Friday, December 29, 2006
The latest issue of Sierra, the Club's award-winning magazine, focuses on smart solutions to our energy predicament. "Everything hinges on our ability to somehow gracefully make the jump from fossil fuel to ... something else," writes author Bill McKibben in the opening story, "Energizing America." While McKibben's piece serves as introduction, the articles that follow drill down to specifics, examining alternatives ranging from nukes to "negawatts." In the online edition of the magazine, you'll also find several web-only features, from the Green Life blog to the ever-popular Mr.Green's Mailbag as well as an updated guide to 'picking your poison' -- a run-down of the oil companies, from bad to worse.
Wednesday, December 27, 2006
To cap off months of reporting in their Energy Challenge series, the New York Times is hosting an online Reader Forum on Energy and the Environment. Staff science reporters, including Felicity Barringer and Andrew Revkin, as well politicians and academics. At the time of this writing, the latest post is from NYU physicist Marty Hoffert. He writes:
The late Nobel laureate Rick Smalley observed that even though our civilization has many problems, energy is central to all of them. Questions that begin Âwhat is?Â are often the wrong ones; the better question begins Âwhat could possibly be?Â Spurred by World War II, the United States rapidly accelerated technological change-from biplanes to jets, from laboratory U-235 fission to Hiroshima, from microwaves to radar-all in less than a decade. The coming battle for a sustainable energy infrastructure will require every bit as much a team effort by government, researchers and industry. We know where we must go eventually, when fossil fuels finally dry up. Why not head there now?
Thursday, December 21, 2006
End o' the year, folks. Time to take stock. You know that whole John Lennon/So This is Christmas, What Have We Done bit?
A headline in the Guardian declares this "the year the world woke up" to climate change. I hope that's correct, but I can't help but think of Theodore Roethke's poem -- the one that goes, "I wake to sleep / and take my waking slow." It seems to me we've been awfully slow to rouse from slumber.
We need to rise and shine if we hope to pass along a livable world to future generations. I know that still sounds like Chicken Little hysteria in some (increasingly lonely) corners, but so be it. For the record, I sincerely hope they -- the dogged skeptics and blind optimists -- are right and the rest of us are wrong, but things sure don't look good.
The world is changing at a frightening clip, and the evidence of that is everywhere. The North Pole will soon be ice-free in summer, say scientists, and equally ominous signs have been observed across Africa and Australia's wheat belt and the Alps and just about everywhere else you can think of. (Yeah, I know, that's why they call it global warming.)
The animal kingdom is sending us signals as well, responding to climate change in marked and myriad ways. Just today, for example, I read that the bears in the Cantabrian mountains of Spain have stopped hibernating. And the BBC recently ran a special about the upward migration of many mountain species, some of which, like the Gelada Baboons of the Ethiopian Highlands (pictured), are literally running out of room.
Any one such phenomenon could be brushed off as insignificant, but the pattern is harder to deny. The list of observed animal migrations and changing plant ranges could go on for paragraphs if not pages. But perhaps the most alarming change being witnessed is a marked slow-down in phytoplankton production tied to rising ocean temperatures.
So, ... it's almost 2007 and we're finally waking to all this and it's a bit like waking up to a nightmare. It's understandable that we'd rather go back to sleep and dream happier dreams. But that would be a mistake. We've got to knuckle down, get to work, put our noses to the grindstone (and every other locker-room cliche you can think of) if we're to get through this. And I think we will. And anyway, we've got to try, even if it means groping our way through the darkness. As Roethke says in his poem: "I learn by going where I have to go."
Whatever the hell it was he meant by that.
'Til next year, adios.
