Tuesday, October 31, 2006
A short item in The Why Files explains the recent news that the Antarctic ozone hole reached record size in 2006 despite being on the path to recovery. Scientists think that natural variation and weather patterns have more to do with the increase in size than any immediate change in atmospheric chemistry. As one expert explains, the record hole "Is not something to be overly alarmed about. It is part of the natural variability of the beast. Once you put the [ozone-destroying] chemicals in, you can't get rid of the natural variability, you have to get rid of the chemicals." And thanks to the Montreal Protocol, we are, with the result that scientists now expect atmospheric ozone levels over the poles to return to 1950 levels sometime around 2065. In the meantime, the ozone holes pose little direct threat to human life. Indirectly, however, the ozone hole may be causing significant environmental damage, as increased ultraviolet light appears to be killing phytoplankton, the base of the oceanic food chain.
The latest tip from the sassy crew over at Ideal Bite delves into the panty drawer and turns up a colorful array of eco-underpants, including one limited edition green pair with the words 'Eat Organic' stitched on the front. The less said, the better. But my own faves (not that I spent that much time on this ... really, I didn't) are the blue ones (also from greenknickers.org) with the polka-dot pattern made of little Earths. According to the manufacturer, "The thermochromic pigments in these knickers cause the sea to overcome the land as the pants warm up, to show the effects of global warming." Remember to wash 'em in cold.
Now back to our regularly scheduled programming...
Monday, October 30, 2006
Coats du Rhone
From the NASA Earth Observatory:
Although glaciers have been retreating in the Alps and other mountain locations since the end of the Ice Age, change in the last few decades has been rapid. This recent, rapid decline in glaciers is almost certainly due to human-caused global warming. The Rhone is one of the region’s shrinking glaciers. Tourist towns such as Gletsch, which depend on the attraction of the glacier, are reportedly going to heroic lengths to protect the glacier during the hot summers, covering the terminus of the glacier with insulating blankets to try to slow the melt.
Writing in the New Republic, Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker gives a scathing review of Berkeley linguist George Lakoff's latest work, Whose Freedom? Lakoff has become a much sought-after consultant in progressive political circles where his advice about "re-framing" the political debate has been taken to heart.
Lakoff has counseled environmentalists to ditch the phrase "global warming." In 2004, he told an interviewer for Sierra magazine:
"Global warming" is the wrong term: "Warm" seems nice. So people think, "Gee, I like global warming, Pittsburgh will be warmer." "Climate change" is the attempt to be scientific and neutral. "Climate crisis" would be a more effective term. Climate collapse. Carbon dioxide strangulation. Suffocation of the earth. But it’s not easy to change these things once they get into the vocabulary.Somehow, I find it hard to take "carbon dioxide strangulation" as a serious attempt at re-framing. I mean, if environmentalists are already tarred as alarmists, where will that kind of talk get us? And last time I checked, asphyxiation was not one of the risks associated with greenhouse gases.
Pinker, author of books like The Blank Slate and The Language Instinct, takes similar issue with Lakoff's arguments. Here are a couple of passages from his review, reprinted here at Powell's Bookstore.
Political debates, according to Lakoff, are contests between metaphors. Citizens are not rational and pay no attention to facts, except as they fit into frames that are "fixed in the neural structures of their brains" by sheer repetition. In George W. Bush's first term, for example, the president promised tax "relief," which frames taxes as an affliction, the reliever as a hero, and anyone obstructing him as a villain. The Democrats were foolish to offer their own version of tax relief, which accepted the Republicans' framing; it was like asking people not to think of an elephant. Instead, they should have re-framed taxes as "membership fees" necessary to maintain the services and infrastructure of the society to which they belong. Likewise, the lawyers who are said to press "frivolous lawsuits" should be reframed as "public protection attorneys," and "activist judges" who "legislate from the bench" rebranded as "freedom judges."...
