four different meals – industrial, organic, industrial-organic, and hunted/foraged/grown – to deliver answers to questions we rarely stop to consider: What does "organic" really mean? What's life like for a factory-farmed cow? What is high-fructose corn syrup anyway and where does it come from? Pollan delves deeply into questions like these and the answers are not always pleasant.
It’s disheartening to learn, for example, that the organic food business has come to mirror its industrial counterpart. Organic milk may be free of growth hormone, but the cows that produce it are rarely treated any better than their counterparts in non-organic dairies.
There are exceptions, of course. Pollan describes a farm in rural Virginia, where emphasis is put on cyclical, symbiotic land use practices. The farmer calls his operation "beyond organic" – a term that arose from widespread misgivings about the much-compromised "organic" label. At the Polyface Farm, cows graze on a schedule that is optimal for the grass, on which the cows ultimately depend. Hens enter the pasture a few days after the cows and eat the grubs and larvae that grow in the dung. Not only do the hens get a meal, but their activity helps break down the manure and minimize the bug problem on the farm, which helps stave off disease.
Pollan’s ‘last supper’ is the most extreme: He attempts to hunt, grow and forage all the ingredients of a meal – a mission that involves boar hunting in Northern California. Upon killing his quarry, Pollans emotions run the course from primal fulfillment to sympathetic remorse. He is fully involved in his food.
Since reading "The Omnivore's Dilemma" I've found myself pausing to reflect before chomping down whatever i'm about to put in my mouth. Whatever else I got out of the book, it has made me a more conscious eater.
Accounting and Accountability
The Government Accountability Office has found that the Bush administration's voluntary program for reducing industrial greenhouse gas emissions isn't working. Surprising, isn't it? Let me guess: It doesn't work for the same reason that voluntary mortgage payments don't work -- namely, human nature. In fact, the Bush plan was never credible, and while it's nice for that to be exposed here in the Washington Post, it's also sad that a government agency had to devote time to studying what was obvious in the first place.
Meanwhile, reports the Post:
Bush's senior environmental adviser, James L. Connaughton, told an audience at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, that the country does not have to regulate such pollutants because it is on track to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 18 percent relative to the gross domestic product by 2012.This is the old GHG emissions intensity canard, which masks the fact that in absolute terms, emissions are still on track to increase, whereas scientists say we have to reduce emissions by a full 70 percent if we hope to pull back from the brink of a destabilized global climate. In other words, we're going the wrong direction.
Thursday, May 25, 2006
Incentives to Burn
Finally, someone is doing something about high gas prices. General Motors, that is; the world's largest automaker (though apparently not for long), has announced that it will subsidize gasoline for customers (well, people in California and Florida, anyway) who buy one of its champion gas guzzlers. According to Edmunds.com:
The GM Fuel Price Protection Program gives GM car buyers a credit on any amount over $1.99 per gallon they pay to fill up their vehicles for the first full year. The deal is only being offered in Florida and California on select cars and trucks.GM even has an online calculator (hey, cool idea!) to show you how much money you'll save on all the fuel you're wasting. So, doing a quick calculation, ... let's see, ... if I drive my Hummer H2 15,000 miles, ... at current prices, ... GM will credit me $2,275 and 45 cents. No matter what the pump says, I pay $1.99 and GM pays the rest. Huh. Ain't that something.
Correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't this the company that lost $10.6 billion last year?
Hat tip: Think Progress and an anonymous reader
GMO + 10, Part 2
A couple weeks ago, we pointed to a piece in the Why Files (a great site from the University of Wisconsin that specializes in "The Science Behind the News," with funding from the National Science Foundation) looking at the development of genetically modified crops ten years after their introduction. Now, the site has published part two of the series. It's a sober and balanced look at both the potential benefits and risks of GMOs as well as the lack of both labeling and peer-reviewed study of GM crops. One thing is clear: So far, GM foods have lost the PR battle. In an age of RoundUp Ready Soy and StarLink Corn, the hottest consumer trend is -- guess what? -- organics. A testament to organics' surprising success: Even Wal-Mart has gotten in on the act.
Wednesday, May 24, 2006
We Call it Lies
You remember the two ads released by the oil industry-funded Competitive Enterprise Institute last week -- the ones that end: Carbon dioxide: They call it a pollutant. We call it life? Well, in one of those ads, fleeting reference is made to scientific research which, the commercial hints, refutes the claims of global warming "alarmists."
