Even before Gore's utility records came to light, funny man John Stewart was skewering the 'green Oscars' hype. (If you click on that box up above, you can watch the segment right there in the very same window. The marvels of the Internet ... ). Stewart is merely stating the obvious (albeit with comedic flair), and it's a good and necessary antidote to all the self-satisfied preening that the Hollywood elite are prone to. As for Gore's energy expenditures, raise your hand if you were surprised to learn that mansion living is energy-intensive. For his part,* Gore buys carbon offsets, which is certainly laudable but doesn't let him entirely off the hook. The far bigger offset, to my mind, is the tireless work he has done in calling attention to the issue and, indeed, making it part of the public consciousness. Is he a hypocrite? Um, yeah, I suppose he is. And so are you. And so am I. Because, here's the thing: American levels of consumption are not currently sustainable, let alone the lifestyles of the rich and famous. We need to come to grips with that. In the meantime, to paraphrase Matthew, let's not obsess on the speck in our brother's eye and ignore the two-by-four in our own.
*For my part, I hope Al Gore wins the Nobel next. And I bet he does win it, too.
The first is regarding the mercury issue, which many folks (I hate the word 'consumers') are rightly concerned about. The Monitor reports that manufacturers are promoting recycling programs and taking steps to the bulbs' mercury content. Moreover, the California Energy Commission has determined that, taking into account reduced power plant emissions, switching to CFLs actually yields a net decrease in mercury.
The other thing that struck me is GE's insistence that it can and will make incandescents more efficient, and indeed, that by 2012 the standard bulbs will be as efficient as CFLs. Presumably, GE makes a bigger profit margin on incandescents and therefore is reluctant to give up on them. But, hopefully, by 2012 CFLs will no longer be the measure of efficiency, as light emitting diodes, or LEDs promise to raise the standards even higher.
In any event, it's good to finally see some momentum on this issue, as more efficient lighting is one of the lower hanging fruits of energy conservation.
"Of making many books there is no end" it says in Ecclesiastes. And, man, that goes double for blogs. We live in a world of endless commentary and commentary on commentary. Ad infinitum. What's the point? Ecclesiastes had an answer for that. There is no point. Vanity, vanity ... A generation comes, a generation goes, but the Earth abideth forever. Isn't that so? And yet, as they say in New York, "Whadda ya gonna do?"
With that in mind, allow me to highlight yet another blog: This one by my friend Tom Yulsman of the Center for Environmental Journalism at UC Boulder where (full disclosure) I was once lucky enough to do a fellowship. The blog is called Environmental Journalism Now. Tom, who once upon a time edited Earth magazine and has written an esteemed book about our cosmic origins, is a fine writer and reporter with a shrewd intellect as I'm sure readers will glean from his posts.
As I write this, the most-emailed story in today's New York Times is about the disappearance of honeybees and the impact it is having on beekeepers and the crops that depend on bees -- primarily fruits, nuts and vegetables, but also some oilseeds and forage crops -- as pollinators. The lucrative California almond industry is the chief focus of the story.
It's an interesting story and one that crops up periodically in various forms and at odd intervals. I highly recommend the article but would add a couple things I think are of interest:
Honey bees are not native to North America. While there were many species of bee that were native and were important pollinators in their own right, they were not the prodigious producers of wax and honey that the European bees were. So, the early settlers brought them to the colonies. Indians reportedly called them "the white man's fly."
Honey bees are not the only important pollinators, nor are they the only ones in trouble. Last year, the National Academy of Sciences issued a report stating that populations of bats, hummingbirds and bees were all in decline and that other wild pollinators, such as butterflies and moths were also at risk due to increasingly scarce habitat. The report urged better census taking and more funding to study underlying causes of the decline, including the possibility that climate change has played a role.
An Inconvenient Truth wins the Academy Award for Best Documentary!
Al Gore takes the stage and says: "My fellow Americans, people all over the world, we need to solve the climate crisis. It's not a political issue, it's a moral issue. We have everything we need to get started with the possible exception of the will to act. That's a renewable resource. Let's renew it."