Wednesday, December 20, 2006
Free, While Supplies Last
Over at Boing Boing, the mother of all blogs, Xeni (Is too her real name) Jardin reports that the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) turned down an offer of 50,000 free copies of An Inconvenient Truth from Participant Productions. Digging a little deeper, I find this item in the Los Angeles Times, which explains a bit more. Seems the NSTA sent an email, respectfully declining, in which it was explained that, "There is strong consensus that we should pass on this," in part due to concerns about the possible perception that accepting might seem like a political endorsement but also that it would place "unnecessary risk upon the capital campaign, especially [with] certain targeted supporters." In other words, big donors like Exxon Mobil and Shell might yank their support. That seems like a pretty safe bet. The only real surprise here is the NSTA's candor. In any case, here's the public service announcement: The 50,000 DVDs are still up for grabs, free to any educator who wants one for the classroom. Get 'em while they're hot.
Tuesday, December 19, 2006
Those of you who have followed the last two posts about last week's climate panel may be interested to see footage from the actual event. And thanks to the magic of 'the Internets,' you can here.
Monday, December 18, 2006
The Moral Challenge
...[Continued from below] Before he arrived at the Commonwealth Club, Al Gore spoke at the American Geophysical Union's annual meeting at San Francisco's Moscone Center, which had 16,000 earth scientists in attendance. Among the more alarming news items to emerge from that meeting was the projection that the Arctic would be ice-free in summer by 2040; that is, in just 34 years. It was with respect to this news that Gore spoke of a "foreshortening of concern for the future." This is no longer a problem for our grandchildren to worry about. It's playing out now.
To be honest, the former VP seemed tired and, perhaps as a result, his speech was more elegiac than exhortatory. He looked like someone who had worked himself past the point of exhaustion -- both physically and mentally. He closed his eyes at times as he searched for the right wording and his humorous remarks were all bone-dry. At the end of the presentation, I happened to ride down the escalator behind him and his aide. We were the only ones on there and Gore let out a huge sigh. Out on the street, a car was waiting. He was apparently late for a plane.
But I digress.
Despite cries from some corners of alarmism in the media and global warming hysteria, Gore said global warming was a unique case in which public discussion of the subject was, in fact, too subdued. Usually, public concern tends to go beyond anything justified by the scholarship. But in the case of global warming it was the opposite: the scientific community was far more alarmed than the general populace. And that needs to change, said Gore, because we can't afford to be complacent.
He went on to explain that cognitive scientists have shown that our brains are wired to respond to immediate physical threats to our survival -- things with teeth and claws. We see a snake and all our senses are activated. Global warming is not like that. We can read about the Arctic melting, about mega-fires in Australia and the events of Hurricane Katrina without it registering on a gut-level. Not until we are personally faced with the immediate threat are we, as a species, driven to take decisive action.
Global warming thus presents an interesting challenge to our moral imagination. How do we overcome this built-in inertia? This is the heart of the matter, because, Gore said, when the catastrophe comes, it will be too late. He underscored the point by citing T.S. Eliot's poem, The Hollow Men: Between the motion/ And the act/ Falls the Shadow.
"We have to find a way to cross that shadow, that gulf," said Gore.
Friday, December 15, 2006
Yesterday was a big event at the Sierra Club. Al Gore was in the house, along with some other deep thinkers on climate issues. In the morning and throughout the day, they sat down to hash out a near-term action agenda on climate change. At a panel discussion held afterward at the nearby Commonwealth Club, Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope explained that the point was not to come up with hypothetical solutions based on some 30-year timeline but rather to determine what needs to happen in the next two to three years.
The panel was moderated by Pope and, in addition to Vice President Gore, included: Stanford climatologist, Dr. Stephen Schnieder; Duke Energy Chairman, Paul Anderson; President of New Energy Capital, Dan Reicher; Silicon Valley venture capitalist, Vinod Khosla; and California Senator Barbara Boxer, who will chair the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works (EPW) in the 110th Congress, replacing Oklahoma Sen. Jim "Global-Warming-is-all-a-big-hoax" Inhofe. In the end, each of the panelists spoke about some facet of the problem of climate change and the immediate ways in which we must address the challenge.