Thing is, the author of that research says the ads not only misrepresent his findings, but that his findings in fact support the scientific consensus on global warming. In a press release, Professor Curt Davis says the ads are a "deliberate effort to confuse and mislead the public."
Looking for a new car that will retain its resale value? You couldn't do any better than a Toyota Prius. According to this report in CNN:
... a 2005 Toyota Prius that, when new, had a sticker price of $21,515 could now sell for $25,970, even with 20,000 miles on the odometer. ... Since Toyota dealers usually charge a few thousand dollars over sticker for new Priuses, the buyer in this example probably wouldn't have made a profit, but nearly so.Compare that to the ordinary scenario where, as a general rule, a car depreciates from the moment you drove off the lot, generally losing its value at a rate of about 15 to 20 percent a year.
High demand for the Prius and other hybrid-electric vehicles is no doubt driven in part by high fuel prices. According to a new survey from Consumer Reports, more than a third of American drivers are thinking about swapping out their current ride for something more efficient. Of those, half are eyeing a hybrid.
Meanwhile, the 10-mpg Hummer H1 -- the original civilian Humvee -- has finally bitten the dust. GM says the last of the behemoths will roll off the assembly line in June.
If you're looking to get more mileage out of your car -- and, at $3 a gallon, who isn't? -- check out our handy dandy MPG calculator. See what a simple hike in CAFE standards would do for both your pocket book and the planet.
Tuesday, May 23, 2006
The Scottish Rite Center of Oakland, CA has not only installed a solar array on its rooftop, it also displays the performance of that PV system in real time, online. As I write this, the center's meter is clocking kilowatts in reverse; that is, far more power is going to the utlility than the center is consuming. After sundown, of course, things'll change, but still ... pretty righteous. John Muir, the ol' Scotsman, would be proud.
Hat tip: Boing Boing
Michiko Kakutani may be the most feared book critic in America, but she loves Al Gore's new book. Book? Yes, it seems Gore's global warming blitz includes not just the PowerPoint-slideshow-turned-movie, but also a book by the same title. Kakutani's verdict on it: An Inconvenient Truth, she writes, is lucid, harrowing and bluntly effective.
Hooks, Bullets and Pie Charts
What Sportsmen Think About Global Warming: A National Poll, from Field and Stream's blog, Field Notes.
Hat tip: Gristmill.
Al Gore isn't the only show in town -- or, should I say, the global village. Sir David Attenborough is launching an eight-part series on climate change on the BBC starting tomorrow, May 24. Even if you can't tune in to the Beeb, you can still have a look at the impressive companion website.
Just heard New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman speak as part of a lecture series I attend in California's Silicon Valley. While he used to expound primarily on Middle East politics, his focus has shifted to globalization, which he covers in his latest book, "The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century."
More than anything else Friedman talked about, I was riveted to his comments about "Green China" and the important technological opportunity coming our way. He said China will go green for the simple reason that the country can't breathe. Its economic advancements are destroying its environment and its people. The only question, says Friedman, is, whose innovations will meet China's enormous needs? Will it be China itself? Or India? Or... us? Says Friedman: "Imagine if China started making low-cost green appliances and cars the way it does cheap shoes and shirts?"
He offered the audience this friendly advice: If your son or daughter is college-bound, he or she should study anything green -- green building design, green transportation, green waste-management -- because that's where the future lies.
Disturbingly, he doesn't see Washington getting this message. Writing in a recent NYT column, he asks:
And what's the U.S. doing as green technology is emerging as the most important industry of the 21st century? Let's see: the Bush team is telling our manufacturers they don't have to improve auto mileage standards or appliance efficiency, is looking to ease regulations on oil refiners and is rejecting a gas tax that would help shift America to hybrid vehicles.For signs of hope he looks to California and the "West Coast foreign policy team":
But while the Bush team is in no position to lecture China on the environment, California is. Thanks to the energy efficiency standards that California has imposed on its own power industry, buildings and appliances over the last 30 years, and its increasing reliance on renewable energy sources, California today consumes a little more than half as many kilowatt-hours of energy per capita each year as the rest of America..."We can't tell China not to use so much energy, especially given what energy gluttons Americans are," says Friedman. "But California can."