But Lakoff's advice doesn't pass the giggle test. One can imagine the howls of ridicule if a politician took Lakoff's Orwellian advice to rebrand taxes as "membership fees." Surely no one has to hear the metaphor "tax relief" to think of taxes as an affliction; that sentiment has been around as long as taxes have been around. (Even Canadians, who tolerate a far more expansive government, grumble about their taxes.) Also, "taxes" and "membership fees" are not just two ways of framing the same thing. If you choose not to pay a membership fee, the organization will stop providing you with its services. But if you choose not to pay taxes, men with guns will put you in jail. And even if taxes were like membership fees, aren't lower membership fees better than higher ones, all else being equal? Why should anyone feel the need to defend the very idea of an income tax? Other than the Ayn Randian fringe, has anyone recently proposed abolishing it?Lest Pinker get the last word, Lakoff responds to the hatchet job here, accusing his academic rival of, you might say, framing him by misrepresenting his ideas. As you may have gathered, I find Pinker much more convincing, but I'd be interested to hear other views. Anyone care to stand up for Lakoff?
Big Box Efficiencies
Just a couple items I stumbled upon recently over at Treehugger (both from contributor Justin Thomas):
Friday, October 27, 2006
Taken for a Ride
Our car guy, Dan Becker, drives a Prius, and then only sparingly. Needless to say, it was a change of pace for him to tool around his hometown of Takoma Park, MD in a big, yellow Hummer. The New York Times reports on his reaction in a piece entitled, "A Field Trip Guzzling Gas, Among the Environmentalists." That headline cracks me up. Kinda makes it sound like environmentalists were some remote jungle tribe or mythical species. Then again, I nearly headed this blog entry, "Running with the Devil" -- as if Hummer-drivers were cloven-hooved Satan-spawn, which of course they're not. Right?
Rock 'Em Sock 'Em
The Why Files looks at politically contentious issues like stem cell research and global warming and asks, Is partisan politics knocking the block off science? And if so, can the scientific community fight its way off the ropes? Read their report.
Fishing with Carl
It's like Fishing with John, only instead of lanky Lounge Lizard John Lurie slinging hooks with Jim Jarmusch or Tom Waits, this spot is hosted by NY Times science reporter, Andrew Revkin, who goes fishing off Long Island with marine biologist and author Carl Safina. While icing a few flukes and bluefish, the two talk about fisheries recovery and something Safina calls the "sea ethic." Perhaps because I love to fish, I find Safina's remarks hopeful and reassuring at a time when most fisheries news is extremely bleak.
You can read the article here. Just click on the fluke to see the video. Warning: those prone to sea-sickness may want to take a Dramamine first. Don't know about anyone else, but I've grown to like the Times video pieces. It adds a nice element to the written reporting.
Thursday, October 26, 2006
Pombo v. McNerney
Could the Tracy Republican go down in flames? Yes indeed, he certainly could. With Election Day fast approaching, challenger Jerry McNerney is giving our least favorite legislator a run for his money. Grist's muckraker-in-residence, Amanda Griscom Little, gives the lowdown on the race. As she reports, it's not just enviros who are rallying behind the newcomer and gunning for the incumbent. The local papers have turned on Pombo too:
The local media is overwhelmingly endorsing the neophyte Democrat and sparing little subtlety in editorials skewering Pombo. Wrote The Modesto Bee, a newspaper that has endorsed Pombo in previous campaigns, "If you prefer the politics of extremes; if you're OK with selling off national parks; if backroom dealmaking and tainted money suit you; if you embrace out-of-balance budgets and the concentration of wealth -- Pombo's your man. But he's no longer ours."
Thinking about buying a hybrid? Worried about 'hidden costs'? You need to consult the 'Buying Decision' page at HybridCars.com. Pay special attention to Top Ten Hybrid Myths, including the battery replacement myth, and also the reasons NOT to buy a hybrid.
The New Yorker won Cover of the Year at the American Magazine Conference for this wry depiction of the Oval Office, post-Katrina. The jurors wrote:
The ineptness of the response by FEMA and the U.S. government after Hurricane Katrina was an outrage to everyone who watched it unfold. The images of bodies floating unclaimed in murky waters were clear signs of the lack of care and empathy by those at the top of the government. In his cover, "Deluged," Barry Blitt turns the tables on the situation. As the Oval Office is slowly submerged, the reader gets a release that goes beyond the first laugh and unleashes the floodgates of the nation's collective anger.