Sitting in the overflow gallery, I scribbled notes. I'll share some of the highlights here, broken down by speaker:
Senator Boxer spoke first. She said she believed climate has finally come to the fore as an issue and that the growing concern among voters on the issue was reflected in the outcome of the mid-terms. However, she warns that there is still much resistance in Washington, as evidenced not only in Inhofe's final hearing on climate change (in which he accused the media of alarmism), but also by the selection of coal-state Senators, Larry Craig and Craig Thomas, to seats on the EPW Committee. (Both Senators get zero percent on the League of Conservation Voters' environmental scorecard). That said, she believes there is room for common ground for the simple reason that, even if global warming turned out not to be a threat of the magnitude we believe it to be, the measures we took to combat it would all be good things for the nation -- in terms of increased energy independence, new business opportunities, cleaner air and water, improved public health, etc.
Paul Anderson followed Senator Boxer. The Duke Energy Chairman, followed up on a remark by Carl Pope that history will be divided into BC and AC for "before carbon controls" and "after carbon controls." Anderson said he preferred to think in terms of costs than controls, noting that while a lot of the world might respond to greater moral good, business doesn't. What leaders in the energy business want to know, then, is: Is my power plant going to be an asset or a liability? As such, he said, government needs to start sending clear signals to the marketplace about what regulation is coming and then act quickly to implement it. As long as there is uncertainty, he said, there is no incentive for business to enact controls. In fact, there may be incentive to increase emissions if there's a possibility that caps would be set based on pre-control emission levels, a situation he likened to musical chairs. "When the music stops and you need a chair, you want the highest one in the room." Anderson said he would like to see the government adopt a carbon tax that would apply to everybody and be "free of political mischief."
Not being entirely sure what he meant by that, I did some further research and came up with this statement Anderson made in the Australian press last year:
I think that the best way to address it [carbon emissions] is with a very broad-based approach that leaves you with no regrets. In my view, a preferred approach would be something like a carbon tax or a carbon fee that would be applied across all fuels and so therefore you would have different fees depending on the carbon intensity of the fuel, but you don't create winners and losers, you merely create economic incentives for fuel choices and economic incentives for conservation and technology development...Vinod Khosla followed Anderson. He focused on scalability, stressing that "if we solve 10 percent of a problem, we haven't really solved anything." With apologies to proponents of the technology, he went on to characterize both solar photovoltaics and wind as 10 percent solutions, given the current limitations of battery technology. "We need to replace all of our coal, all of our oil and all of our plastics," Khosla said, adding that for the solution to be scalable, it has to be cheaper than the existing technology. As a "free-market Republican" he said he wants government to enact long-term, stable energy policies that will attract more Wall Street investment and require less government interference. Khosla said his personal goal for 2007 is to convince investors in the energy sector that it is simply too risky to build a coal-fired power plant given looming carbon costs. On the other hand, he said, from a venture capitalist's point-of-view, the risks involved in fostering carbon neutral alternatives to coal are "modest to moderate."
Dan Reicher was up next. The former Energy Department staffer and venture capitalist told a story about visiting the Google campus in Silicon Valley. It was a sunny day, and Reicher asked his hosts, 'Wouldn't it be a good idea to have solar cells on the rooftops here?' And they all said enthusiastically that it would be. He surprised them by saying that, actually, that would be foolish, since inside the building they had thousands of inefficient light bulbs wasting energy. The smart thing to do would be to change the lighting. Then, if you want to put solar panels in, you wouldn't need as much capacity. He said this is basically Amory Lovins' idea of "negawatts." It's the low-hanging fruit, he said, adding that, "The low-hanging fruit grows back." It's not a one-time deal. Take, for example, compact fluorescent lighting. Well, once you've replaced your incandescents with CFLs, that's just the beginning. In a few years, you can replace your CFLs with LEDs and get even more energy savings. Reicher said that while the technology to increase efficiency is ready and financial institutions are on board, ready to invest millions, the thing that needs to happen now is "we need put a price tag on carbon." Reicher ended with what he admitted was a Pollyanish thought: He said President Bush could still come around on climate change.