Monday, May 22, 2006
The Race for Change
Given tremendous societal inertia, do we have any real hope of responding in time to do something meaningful about global warming? Al Gore is confident that we do. As he tells New York Times reporter Andrew Revkin, "The political system, like the environment, is nonlinear. In 1941 it was impossible for us to build 1,000 airplanes. In 1942 it was easy. As this pattern becomes ever more clear, there will be a rising public demand for action."
With his new film hitting movie screens and a companion book also hitting shelves, Gore is suddenly everywhere -- a latter-day Paul Revere with a PowerPoint presentation. Of course, given his suddenly high profile, speculation about Gore's political ambitions is rampant. But as Revkin reports, "Mr. Gore and his staff have repeatedly swept aside questions about 2008, insisting that Mr. Gore is not running for office, but is racing to save the planet."
Gore isn't running that race single-handedly. Grist's Amanda Griscom Little describes how the former VP has put together an influential, bi-partisan group called the Alliance for Climate Protection designed to raise money "to move the United States past a tipping point on climate change, beyond which the majority of the people will demand of the political leaders in both parties that they compete to offer genuinely meaningful solutions to the crisis."
Gore told USA Today, "When 50.1 percent of the American people are passionate and committed and feel the sense of urgency that's appropriate here, then the political system will flip. I think we're close to a tipping point."
Speaking at the University of Texas over the weekend, Gore's former boss, Bill Clinton, struck a similar chord. According to Reuters, Clinton said:
Climate change is more remote than terror but a more profound threat to the future of the children and the grandchildren and the great-grandchildren I hope all of you have.
Diet for a Big Planet?
Can man live by organics alone? Sure he can. But the real question is, can all six billion of us? Writing in the New Yorker, Harvard history of science professor Steven Shapin says the answer is no.
... if synthetic fertilizers suddenly disappeared from the face of the earth, about two billion people would perish. ... the fact remains that, to unwind conventional agriculture, you would have to unwind some highly valued features of the modern world order. Given the way the world now is, sustainably grown and locally produced organic food is expensive. Genetically modified, industrially produced monocultural corn is what feeds the victims of an African famine, not the gorgeous organic technicolor Swiss chard from your local farmers’ market. Food for a “small planet” will, for the foreseeable future, require a much smaller human population on the planet.
Two species of coral -- elkhorn and staghorn -- have been added to the list of threatened species under the federal Endangered Species Act. Worldwide, coral reefs are threatened by destructive fishing practices, disease, nutrient runoff and other forms of pollution. But the most comprehensive threat may be global warming. Not only do higher ocean temperatures pose dangers to corals already living near their thermal maximum, but excessive carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has also led the oceans to become slightly more acidic. That change in ocean chemistry threatens to undermine the ability of corals to generate their carbonate skeletons.
Friday, May 19, 2006
Blow by Blow
For the Katrina-obsessed, the New Orleans Times-Picayune has published an interactive, animated "flashback" of the hurricane that helps one picture just exactly how the Big Easy flooded. The article that accompanies the map observes that it took just six hours for the storm to penetrate levees that had been built up over 300 years. The dateline, interestingly, is May 14, 2020.
What's Wrong With Being Sexy?
Argentinean beauty queen Evangelina Carrozo got plenty of attention when she stripped to a thong bikini at a summit of European and Latin American leaders to protest proposed pulp mills in neighboring Uruguay. Unfortunately, most of the attention seemed to be directed at the Greenpeace activist's curves, not her cause. Said Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, "I didn't see anything about pulp. I was just looking at her."
PHOTOGRAPH BY REUTERS/LEONHARD FOEGER
Thursday, May 18, 2006
The Competitive Advertising Institute
In what is apparently an attempt to blunt the impact of Al Gore's new film, the geniuses over at the Competitive Enterprise Institute -- a neoliberal "think tank" funded, in part, by $$$$ from ExxonMobil -- have cooked up two 60-second TV spots attacking politicians and "global warming alarmists" who would have you believe that we ought to reduce our carbon dioxide emissions. (Somehow, they fail to mention that the world's leading scientists also believe this.)
You really have to watch the ads for yourself to appreciate just how farcical they are. It's hard to believe they're not meant as self-parody -- like something the Onion would have come up with.