Thus Spake Bottleman
It's nice to see one of our own get some props, in this case Compass and its most prolific poster, Pat Joseph, on the entertaining enviro-blog Bottleworld. Lamenting the "strangely uninspiring" ecoblogosphere (is that a word? and is its ozone depleted?), the 'Man says of us: "One exception is Compass from the usually missionary-style Sierra Club. In one way it's fairly standard blog fare — links to tidbits of environmental news and stories on other blogs — but there are two secrets to its success: blogger Pat Joseph keeps his linksmithing short and sweet, and more important, actually retains a personal point of view. [...] With the site just past its first birthday the open question is, how long can this innocence survive?" We'll see, Bottleman. Thanks for reading, and back at ya.
Wednesday, October 25, 2006
At some time earlier this month the 300-millionth American was born (just 7 seconds before baby # 300,000,001 arrived). The Earth Observatory looks at how the figure plays out in terms of population density, an understanding of which can be "crucial in answering questions about the relationship between people and the environment." For a global perspective on population density, go here.
Changes in the Weather
Researchers from the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), Texas Tech University, and Australia's Bureau of Meteorology Research Centre have concluded that our descendents will experience more bouts of extreme weather than we do.
Using supercomputers at research centers in France, Japan, Russia, and the United States, researchers ran models to simulate climate conditions for the years 2080 through 2099. Modelers used three scenarios, varying the assumed level of accumulated greenhouse gases in each.
The models agreed on several trends, including:
For what it's worth, I'm quoted in this National Geographic News item about the integration of the UN Environment Program's Atlas of Our Changing Environment in Google Earth -- something I blogged about here earlier.
One thing I hadn't seen before was the Google Maps version of the Atlas on the UNEP pages, which seems nearly as compelling and, in many ways, easier to manage and navigate than the richer but clunkier Google Earth version. It's definitely worth checking out.
But as cool as these digital atlases are, I have to say, there is still a lot of background and contextual material from the bound paper version that is sorely lacking in the digital versions. Which is to say that, as storytelling media, these tools still have some way to go realize their full promise. Fair enough.
In the meantime, the best thing to come from the digital adaptations of the Atlas is simply the vastly increased reach of the material. After all, there are now 100 million users of Google Earth. The original circulation of the Atlas was largely limited to policy makers. I was just fortunate enough to score a review copy.
Tuesday, October 24, 2006
Pombo Mask Rides Again
My very first post on Compass, lo, these many moons ago, unveiled the Pombo mask -- the most terrifying likeness of the spookiest legislator ever to haunt the halls of Congress. This year, Pombo's in a close race in California's 11th District, but rather than rehash the representative's frighteningly anti-environmental record at length (you can go here, here and here for the grisly details), I'll just post a reminder for everyone out there in Sleepy Hollow: You don't have be a Headless Horseman this Halloween Eve: You can don the Pombo Mask and scare the bejeezus out of your neighbors. Who knows, maybe it'll be enough to send 'em to the polling booth.
EO Wilson's avuncular mug graces the cover of the latest SEED magazine. Everyone's favorite biologist, the National Medal of Science recipient and two-time Pulitzer Prize-winner's latest project -- a book called The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth -- is an attempted rapprochement between science and religion -- arguably the most powerful cultural forces in existence -- for the sake of salvaging the biosphere. You can watch and hear him discuss his ideas here.
When You Wish Upon a Star
What does it mean when even Jiminy Cricket is urging you to check your carbon footprint? Believe it or not, the animated cartoon character who debuted as Pinocchio's conscience is now urging grade-schoolers to take his environmentality challenge and no doubt polishing the Disney Corporation's image in the process. What I wonder is this: How long 'til Senator Inhofe denounces Jiminy as an alarmist fraud and climate pornographer?
Diet for a Hot Planet
First Seth Zuckerman did it for Sierra magazine. Now, it seems everyone's doing it, and hey, why not? It's the right thing to do. The latest venue for the low-carb(on) diet (think Weight Watchers meets anthropogenic climate change) is Slate. The online magazine has teamed up with Treehugger.com to launch an 8-week regimen designed to slim your greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent. To get started, go here. Not only will you tip the scales in the planet's favor but, get this, you could also win a t-shirt. Organic, of course.
Monday, October 23, 2006
According to some calculations, the average American has an ecological footprint of 9.5 hectares, or rougly 23.5 acres. That's roughly the amount of land that would be needed to support the resource demands we place on the planet. For our consumption levels to be sustainable, therefore, we'd need about 5 Earths' worth of resources, all told. And nobody knows where to get 4 more Earths.