Stephen Schneider began his remarks by noting that he and Al Gore had been "soldiering on the same side of the issue for 25 years," and that while that might seem cause for despair, it hadn't been a waste as the world was very different than it used to be. "Who could have imagined that the biggest radical on this panel would come from a power company," he said, looking toward Paul Anderson. "Now, that's progress." Schneider says the US has lots of climate policy, just not at the federal level. As proof that policy makes a big difference, just contrast California and Texas. California has the lowest emissions. Texas the highest. The change is possible, he said, but "you have to mandate it." "We're poised to make a difference."
And then came Al Gore...
Thursday, December 14, 2006
So Long, and Thanks
On his blog, Another Chance to See, Garreth Suddes covers the bases on the profoundly sad news that the Yangtze River Dolphin, or Baiji, has been declared "functionally extinct" after a six-week scientific expedition on the river failed to turn up any signs of one. The news brings to a close 25 million years of existence for the Baiji -- the first species of cetacean to vanish in modern history. You can read more about the news at Baiji.org.
Douglas Adams fans will remember that the late sci-fi author wrote about the Baiji's plight in his book Last Chance to See, written with biologist Mark Cawardine. In fact, he didn't get to see the Baiji either, despite his own efforts to spot one for the BBC.
Adams is, of course, best remembered for his Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, the four-part trilogy which ends with the story of how dolphins disappear from the Earth. In Adams's version, the dolphins have, unbeknownst to humanity, been engaged in a long-running "Save the Humans Campaign."
They leave behind a fishbowl inscribed with the words, "So Long, and Thanks."
Tuesday, December 12, 2006
Fueling the Revolution?
Our friends over at Grist have been doing an admirable job examining the myths and realities of biofuels with their 'two-week crash course' on the subject. If you haven't had a look yet, you should, because like it or not, ethanol is all the rage in Washington, with boosters ranging far beyond the corn lobby. Even President Bush saw fit to drop mentions of switchgrass and cellulosic biofuels into last year's State of the Union address. (Remember? The one where he said we're addicted to oil?)
At first glance, there's a lot to like about biofuels. You mean I can run my surf van on recycled fryer grease? Dude! As cool as it may seem, however, biofuels come with some (depending on who you ask) intractable problems. For starters, there's not enough fryer grease to go around. As for commercial biofuels, some critics (the minority) say you spend more energy growing and refining the stuff than you actually get from burning it. Bummer, dude. Lastly, there's simply not enough land to grow both food and fuel enough to meet all our demands.
Myself, I recently returned from a trip to Brazil, where cane-based ethanol (alcool) is on tap at every gas station in the country. Now the government in Brasilia is moving to add biodiesel to the mix. While I was there, a hard-hatted and newly re-elected President Lula Inacio da Silva was making the rounds, busily inaugurating new biodiesel plants in the hinterlands while touting his nation's energy independence.
For all its success, however, Brazil has been growing its fuel at considerable cost. The Atlantic rainforest is all but a memory, and something like 80 percent of the cerrado (as the vast scrubby savannah is called) has been cleared for cattle grazing and agricultural in the last quarter-century. With industrialized agriculture now encroaching on the Amazon rainforest, one wonders where it will all end.
That said, it seems premature write biofuels off as part (emphasis: part) of the solution to our energy problems. Like most everyone, I stand to be educated on the finer points of the debate, but in some places (namely, close to the feedstock), biofuels would seem to make good sense.
In Brazil, for example, I saw a soy crushing plant being built on a site surrounded by thousands of hectares of soya fields. If all goes according to plan, the crushing plant will be flanked by an industrial-scale chicken operation on one side and a biodiesel plant on the other. Now, here's the beautiful part: The crushing yields two products -- edible oil and soy meal. So, the meal will go one direction -- directly to the chickens -- and the oil will go the other -- to be processed into fuel, which will, in turn, run the farm equipment and the trucks used to grow soy and transport chickens. Putting aside the evils of industrial-scale monoculture, it seems like a pretty efficient way to maximize resources, no?
So, somebody tell me what I'm missing.
Holidays On Ice
He's at no immediate risk, but if Santa wants to stay high and dry year-round, he'll have to spend his summers elsewhere.