The thrust of the spots is captured in the tagline, "Carbon dioxide: They call it a pollutant. We call it Life." Never mind that atmospheric CO2 levels are higher now that at any time in the last 650,000 years: CO2 can't be a bad thing, according to the CEI ads, since "we breathe it out" and "plants breathe it in." In other words, it's natural.
They've basically launched a pro-CO2 campaign.
Now, it's true that carbon dioxide is essential to life on Earth. For one thing, greenhouse gases like CO2 keep our atmosphere warm by absorbing infrared energy radiating off the Earth. The problem is one of balance; in other words, you can have too much of a good thing -- too heavy a jacket on a warm day, for instance. Or take, for example, water. Water is the very stuff of life, but over-water a plant and what happens? It dies.
Of course, you know this. Everybody knows this, because it's common sense -- something the spin doctors at the Competitive Enterprise Institute don't believe you have.
Oil Execs March on Capitol Hill
I've said it once, I'll say it again: You gotta love the Onion.
There's Sh-- in the Meat!
Wednesday, May 17, 2006
Florida may be the Sunshine State, but New Jersey is fast becoming the solar one. Thanks in part to a state-funded rebate program Jersey has experienced a small solar boom. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, "The state has seen a burst of construction, from six solar power systems in 2001 to 1,270 today, with 600 more in construction and 1,000 applicants for the next round of funding." Among the projects in the offing is a giant one slated for the Meadowlands. Touted as the largest solar farm in the nation, the project would blanket some 30 acres of landfill in solar panels. New Jersey is committed to supplying 2 percent of its power from solar by 2020. That may sound modest, but of the 22 states that currently have solar power mandates, only California's is more ambitious.
In envisioning the future, I think it's fair to say that people divide roughly into two camps: Those who trust technology to save our bacon and those who suspect it will seal our doom. History certainly gives fodder to both camps. The paradox of progress is that things get worse even as they get better.
A too-short piece in a special edition of New York Times Business section ("The Business of Green"), examines some of this stuff: the promises, perils, uncertainties, and unintended consequences that attend technological development, with special attention given to nuclear energy, genetically modified organisms and nanotechnology. As I say, it's far too short to do the subject justice, but worth a read nonetheless, if only to get us thinking and asking hard questions. Ditto for the rest of the section, which covers a wide range of topic from environmental subsidies to greenwashing.
Live from New York, it's alternate reality!
Tuesday, May 16, 2006
Going that Extra Mile
Just like many of their owners, most American cars could stand to go on a little diet. And just like eating less and exercising more are common-sense ways to lose weight, taking some pretty simple steps can help your car use less gas. For starters, keep your air filter clean and your tires properly inflated, drive the speed limit, and "back off the bling." (I guess that makes custom rims the car world’s Krispy Kremes.)
These suggestions come from About.com's car editor, Aaron Gold, who ends his list of easy fuel-saving tips with this slightly more challenging one: don't drive. "Not a popular thing to say on a car site," he writes, "but the fact is that if you can avoid driving, you'll save gas. Take the train, ride your bike, carpool, consolidate your shopping trips. And always ask yourself: 'Is this trip really necessary?'"
For more gas-saving tips, check out the Sierra Club's list of "Ten Ways to Save Money at the Pump."
(Get more ideas for living well and doing good in "The Green Life," a new section appearing in every issue of Sierra magazine.)
PHOTOGRAPH BY WARREN GRETZ; COURTESY DOE/NREL.
Just in time for the Atlantic hurricane season, two new books about New Orleans, the Gulf Coast, and the catastrophe of Hurricane Katrina are hitting the shelves. Writing in the Times, Michiko Kakutani reviews both The Great Deluge, by Tulane historian Douglas Brinkley and The Storm, by Ivor van Heerden, of the LSU Hurricane Center.
In Kakutani's description, Brinkley's is a you-are-there account that reprises the incredible suffering of his city while sketching unsparing portraits of the decision-makers (including the Decider-in-Chief), whose callousness and ineptitude exacerbated the disaster and literally cost lives. Kakutani's only lament seems to be that Brinkley's narrative does not stand back from its subject far enough to take stock of larger economic and environmental questions. However, readers searching for more perspective have Ivor van Heerden's more science-based rendering to turn to for context.