There is one place in the world that has the U.S. beat. That would be the oil-rich United Arab Emirates in the Persian Gulf. Pictured above (click to enlarge) is a satellite photo of the port city of Dubai in the UAE, which among other extravagances features an indoor ski resort (with another on the way) and an underwater hotel (under construction). You'll also notice the many artificial islands being created offshore, including the man-made archipelago known as The World, for the world-map shape in which it is formed.
It's interesting to consider that, given futue sea level projections, this could be the shortest-lived real estate in the history of mankind.
Land o' the Free
Google Earth has added a new layer of content to its interface: The 2006 Election Guide features clickable place marks for all 435 Congressional districts. Each place mark includes:
Friday, October 20, 2006
I don't know what to add to this McClatchey report about the resurgence of coal in America, so I will just highlight a couple quotes and leave it at that for now. Read it and weep. Then dry your eyes and resolve to vote for change.
[U.S.] Utilities are proposing to build 154 coal-fired power plants in the next 25 years, according to "Coal's Resurgence in Electric Power Generation," a recent Department of Energy report....
"It's always cheaper to emit CO2 to the atmosphere than to capture and store it," said Howard Herzog, an energy researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. "With no carbon policy in place to control CO2 emissions, there is no incentive to consider carbon capture and storage technology."...
"We are living in two parallel worlds: a world of potentially what we should be doing about climate change and energy security, and the real world of what we are doing," said Martin Hoffert, an emeritus professor of physics at New York University.
Wednesday, October 18, 2006
Ask Your Doctor About Dylar, Part II
Just when the good people of Apex, NC thought it was safe to go home, ... run for your lives ... another toxic plume!
Tuesday, October 17, 2006
How the World Churns
Fascinating item at the Earth Observatory about how all the creatures in the seas -- from the mightiest whale to the tiniest phytoplankton -- effectively stir the ocean to a degree comparable to the wind and tides. The combined mechanical energy of all those swishing tails and undulating bodies, researchers estimate, is equal to one terrawatt, or a trillion watts. Furthermore, their role in ocean turnover is significant enough to affect the climate. As Dave Barry would say, I swear, I'm not making this up. Read it for yourself.
Imagine All the People...
While no one was looking the people-o-meter flipped on us. The U.S.A. now has a population of 300 million, making America the 3rd most populous country on the planet, behind China and Indian, and the only so-called 'industrialized nation' whose population is still rising significantly.
That's not great news for the world's overall environmental outlook. As the New Scientist notes in the cover story of its latest issue, "Imagine Earth Without People," the average 'eco-footprint' of a U.S. citizen is about 9.7 hectares, or roughly 24 acres. Imagine that.
The world population, by the by, has now surpassed 6.5 billion. In my lifetime (I'm 40), the figure has nearly doubled. It was 3.4 billion in 1966. The U.S. population at that time was about 200 million.
For those who've ever wondered about a people-less planet, the New Scientist article is a good read. The upshot: Should Gaia ever shrug us off, Nature would hardly notice and all traces us of would disappear in about, oh, 100,000 years or so. For evidence to support the contention, consider some of the most dynamic ecosystems in the world; namely, the DMZ dividing the two Koreas, the forest buffer of the Panama Canal Zone (before repatriation), and the woods around Chernobyl.
From the New Scientist piece:
The area around Chernobyl has revealed just how fast nature can bounce back. "I really expected to see a nuclear desert there," says Chesser. "I was quite surprised. When you enter into the exclusion zone, it's a very thriving ecosystem."My question is, does the thought that the planet will abide without humanity bring you comfort or distress?
hat tip: Gristmill
Friday, October 13, 2006
One-Planet Book Tour
The Worldchanging gang is preparing to hit the road to promote their new book, the eponymous, Worldchanging: A User's Guide to the 21st Century. As such, they've got a few things to reckon with. As they put it:
It's a classic double-bind: spreading the word about solutions to planetary problems involves doing things -- printing books, taking airplane flights, running servers -- that themselves contribute to the problems we face.Of course, they wouldn't be Worldchangers if they didn't meet the problem head on. Read about their efforts to make the book and book tour a "one-planet project."