Now that's what I call short and sweet.
Update: Melissa Etheridge also wins, for Best Original Song, "I Need to Wake Up." If you want to celebrate the wins, go check out Gore's and Etheridge's playlists on Itunes. Am I serious? Mos def.
While I wait to see whether or not Al Gore goes home with an Oscar, this news, provided the sale actually happens, is huge! In a nutshell, two private equity firms are offering to buy TXU, the Texas utility which is now poised to build eight new coal-fired power plants in the state. According to reports, the new owners have not only said they will cancel plans for those plants, but will not build any coal plants outside Texas either. Furthermore, the prospective buyers support mandatory caps on greenhouse gas emissions. Stay tuned.
It's been a long time since The New York Review of Books, (God bless it), did anything that could rightly be called a book review, so I guess it's not so surprising that they chose to provide commentary on the latest IPCC's 4th Assessment 'Summary for Policymakers.' Still, I was surprised.
Bill McKibben summarizes the summary and judges it a "remarkably conservative document" -- dire warnings issued in poor prose, opaque and bloodless language. Literature, it ain't. McKibben does us the service of restating the most salient findings in plain English and underscores a notion he picked up from realclimate.org, that "climate change is a problem with a very high 'procrastination penalty'." That is to say, the longer we put off dealing with it, the worse the consequences get. Indeed, put it off too long, and there may be nothing we can do.
As a postscript: Procrastination is one thing the Review can't be accused of. Upon closer examination, I see the McKibben piece is from the March 15 issue.
The tentacled leviathan, which measured well over 30 feet long and weighed nearly 1,000 pounds, took two hours to land. This was the first intact specimen of colossal squid ever caught. The species was first identified from the stomach contents of sperm whales.
The Japanese underwater discovery was made in the North Pacific. For anyone interested in learning more about the toothfish/sea bass fishery of the southern seas, I direct you to G. Bruce Knecht's highly praised tale, Hooked: Pirates, Poaching, and the Perfect Fish. Tom Brokaw called Hooked "a global whodunit, a courtroom drama--and a critically important ecological message all rolled into one."
In case you've been swept up in the buzz surrounding CitizenRe -- a company that promises to install solar panels on your house, for free!, then charge you only fixed, sub-market rates for the electricity -- well ... you may be interested in this article in Wired News as well as items here and here in Renewable Energy Access. Just FYI.
The Associated Press reports on hard times for the snowmobile business, noting that, "Warmer weather and thin snowfalls since the late 1990s have melted sales at Polaris Industries Inc. and Arctic Cat Inc., the only two U.S. snowmobile makers." According to the story: "Worldwide snowmobile sales peaked at 260,000 sleds in 1997, but are expected at around 160,000 this year." At Polaris, sales dropped from $373 million in 2001 to $157 million last year, while, sadly, Arctic Cat announced plans earlier in the month to lay off 65 employees. That 'sadly' may sound insincere, but it's not. It's no secret that the Sierra Club has fought for limits on snowmobiles in Yellowstone and other wilderness areas, but no one likes to hear about jobs being lost. As the story makes clear, lack of snow, not access, is the real culprit in the sales slump. As such, it would appear that enviros and 'bilers now have a common enemy; namely, global warming.
The best thing about the space program (and please, no jokes about diaper-clad astronauts in sordid love triangles) is the perspective it has given us on our own planet. A new tool from the NASA Earth Observatory broadens that perspective by making it accessible to anyone with a PC and a broadband connection. NASA Earth Observations, or NEO, allows users to download satellite imagery from a variety of datasets (e.g., snow cover, cloud fractions, chlorophyll concentrations, etc.).and in various formats, including kmz files that open directly in Google Earth. For the armchair (or desktop) geography buff, nothing could be cooler. Check it out.