The South African-born van Heerden played Cassandra in the immediate lead-up to Katrina. His dire warnings of levee failure and massive flooding fell on deaf ears right up until the point where the scenario played itself out on television. Van Heerden continues to be a voice in the wilderness, reminding readers in his book that Katrina was not even the big one: He writes that "sometime in the foreseeable future a bigger storm will not take that last-minute jog to the east," and all New Orleans -- not just 80 percent, will be flooded.
What's more, van Heerden asserts that the business-as-usual approach post-Katrina means that, someday soon, "one-fifth of the state of Louisiana — everything south of Interstate 10 including the city of New Orleans in its entirety — will disappear beneath the waves, gone for good, and we will have no one to blame but ourselves." Perhaps now his warnings will be heeded.
What's This About Ethanol?
New York Times car columnist and Sierra Club author, Jim Motovalli, provides some answers to common questions about ethanol, the bio-fuel being bandied about as a replacement for petroleum. The run-down is a good place to start if you've been wondering what the fuss is about.
Monday, May 15, 2006
Ready or Not...
Hurricane season officially commences June 1, and Accuweather is predicting another above-average year in the Atlantic (although nothing like last year's record-shattering season). This year, the forecaster is betting on 3 major hurricanes to make landfall in the United States and expect June and July to be busiest in the Gulf of Mexico, with the Texas coast likeliest to bear the brunt early on. That would be bad news for already soaring fuel prices as the Gulf energy supply is likely, once again, to be disrupted.
Meanwhile, the Christian Science Monitor reports that some 110,000 hurricane evacuees are still living in temporary shelters, including FEMA's infamous "toxic trailers." And, as National Hurricane Center director Max Mayfield notes, a trailer is not exactly the place you want to be in a storm.
The Monitor quotes Ivor van Heerden, deputy director of Louisiana State University's Hurricane Center as saying: "The big lesson we learned from Katrina is that, as a nation, we are totally unprepared for large, complex disasters. My concern is that we are still totally unprepared."
Long a symbol of environmental injustice, Pacific Gas and Electric's power planet in San Francisco's Hunter's Point district has finally shut down operations. Built in 1929, the plant was among the oldest, dirtiest and least efficient in California. Studies have shown that Hunter's Point residents -- predominantly lower-income and non-white -- suffer from a disproportionate number of asthma and cancer cases. Grassroots opposition to the outdated plant began 25 years ago. As is so often the case with environmental justice campaigns, the movement was led by mothers who grew angry at having to watch their children suffer.
At the Tipping Point
Some part of the Arctic has stayed frozen year-round for the last 800,000 years, at least. But if current melting trends continue, the Arctic Ocean will be ice-free by 2030 -- much sooner than previously thought.
The UK Guardian is reporting that winter sea ice in the Arctic reached an all-time low in March, hastening a trend in which ice recovery in winter is not enough to compensate for the loss of ice in summer.
The Arctic melting trend is self-reinforcing, as the dark ocean surface absorbs solar radiation the ice had previously reflected. Because of this positive feedback loop, scientists fear we may have passed a tipping point, possibly leading to runaway climate change.
Thursday, May 11, 2006
You Can Call Him Al
Having caught a preview of Al Gore's new film, "An Inconvenient Truth," in Seattle, RealClimate contributor, Eric Steig -- a University of Washington geochemist -- weighs in with a review. First and foremost, Steig says Gore handled the science of global warming "admirably." Like any good scientist, he does find some minor mistakes to quibble with, but concludes by saying that:
"The small errors don't detract from Gore's main point, which is that we in the United States have the technological and institutional ability to have a significant impact on the future trajectory of climate change. This is not entirely a scientific issue -- indeed, Gore repeatedly makes the point that it is a moral issue ... I'll admit that I have been a bit of a skeptic about our ability to take any substantive action, especially here in the U.S. Gore's aim is to change that viewpoint, and the colleagues I saw the movie with all seem to agree that he is successful."Gore, the reluctant movie star, also makes an appearance on Grist, where he is interviewed by David Roberts. After a brief, but wide-ranging discussion, Roberts asks the former veep the inevitable; namely, given the seriousness of the crisis confronting us and Gore's passion about confronting it, doesn't he feel obliged to make another go at becoming president?
I don't want to steal Grist's thunder, so you'll have to go there to read his answer. Before you go, mark your calendars: "An Inconvenient Truth" opens on May 24. Help make it a blockbuster.