Garden Variety Evil
Want to help save Gulf Coast wetlands? You can start by not buying cypress mulch. Apparently, cypress mulch is no longer just a byproduct of the timber industry. Now, demand for the mulch is such that the trees are being ground and chipped in their entirety for the sake of suburban gardens. For some alternatives to cypress mulch, from pine straw to recycled yard waste, read this brochure (pdf) from the Suncoast Native Plant Society.
Thursday, October 12, 2006
First Australia built one, then Japan. There's a whole slew of 'em in Europe. And when the United Arab Emirates built Ski Dubai, its indoor ski dome on the desert shores of the Persian Gulf, you just knew Vegas couldn't be far behind? I mean, c'mon, how could Sin City resist? Hey Sheikh, let's race to the bottom! Meanwhile, the real snow goes to hell. Pathetic.
March of the Penguins, Etc.
I was intrigued by this story in the Times about jaguars repopulating the American Southwest. I can't help but wonder if it's part of a larger pattern; i.e., the one reported on here, here and here, about how myriad plant and animal and species are apparently migrating poleward in response to climate change.
In a previous post (see: Wildlife Sightings), I queried readers as to whether they had read stories or knew first-hand of any cases where critters had been spotted outside their traditional range. We drummed up quite a few examples, including accounts of manatees off Cape Cod, sunfish off the Faroe Islands, pengins in Brazil, and armadilloes in Illinois.
I'd like to open it up again. Anyone have more examples they can cite? And in the interest of counteracting any confirmation bias, I should also ask whether anyone has contradictory examples; any reports of movement toward the Equator?
Treehugger, eh? Why don't you come over here and say that, you miserable, two-faced Hummer-driving, Earth-trashing nimrod. I'll flip your punk ass like you a cheese omelette.
Mark Peters on how to dish it out.
Congratulations to Ford Motor Company. Forbes magazine reports that the Ford Escape Hybrid SUV made the list of the top-ten most fuel efficient vehicles for 2006, based on the latest data from the EPA. It was the only SUV to make the cut. Too bad Ford, Detroit's only representative on the list, has since shifted its emphasis away from hybrids to flex fuel vehicles, abandoning an earlier pledge to produce 250,000 hybrids per year by 2010.
The perennially chart-topping Honda Insight occupies the number 1 spot, followed by the Toyota Prius. Also on the list are a two new subcompacts with conventional engines, the Toyota Yaris and the Honda Fit. Both models are selling briskly, in partly due to smart marketing, and partly because they're cool. According to Forbes: "These cars aren't just a way to survive an oil crisis; they are actually stylish." See, small really can be beautiful.
Wednesday, October 11, 2006
The Widening Gyre
"It's a toilet that never flushes."
That's how one researcher intimate with the area describes the 'eastern garbage patch,' a Montana-sized gyre in the Pacific Ocean, between Hawaii and Northern California, where all the trash in the sea -- everything from rubber duckies to derelict drift nets, swirls away endlessly, endangering marine life and causing headaches for shipping. Perhaps you've heard of it. Well, here's the crazy thing. Believe it or not, it looks like Congress is actually going to do something about cleaning it up. Of course, trash being ubiquitous, no one expects the garbage patch to stay clean forever. That will require people to actually change their behavior and take responsibility for their trash. But first things first...
Ask Your Doctor About Dylar
The climax, such as it were, of Don Delillo's White Noise is a dread-inducing "Airborne Toxic Event" loosed from a leaky railway car. Haunted by the specter of mortality, the protagonist seeks out a black market drug called Dylar, said to alleviate the fear of death.
The novel came to mind when news broke last week of a fire in a hazardous waste storage facility in North Carolina that triggered a large-scale evacuation as toxic smoke plumes darkened the sky. Ironically, the company that owned the warehouse is named Environmental Quality Industrial Services. The town is named Apex -- postmodern touches even Delillo would envy.
Turns out EQ Industrial had a similar incident in its plant in Romulus, Michigan in 2005. The company, which also had its wrist slapped for more recent violations, has been less than forthcoming about what exactly what went up in smoke in North Carolina. In the meantime, company representatives say the air around Apex is fine and that residents can breathe easy.
Investigations are ongoing, but the event drives home the need to strengthen and step up enforcement of the Community Right-to-Know laws that were passed in the wake of the worst of all 'Airborne Toxic Events' -- the Union Carbide gas leak in Bhopal, India. Unfortunately, the Bush administration has moved the opposite direction by taking steps to weaken public reporting of toxic releases in order to ease the compliance burden on companies.