Australia, like the United States, is a coal country (the fourth-largest coal producer in the world). Also, like the United States, it is not party to the Kyoto Treaty on greenhouse gas emissions, making it the only other "industrialized" hold-out. At the same time, it is one of the countries liable to be hit first and hardest by predicted climate changes. Indeed, some effects -- i.e., prolonged drought, crop failures, coral reef die-off and megafires -- are already manifest on the continent. Perhaps due to such alarming climate-related signals, the country is finally taking some substantive steps to conserve energy and cut back on CO2 emissions. To wit, Environment Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, announced the government's intention to phase out the use of incandescent light bulbs entirely within three years. Energy experts and environmental groups welcomed news of the initiative, which faces no serious political opposition. The hope is that this measure will lead to other, similarly effective changes, such as a switch from conventional water heaters to solar ones. Sounds like the right idea. If there's one thing, besides coal, that Australia has in abundance, it's sunshine.
As commented on previously, NASA ranks 2006 as the fifth warmest year of the last 100. The map above shows how the warming trend was distributed across the globe. The red end of the color spectrum is hotter-than-average. The blue end is cooler-than-average. The Arctic, obviously, is running a very high fever.
The National Climatic Data Center reports that the 2006 average annual temperature for the contiguous U.S. was the warmest on record -- at 2.2 degrees Fahrenheit above the 20th Century mean.
Whatever the criticisms of ethanol (and there are many valid ones, to be sure), the idea holds broad appeal in the prairie states, where, as the Times' Timothy Egan reports, "roughly 40 percent of the new biorefineries are locally owned, representing the sweat and capital of farmers, retired schoolteachers and small-town bankers." That runs counter to the idea of corn-based ethanol as the exclusive domain of big ag giants like Archer Daniels Midland. For now, at least, the boom in ethanol has made the industry less centralized and many farm towns see it as a much-needed infusion of industry and hope. As Egan writes:
What is happening here is a vision that many in rural America see as their salvation: high-performance moonshine from amber fields of grain, and a “grass station” in every town. It may be a chimera. It may drain precious water from the arid plains and produce less energy that it uses.
But it has the undeniable power of an idea in ascendancy.
Egan's most recent book is the National Book Award-winner, The Worst Hard Time, a history of the Dustbowl, and he invokes the memory of that chapter in American history to sound a cautionary note:
The stampede to the cornfields and beyond is not without plenty of risk. You need look only as far as “synfuels,” the disco-era dream to produce fuel from rock beneath the crust of the Rocky Mountains. That effort left open wounds in the mountains, and little to show for it. Or further back, there was the Dust Bowl, a result of a government call to rip up the native prairie grass and replace it with wheat. When grain prices crashed, the land peeled away and covered the flatlands in haze.
To learn more about ethanol -- what it is and isn't, and why it matters -- be sure to see the Why Files report, Motoring on Moonshine.
The Oscars are coming. As you may know, Al Gore's documentary An Inconvenient Truth was nominated for Academy Awards for Best Documentary Feature and Best Original Song. This week on Sierra Club radio, host Orli Cotel talks with director Davis Guggenheim about working with Al Gore, the movie star, and what it's like to be feted at Cannes, Sundance, and now the Oscars -- for a documentary! About a slideshow! Plus: Green Valentines Day tips; Mr. Green on giving up meat (or not); Carl Pope on the latest global warming report; and Zipcars -- a great new way to get around.
The newspaper quotes David Wyss of Standard & Poor's, who says that, while economists generally favor free-market solutions, "there are times when you need to intervene" and this is one of those times. As he puts it, "We're already in the danger zone." The virtue of a tax, Wyss says, is that "it puts pressure on the market, rather than forcing an artificial solution on it."
NASA announced yesterday that 2006 was the fifth-warmest year of the last century. 2005 tops the list, followed by 1998 -- a strong El Nino year. NASA's top climatologist, Dr. James Hansen, said that "2007 is likely to be warmer than 2006, and it may turn out to be the warmest year in the period of instrumental measurements. Increased warmth is likely this year because an El Nino is underway in the tropical Pacific Ocean and because of continuing increases in human-made greenhouse gases."