GM Crops: Ten Years After
In 1995, there were no plantings of biotech crops. A lot has changed since then. Last year, more than 200 million acres in 17 countries were planted with genetically modified seed. Now, the Why Files, an excellent science website from the University of Wisconsin, examines the status of GM crops a decade after their introduction. What it finds is the usual muddle of scientific uncertainty. If the horror stories have not come to pass, neither have many of the supposed benefits of GM crops materialized. Meanwhile, the experiment continues unabated with little oversight. This article is apparently the first of two parts.
Wednesday, May 10, 2006
Field Notes from the Awards Ceremonies
Since you probably don't pay attention to these things, (or do you?) I thought it worth mentioning that the New Yorker won a National Magazine Award for Public Interest on the strength of staff writer Elizabeth Kolbert's 3-part series on global warming. That series has since grown into a book called Field Notes from a Catastrophe which gets a rave review from climate modeller Gavin Schmidt writing over RealClimate. He calls it personable, well-rounded and thoroughly accurate. (Interestingly, you can now hear a reading of the book's intro and preface online.)
If that's not enough Kolbert for you, you can also read an interview with her over at Grist, which, by the by, just won it's own award: The People's Voice Award for online magazines.
And finally, while we're at it, our very own Sierra magazine has won another Maggie, the award of the Western Publications Association, for "American Idylls" -- the cover story of the September/October edition.
Congrats all around.
(Congress)Man of Science
Sherwood Boehlert, the moderate Republican legislator from New York, will retire from the House of Representatives this year after nearly a quarter-century of service. An interview with the congressman appeared in the Science section of the New York Times this week. Why? As chairman of the House Committee on Science, Boehlert has been a champion of both the sciences and the environment as well as a stalwart proponent of ratcheting up fuel economy standards for cars and trucks -- positions that have put him at odds with the party leadership. Washington, he tells the Times, "is a town where everyone says they are for science-based decision making — until the science leads to a politically inconvenient conclusion. And then they want to go to Plan B."
Tuesday, May 09, 2006
Thanks to the efforts of the Loma Prieta Chapter of the Sierra Club, it now costs less to permit solar panel installations in many San Francisco Bay Area communities. The price reduction is the result of a survey the chapter conducted six months ago in which they queried 40 building and planning departments and asked how much it would cost for permits to install a typical solar system on a house. As the San Jose Mercury News reports, the survey showed "wild variations in fees and red tape."
Saratoga, for example, charged $95 for a permit. But in Los Gatos, two miles away, city planners told the Sierra Club they would charge $1,287 for a permit to install the same system. Some municipalities with streamlined processes, like San Jose, took minutes to issue a solar permit, while others, like Hillsborough or Santa Clara County, could take a month or longer.12 cities cited in the report have since lowered their permit fees, some quite dramatically. In San Mateo, for example, the permit price dropped from more than $1200 to just over $200. Two cities -- Los Altos Hills and San Carlos -- now waive the fee entirely. The change makes sense in a state that whose governor is spearheading a "Million Solar Roofs" campaign. As the Mercury News's Paul Rogers explains:
The largest investment in solar power of any state in U.S. history, the [Million Solar Roofs] plan tacked a new fee of about $1.10 a month on utility bills to provide $3.2 billion in rebates over the next 11 years. The subsidy will pay about one-third of the costs for people who install solar power on their homes or businesses.With incentives like that, it's crazy to perpetuate dis-incentives like high permitting fees.
Monday, May 08, 2006
Down in the Valley
The LeConte Memorial Lodge has opened for the 2006 season. Built in Yosemite in 1903-04 by the Sierra Club, in honor of geologist Joseph LeConte, the whimsical structure houses a library and interpretive displays that track the contributions of the club to Yosemite National Park, in particular, as well as America's national parks movement and the modern environmental movement in general. 2006 should be a great season. With the heavy snowpack the Sierra Nevada received this year, the park's famous waterfalls promise to be especially spectacular.
Friday, May 05, 2006
The British Columbia Chapter of the Sierra Club of Canada has released a map illustrating precisely what a projected sea level rise of six meters portends for the city of Vancouver; in short, it means much of the metropolis will be underwater.
The prediction is based on articles that appeared in the March 24, 2006 issue of the journal Science, which projected sea level rise due to melting glaciers and ice caps of anywhere from a half-meter in 100 years to as much as 10 meters in the coming centuries.