Excuse me while I pop another Dylar.
The U.S. is not the only country still harboring climate change deniers. This guest commenatary at Real Climate shows that, even as the Alps thaw, some European scientists maintain a willful ignorance. Tant pis. At least we're not alone.
Tuesday, October 10, 2006
Pachyderms Gone Postal?
In the New York Times Magazine, Charles Siebert reports on an observed increase in erratic and perversely aggressive behavior among wild elephants. Siebert points to the work of Gay Bradshaw, a psychologist at the environmental-sciences program at Oregon State University, who thinks the animals have come unhinged as a result of a kind of species-wide trauma perhaps due to decades of habitat loss and poaching.
It has long been apparent that every large, land-based animal on this planet is ultimately fighting a losing battle with humankind. And yet entirely befitting of an animal with such a highly developed sensibility, a deep-rooted sense of family and, yes, such a good long-term memory, the elephant is not going out quietly.
Monday, October 09, 2006
Bill Moyers talks to Grist magazine's David Roberts about the confluence of religion and environmentalism. Here's a sample with Moyers about reconciling the apparent conflict between the biblical command to multiply and the ecological warnings about the planet's carrying capacity.
The only thing the Bible says is "go and increase," and that's open to a lot of interpretation. I come out of a school that says you read the Bible at the same time you read the daily newspaper. You weigh and wrestle with your ethical obligations based on your understanding of the Bible, but alloyed by, tempered by, or even challenged by the facts on the ground, and other sources of revelation, whether it's the revelation of nature or the revelation of science. You weigh these against each other, and in the spirit of liberty, try to understand the obligations you have as an individual living in a society that is not like you.Moyers's program "Is God Green?," airs this Wednesday, October 11th. Check your local listings.
The Day Before Columbus
Today is Columbus Day, or El Dia de la Raza, or Indigenous Peoples Day, depending on where you are and your point of view. Certainly, the holiday is a contentious one. After all, what exactly are we celebrating if and when we observe Columbus Day? The textbook answer -- the discovery of the Americas -- never really sufficed since the continents were already settled and had been for many thousands of years, not to mention the fact that the Vikings had already come and gone. And while Columbus's journey may have turned out rather well for the seafaring nations of Europe, it was the beginning of the end for millions of native Americans, who succumbed first to the newcomers' pathogens and only much later to their weapons and sheer numbers.
In his award-winning book, 1491, (which grew from this Atlantic Monthly article), author Charles Mann re-examined the "New World" that Columbus found 500 years ago, dispelling in the process the myth of a pristine, untouched land and asserting instead that the hemisphere was "thoroughly dominated by humankind" and far more salubrious than previously imagined, thanks in part to that human dominance. Mann's revisionist and at times largely speculative picture may not be wholly accurate, but it is compelling. And if it runs afoul of some of environmentalism's cherished myths, well, so be it. After all, the most robust -isms profit from constant re-examination. Giving critical consideration to Mann's argument, it seems to me, would be a worthy way to honor the day.
Escherichia coli O157:H7 is the name of the deadly strain of bacteria behind last month's E-coli outbreak and the widespread spinach recall. Today, newspapers are reporting that some lettuce is being recalled for possible E-coli contamination.
O157:H7 lives in cow guts and is more commonly associated with meat, especially hamburger meat tainted by cow feces. That was the scenario in the first-known cases of the bacteria infecting humans, in the early 1980s. Since that time, there have been many more cases involving the contamination of leafy greens with E-coli. So what is the connection between cow guts and the salad bar?
The Why Files, a site from the University of Wisconsin that specializes in ruminating on the science behind the news investigates the link and, more importantly, what can be done about it. As usual, the answers are not simple, but one thing's clear: We have to be mindful about managing manure.
Friday, October 06, 2006
Behold the Child
According to NASA, El Niño is back in the tropical Pacific Ocean. The enfant terrible of global weather patterns recurs every three to seven years. The last major El Niño in 1997-98 brought disastrous flooding to California and corresponding drought to Southern Asia and Australia. According to Bill Patzert at the NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, "The present conditions indicate that the intensity of this El Niño is too weak to have a major influence on current weather patterns. But, if the ocean waters continue to warm and spread eastward, this event would likely strengthen, perhaps bringing much-needed rainfall to the southwestern and southeastern United States this winter." We shall see.