Branson's latest initiative is not an investment but a challenge; he is offering 10 million pounds to the scientist who invents the best way (as determined by a panel said to include James Lovelock, James Hansen, and Tim Flannery) to 'scrub' excess CO2 from the atmosphere. Carbon capture and sequestration is currently in limited use on power plants (a source of new CO2 emissions), but this challenge targets C02 already in the atmosphere, where the gas can persist for centuries.
Again, there are critics of Branson's idea. They point to the irony that another of Branson's ventures, Virgin Galactica, would send tourists on carbon-spewing joyrides to space. This is, indeed, a difficult paradox to square. If only we could turn cognitive dissonance into rocket fuel.
But for some minor twists of fate and a small matter of class, Charles Darwin might have slipped into history's dustbin. Wallace might have been the name we all attached to the theory of evolution by natural selection. After all, Alfred Russel Wallace -- poor and largely self-taught -- arrived at the same ideas independently and at the same time as his more learned and high-born colleague. He also made the mistake of sending his ideas to Darwin in a letter. A nice piece in the latest New Yorker tells the story.
But why bring it up here? Well, because Wallace was also one of the great ecological thinkers of his time -- a fiery writer who foresaw the perils of the Industrial Revolution and railed against the ravages of air pollution. The following is from Man's Place in the Universe, published in 1903.
For the last fifty years and more the inevitable results of such conditions have been fully known; yet to this day nothing of importance has been done, nothing is being done. In this beautiful land there is ample space and a superabundance of pure air for every individual. Yet our wealthy and our learned classes, our rulers and law-makers, our religious teachers and our men of science, all alike devote their lives and energies to anything or everything but this. Yet this is the one great and primary essential of a people's health and well-being, to which everything should, for the time, be subordinate. Till this is done, and done thoroughly and completely, our civilisation is naught, our science is naught, our religion is naught, and our politics are less than naught--are utterly despicable; are below contempt.
It has been the consideration of our wonderful atmosphere in its various relations to human life, and to all life, which has compelled me to this cry for the children and for outraged humanity. Will no body of humane men and women band themselves together, and take no rest till this crying evil is abolished, and with it nine-tenths of all the other evils that now afflict us? Let everything give way to this. As in a war of conquest or aggression nothing is allowed to stand in the way of victory, and all private rights are subordinated to the alleged public weal, so, in this war against filth, disease, and misery let nothing stand in the way--neither private interests nor vested rights--and we shall certainly conquer. This is the gospel that should be preached, in season and out of season, till the nation listens and is convinced. Let this be our claim: Pure air and pure water for every inhabitant of the British Isles. Vote for no one who says "It can't be done." Vote only for those who declare "It shall be done." It may take five or ten or twenty years, but all petty ameliorations, all piecemeal reforms, must wait till this fundamental reform is effected. Then, when we have enabled our people to breathe pure air, and drink pure water, and live upon simple food, and work and play and rest under healthy conditions, they will be in a position to decide (for the first time) what other reforms are really needed.
The BBC challenges visitors to play its climate change game, wherein, as president of the EU, "You must tackle climate change and stay popular enough with the voters to remain in office."
Note: The game designers admit they had to strike a compromise between strict science and playability, but the assumptions, research and compromises that went into making the game are all well explicated here.
Nature, the preeminent British science journal, has dedicated a section of its latest issue to the climate change crisis, with emphasis on the latest IPCC assessment and what comes next. Most but not all of the content is behind the pay wall, but the editorial introduction is available here. Here's an excerpt:
The policy choices that lie ahead are more daunting than political leaders (or the media) have thus far been ready to acknowledge. In a sense, twenty years of frustrating trench-warfare with the sceptics has prevented a rational discussion about what needs to be done from even taking place.
At present, the political response to the situation is, in large part, incongruous. ...