At the current rate of decline, the North Pole will be ice-free in summer by 2060, but new computer models suggest it could reach a largely ice-free state two decades earlier. And at least one foremost ice expert feels the thawing of the Arctic could come sooner still.
Dr. Mark Serreze of the University of Colorado tells the BBC:
My gut feeling is that it might be around the year 2030 that we really see a rapid decline of that ice. Now could it occur sooner? It might well. Could it occur later? It might well. It depends on the aspects of natural variability in the system. We have to remember under greenhouse warming, natural variability has always been part of the picture and it always will be part of the picture.This much is known: the Arctic has not been recovering from summer melt as robustly as in the past. In November, the extent of sea ice was two million square kilometers below historical average. To put the figure in perspective, Dr. Serreze notes that the difference is "an area the size of Alaska."
Melting at the North Pole will not affect sea level as would melting on Greenland or Antarctica (for the simple reason that the ice cap is already floating). However, loss of the vast reflective surface of the Arctic ice cap would have a profound effect on global climate as the dark surface of the exposed ocean would absorb more solar radiation and thus speed warming.
Monday, December 11, 2006
Oh the Urbanity!
The UN says that more than half of humanity will soon live in urban areas. The epochal demographic shift could happen as early as 2008 and shows no signs of slowing. This Reuters report quotes Anna Tibaijuka, head of the UN Human Settlements Programme UN-HABITAT, who says, "We live in an age of unprcedented, rapid, irreversible urbanisation. The cities growing fastest are those of the developing world, and the fastest-growing neighbourhoods are the slums." Already, one sixth of the world's population lives in urban slums, where basic amenities and health services are lacking. With the increasing urban settlement, many hyper-cities will become so-called mega-cities of 20 million or more. Tokyo is currently alone in that distinction, but the UN projects that Mumbai, Lagos, Dhaka and Sao Paulo will all be part of the club by 2015.
Friday, December 08, 2006
How Plankton Affect the Climate
More from NASA about the newly published findings that warming oceans have slowed the growth of phytoplankton, the microscopic plants that form the basis of the oceanic food chain. This is because warmer oceans do not mix well, resulting in poor nutrient levels at the surface. The surprising thing here is the extent to which phytoplankton help regulate climate by sequestering carbon. Every day, according to this NASA release, more than 100 million tons of carbon dioxide are drawn out the atmosphere by the billions of photosynthesizing plankton, which, when they die and sink, effectively store the carbon in the ocean depths. Thus, if warming reduces ocean productivity, it would not only have a profound effect on marine life but would also contribute to rising global temperatures by increasing atmospheric carbon.
Thursday, December 07, 2006
What You Don't Know...
It has been ten years since the first genetically modified crops were commercially harvested in America. Today, according to this item in the Washington Post, a whopping 89 percent of soybeans, 83 percent of cotton and 61 percent of corn [grown in the U.S.] is genetically engineered. The story goes on to note that, "Because most processed foods contain at least small amounts of soy lecithin, corn syrup or related ingredients, almost everyone in the United States has consumed some amount of gene-altered food." But polling by the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology shows that only one-quarter of Americans think they have ever eaten genetically modified foods. Surprise!
Not to be alarmist, but here's some alarming news: Scientists have found that warming oceans have a reduced ability to support phytoplankton, the tiny marine organisms that not only serve as the basis of the entire ocean food chain but also help to moderate the climate by sequestering vast amounts of carbon in the ocean. (Forget that old story about the Amazon rainforest being the "Lungs of the Earth"; phytoplankton are the real workhorses when it comes to planetary respiration.) The scary thing is that this could conceivably trigger a positive feedback loop whereby warming oceans lead to higher carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere which in turn exacerbate rising ocean temperatures which further limit phytoplankton productivity which leads to still more carbon in the atmosphere, etc., etc., etc.. This story doesn't do much to quantify the problem -- i.e., just how much has phytoplankton production been affected by warming? -- but it does seem like something to keep an eye on.