In the Home and Garden section of the New York Times, Andrew Postman goes on an Energy Diet a la Seth Zuckerman's Low Carbon Diet in the current issue of our very own Sierra magazine. The Times piece invites readers to comment on Mr. Postman's story here. Specifically, the editors ask: "What would you be willing — or not willing — to give up in order to lessen your household’s impact on the environment?"
Thursday, October 05, 2006
When You're Smiling...
Senator Inhofe appeared on CNN with anchor Miles O'Brien, who had earlier savaged a speech in which the Oklahoma republican once again declared global warming a hoax. Before the two squared off over the issue, the usual niceties were exchanged. Inhofe said it was a pleasure to be on the show with O'Brien. And you know why?
Because you always smile. So many of these extremists, they're mad all the time, but you're not. You smile. In fact, when you were cutting my guts out for two minutes last week, you smiled all the way through it and I appreciate that.Sure you do, Senator. Sure you do.
Isn't it nice to see such civil discourse in American politics?
Wednesday, October 04, 2006
Laying the Mountains Low
You've heard of mountaintop-removal mining. But have you seen it? This excellent new site from Appalachian Voices takes you to the scene of the crime using video footage, satellite imagery and Google Earth to bring home the immensity of it. Highly, highly recommended.
Of course, if you want to see the destruction in person, you could always sign up for a sightseeing tour. Mountaintop removal sites are apparently a hot destination in "disaster tourism" -- eco-tourism's gritty alter ego. Rev. John Rausch, director of the Catholic Committee of Appalachia, leads such forays. And why not? As he told a reporter last year, "You can't introduce people to Appalachia without addressing mountaintop removal. It is so large, so in your face. You can't overlook it."
In the same story, Bill Caylor, president of the Kentucky Coal Association, accused environmentalists of "stirring the emotional pot" on the issue. Said Caylor: "To imply that we're flattening Appalachia is so untrue. We're creating level land for Appalachia."
Putting the Law Back in Blawg
The Sierra Club Environmental Law Program (the people who brought you Sierra Club v. Cheney) has launched Greenblawg, a place where our attorneys can share thoughts, voice opinions, field responses from readers and just generally mouth off. In a recent entry, program director Pat Gallagher explains some of the rationale behind a suit challenging the Bush administration on fuel economy standards for cars and trucks.
When I dug into this case, I was amazed to find out how the MPG-setting process works. Basically, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) obtains future production plans from the car companies, then tweaks them by adding on additional pieces of fuel-efficiency equipment until the cost of the equipment outweighs the incremental benefit of the gasoline savings. In other words, NHTSA doesn't really challenge the automakers to innovate from scratch, they just put lipstick on the gas guzzlers. Making matters worse, the agency acknowledged that the reduction of greenhouse gases would be a huge benefit in the overall cost-benefit equation, but then assigned that benefit a $0 value because they claim it is too "uncertain."The case will go to court in early '07. Bookmark Greenblawg for regular updates on that suit and many more like it.
Lost and Found
Sierra Club author Richard Bangs (The Lost River) writes about the "art of lost" in the outdoors for the New York Times travel section. The art of lost is really the art of adventure; that is, get yourself lost, just not too lost.
Tuesday, October 03, 2006
News and Notes
The National Academies announced its 2006 Communications Awards last week. Elizabeth Kolbert won in the newspaper/magazine category for "Climate of Man," her three-part New Yorker series on global warming. The series, which was expanded into her excellent book, Field Notes from a Catastrophe, is still available online. Frequent Sierra magazine contributor Michelle Nijhuis was also a finalist for her High Country News series on climate change in the West, which earlier received a Walter Sullivan Award from the American Geophysical Union. Congratulations to both on excellent work.
At Play in the Arctic Circle
Author Peter Matthiessen on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in the New York Review of Books. Long and well worth reading.