Science published its own map outlining the anticipated impact on Florida. But of course, the Sunshine State won't be alone. Coastal communities the world over (where most of humanity is concentrated) will be similarly affected. The BC Chapter's map helps bring that reality home -- to Vancouver, at least.
Anyone with Google Earth installed on their PC can view the map. Just download the kml file here.
Thursday, May 04, 2006
According a leaked draft of a report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere are at their highest level in at least 650,000 years, and there is now overwhelming evidence that the Earth's climate is undergoing drastic change due to human activity. The document -- the working draft of the fourth official report by the IPCC since its founding in 1998 -- is the international scientific panel's strongest statement to date.
So, who leaked it?
Why, the United States government. That's who.
It seems the Bush administration, which has been hugely critical of the IPCC, saw fit to post the draft prominently on the website of the US Climate Change Science Programme. Although that site says the document (not scheduled for release until February 2007) is "available for expert and government review," anyone who sends an email gets a password to view it.
Experts within the field see the leak as an attempt by the Bush administration to ultimately undermine the impact of the document. The UK Guardian talks to noted climatolgist Roger Pielke, who says: "I do have some suspicions. If the report is out there and the findings have been discussed, then it deflates the newsworthiness of the official report when it is released."
For a response, the paper turns to Harlan Watson, senior climate negotiator at the state department, who says: "I find it quite ironic that running an open process would be criticized. What we're doing is providing an opportunity for people to comment. It's not for us to say who the experts are."
What a crock.
Wednesday, May 03, 2006
Speaking Truthiness to Power
According to the New York Times, which at first ignored the story, the blogosphere is all in a lather over Stephen Colbert's performance at the White House Press Association's dinner for the president.
It seems that everyone (except me) has expressed an opinion about the shtick in which Colbert, in character, deadpanned support for President Bush and disdain for the press. The result was either a) brave and hilarious or b) cruel and unfunny, it seems, depending partly on a) your politics and, more importantly, b) your receptiveness to irony. Mary Matalin hated it; Al Franken loved it.
More than anything, the performance was unrelentingly ironic. And judging from the lack of laughter in the crowd, that wasn't exactly the comedic fare the attendees were expecting. (It could have been worse, of course. They could have gotten Ali G.)
The most interesting thing about watching the video is, in fact, gauging the reaction of the crowd. While a few in the audience (Antonin Scalia, for one) genuinely seem to be getting a kick out of it, most are stone-faced or squirming in discomfort, probably because President Bush himself looks so ill at ease roasting away in the hot seat. When Colbert makes the crack about Bush's energy plan (mesquite-powered cars by 2008) the Commander-in-Chief looks he has half a mind to storm the lectern and beat the little wise-ass to a pulp.
No surprise then that the audience expressed relief when Colbert finally turned his attentions from Bush to Jesse Jackson. Of Reverend Jackson, Colbert said, "You can ask him anything, but he's going to say what he wants, at the pace that he wants. It's like boxing a glacier." He then paused for what was one of the bigger laughs of the evening, before adding: "Enjoy that metaphor, by the way, because your grandchildren will have no idea what a glacier is." And that got an even bigger laugh.
Forced to give my own verdict on the performance, I guess I come down in the 'brave and hilarious' camp. Colbert's humor may have been harsh at times, but it didn't bite. To the contrary, it was exactly what satire's supposed to be: biting.
Monday, May 01, 2006
Pathos in Plaquemines
The official start of the Atlantic hurricane season is June 1 -- just a month away. A week ago, President Bush announced that he will not seek the $1.6 billion in funding required to upgrade the levees protecting the southern half of the Plaquemines Parish, a low-lying area south of New Orleans and home to 14,000 residents. The decision means that if another storm like Katrina hits, Plaquemines is a goner.
Most residents would like to see not only upgraded levees but also coastal wetlands restoration. As it is, the Parish is slipping away at a rate of 10 square miles per year and Katrina took 57 in one fell swoop. It's a trend that has serious implications for New Orleans itself. John Barras of the National Wetlands Research Center tells USAToday:
It is a good possibility that the area could deteriorate completely. Plaquemines provides a buffer from storms. If Plaquemines were not there, Katrina would have advanced directly into New Orleans with no protection, similar to what happened on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.One 76-year-old resident who has already given up on southern Plaquemines told the newspaper: "What we need is a better coastline, but it's too late for that. This is not a safe place to live."