All you jet-set skiers take note: Winter in the Alps has been a bust so far this year. St. Anton is closed. The slopes at Chamonix and Val d'Isère are bare. The world's best biathletes arrived in the Austrian village of Hochfilzen last week to find it unseasonably warm and dry. Snow had to be hauled in.
According to Luca Mercalli, president of the Italian Meteorological Society, the Alps are suffering their warmest winter since accurate records were first kept, two centuries ago. Some climatologists say this is the warmest winter in Europe in 1,300 years. Mercalli is not alone in predicting that, in the next 20 years, skiing below 2,000 meters will be unheard of in Europe. The UN Environment Programme has sounded a similar alarm. If true, it will mean the end of such famed slopes as Austria's Kitzbuhel and Italy's Cortina d'Ampezzo, site of the 1956 Winter Olympics.
Tuesday, December 05, 2006
Susan Mattei, the Sierra Club's New York City executive, is savoring the decision yesterday by a Florida company to drop plans for a 82,000 seat Nascar speedway on Staten Island.
Back in April, the Sierra Club issued a report saying the speedway would pollute the air and destroy wetlands, and launched a postcard campaign to mobilize local opposition.
Mattei said the story broke so late in the day the Club wasn't able to do press, but "the New York Times knew we were the leading group and gave us a good, solid acknowledgement in their story. And we accomplished this victory by working with Republicans."
An international agricultural research group is urging nations to invest in the development of new crop varieties in response to global warming and a projected world population of 9 billion by 2050.
The Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, which comprises a global network of seed banks and ag research facilities, says growing seasons will be shortened by rising temperatures and that new crop varieties are needed to withstand increased heat, salt, flooding, and drought. Louis Verchot of the World Agroforestry Centre in Kenya, a member institute of CGIAR, told the BBC:
We're talking about challenges that have to be dealt with at every level, from ideas about social justice to the technology of food production. We're talking about large-scale human migration and the return to large-scale famines in developing countries, something which we decided 40 or 50 years ago was unacceptable and did something about.Inevitably, say ag experts, this will mean more genetic modifications to existing crops, despite widespread misgivings about transgenic species. One goal of plant geneticists, for example, will be to ramp up the photosynthetic efficiency of rice. Says Verchot:
I can understand the opposition to GM, and I sympathize to a certain extent with it. But in developing countries we're dealing with a crisis situation; and whatever tool is available, we need to apply it to that situation.
Monday, December 04, 2006
Feed the World
Got a young gamer at home? Looking to steer them toward something a little more socially conscious than, say, the latest version of Grand Theft Auto? How about Food Force, a computer game developed by the United Nations World Food Programme. In Food Force, the mission is to get food to the world's hungry, with points awarded for fast, accurate delivery of aid and good decision-making. The game is free to download and available in seven languages for both Mac and PC. We'll let you know when the UN Environment Programme develops their version.
Green Grows the Economy
A recent study by the RAND Corp. shows the nation's economy would be likely to benefit, rather than be slowed, if the nation achieved the goal of supplying 25 percent of its energy needs from renewable sources by 2025.The Christian Science Monitor reports.
Cheap and Easy Solar
When it comes to solar power, photovoltaics get all the attention. But while turning the sun's rays into electricity may be sexy, thermal solar installations, which use the sun to heat water, are cheaper and more practical. Why not harvest this low hanging fruit? As the Toronto Star reports:
A decent solar thermal system can provide more than 75 per cent of a household's hot water in the summer and 25 per cent in the winter. Blended over four seasons, the sun can supply 35 to 55 per cent of a household's hot water needs, meaning less money spent on natural gas or electricity.And as one source in the story notes, "If you can displace a kilowatt-hour of energy, it's darn near as good as producing it."
To learn more about solar water heaters, see this page from the Department of Energy. Also, don't forget about tax credits. According to this Energy Star page, a tax credit for 30 percent of the cost of the system -- up to $2,000 -- is available on qualified systems 'placed in service' in 2006 and 2007.