A fascinating piece in the Science Times (the Gray Lady's science section) examines the central mystery of the famed Monarch butterfly migration -- namely:
The butterfly that goes from Canada to Mexico and partway back lives six to nine months, but when it mates and lays eggs, it may have gotten only as far as Texas, and breeding butterflies live only about six weeks. So a daughter born on a Texas prairie goes on to lay an egg on a South Dakota highway divider that becomes a granddaughter. That leads to a great-granddaughter born in a Winnipeg backyard. Come autumn, how does she find her way back to the same grove in Mexico that sheltered her great-grandmother?"A throng of leaderless orphans" is how the Times' Donald MacNeil characterizes the Monarch migration. The sad thing is that southern terminus of this strange, trans-generation haj -- the forests of Michoacan, Mexico -- is in peril. Although the Mexican government has declared 360,000 acres of the forest butterfly sanctuary, it's estimated that nearly half the area has been logged off.
The New York Times reports that New York City, which has a current population of 8.2 million, consumes less water today than at anytime since 1951, when the population was 7.9 million. And, strange as it may seem, water consumption in the Big Apple reportedly peaked in 1979, when the city's population was at it's lowest level since 1930 -- around 7.1 million. The city now uses 28 percent less water than in 1979. That's pretty staggering when you think about it.
So, what gives? Experts say it's not so much the bottled water craze or the decline in manufacturing as it is a reflection of smart government policies; namely:
The city now requires water-saving plumbing fixtures and devices in renovations and new construction, it has been more diligent in finding and fixing leaks, and since the late 1980’s it has been metering residential customers’ water use.Before that, apparently, building owners got the water tab, so users weren't cognizant of their own consumption. This is one to remember next time someone (Dick Cheney, for example) dismisses the efficacy of government regulations to encourage conservation. Done properly, it works
Texas is the leading state in the union when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions, accounting for nearly 10 percent of the total, and producing more carbon pollution than most countries, including Canada and Britain. It's about to get worse. Energy utility TXU has plans to build 11 new coal-fired power plants in the state in the next five years -- each and every one of them a conventional pulverized coal plant. Even though TXU promises to install state of the art pollution control to limit smog-forming emissions, emissions of carbon dioxide would soar. Time magazine reports.
Monday, October 02, 2006
Just three percent of the country's tall grass prairies remain, but the Boston Globe reports that, "grasslands protected under the Conservation Reserve Program are likely to be used to cultivate corn or other crops as part of next year's farm bill." The reason: Ethanol.
Interest in biofuels is on the rise, especially in the corn belt, where many farmers are beginning to cash in on the new industry. As USAToday reports:
There are 105 ethanol plants in operation [in the Midwest]; almost half are owned by local farmers, according to the Renewable Fuels Association, an industry group. Forty-one more are under construction, and seven are expanding. Capacity is 5 billion gallons a year. When the new plants are running, that number will grow to 7.9 billion.That may be a good thing in terms of reducing oil imports, but it's hardly the whole solution. According to a recent study from the University of Minnesota, diverting the entire U.S. corn and soybean harvest into biofuels would barely dent overall demand, offsetting only about about 12 percent of gasoline demand and 6 percent of diesel demand.
The impacts of soaring demand for biofuels are already being felt around the globe. As Jeffrey McNeely, chief scientist at the World Conservation Union notes:
With just 10% of the world's sugar harvest being converted to ethanol, the price of sugar has doubled; the price of palm oil has increased 15% over the past year, with a further 25% gain expected next year.Rising prices in turn inspire more land conversion. Parts of the Amazon are being cleared to plant soy and sugar, and, in Indonesia, tropical forest is right now being burned to clear land for palm oil, transforming what should be a carbon sink into a carbon polluter.
Clearly, if biofuels are to be part of the answer to our energy and climate crises, their adoption will have to be managed more carefully so as not to do more harm than good. In the meantime, we should take the more meaningful step of reducing fuel use by raising fuel economy standards. Don't you think?
Dept. of Bright Ideas
In 1972, they dropped some two million tires across 36 acres of ocean off the coast of Florida with the idea that it would become an artificial reef.
It didn't work. Oops.
Can we afford to address climate change? President Bush has repeatedly said no. But many mainstream critics are now countering that argument. In fact, they say, we can't afford not to. That's the upshot of this analysis from United Press International, based on reports from the British Treasury and the U.S. industry consultants, PricewaterhouseCoopers. Thematically, the story dovetails nicely from this item from today's Wall Street Journal. A subscription is required to read the article, but here's the headline and plug.
"Why Beijing is trying to tally the hidden costs of pollution as China's economy booms." A two-year 'green accounting' study indicates the nation's rampant pollution problem is quietly undermining long-term economic growth.