Even the most progressive governments continue to put the issue of climate change on the back seat behind their fundamental commitment to strong economic growth, which is needed to ensure political survival (in developed countries) and to enable human dignity (in developing countries). So in a typical European nation, for example, governments are calling for strenuous emissions cuts while also planning airport expansions that anticipate a further tripling over the next twenty years of air travel — the fastest-growing source of emissions, and one not capped by the Kyoto Protocol.
The time has come, say the editors, to get down to brass tacks. The controversy may have ended, but the hard part is just beginning.
It's Day 3 at GC-24/GMEF, which in case you didn't know, is UN newspeak for the 24th session of the Governing Council of the Global Ministerial Environment Forum. You know, them. The meeting is taking place in Nairobi, Kenya, and the theme is Globalization and the Environment. Try as I might I couldn't find anything very meaningful or even coherent at the GC-24/GMEF website, except for the latest edition of The Planet, the official magazine of the United Nations Environment Programme, which leads off with an essay by the Nobel-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz. You can download a full-color version of the magazine here.
The question, posed by The National Journal, is: Do you think it’s been proven beyond a reasonable doubt that the Earth is warming because of man-made problems? The query was directed at 113 members of Congress — 10 Senate Democrats, 48 House Democrats, 10 Senate Republicans, and 45 House Republicans.
Let's hear it for Jeremy Grantham, Vice President Cheney's investment manager, who has written a scathing critique of US energy policy, with particular disdain heaped on the Bush administration's stance on global warming and fuel efficiency. Cheney, remember, was largely responsible for crafting that energy policy behind closed doors. Mr. Grantham writes:
Successive U.S. administrations have taken little interest in either oil substitution or climate change, and the current one has even seemed to have a vested interest in the idea that the science of climate change is uncertain. ... there is now nearly universal scientific agreement that fossil fuel use is causing a rise in global temperatures. ...The U.S. is the only country in which environmental data is steadily attacked in a well-funded campaign of disinformation (funded mainly by one large oil company).
Entitled, "While America Slept, 1982-2006: A Rant on Oil Dependency, Global Warming, and a Love of Feel-Good Data," Grantham's four-pager was sent to all of his clients, including the vice president. Take that, Dick!
How well have previous IPCC reports predicted the future? Pretty well, concludes an international team of scientists who compared actual observations of carbon dioxide, temperature and sea level from 1990 to 2006 to the IPCC's projected changes for the same period. Their results have appeared in the peer-reviewed journal Science.
According to this release from the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation in Australia,
the authors found that carbon dioxide concentration followed the modeled scenarios almost exactly, that global-mean surface temperatures were in the upper part of the range projected by the IPCC, and that observed sea level has been rising faster than the models had projected and closely followed the IPCC Third Assessment Report upper limit of an 88 cm rise between 1990 and 2100.
In other words, "previous projections have not exaggerated the rate of change but may in some respects have underestimated it."
On this week's edition of Sierra Club Radio, host Orli Cotel speaks with Nicole Rowell Ryan, daughter of climber and photographer Galen Rowell, who died tragically in a 2002 plane crash along with his wife and business partner, Barbara Cushman Rowell. Nicole helped put together a lifetime retrospective of her father's work which has been published by Sierra Club Books. She talks with Cotel about how her father's athleticism helped 'make' some of his best-known shots. In the photo above, for example, Rowell ran a mile with his camera in order to get the perspective necessary to place the temple directly beneath the rainbow. And Rowell's peer Franz Lanting joked that Rowell, a master of natural light and a world-class alpinist, would "set the sun" by descending mountainsides or raise it by climbing higher. The results were spectacular. Don't miss Sierra Club Radio.
"Look, you can almost make a snowball," said 17-year-old Theo Baldesseri in Pittsburgh's Riverview Park. "My older cousin told me about stuff like this happening when he was a kid, but I always thought he was just making it up."
“Policy makers paid us to do good science, and now we have very high scientific confidence in this work — this is real, this is real, this is real. So now act, the ball’s back in your court.”
That's Dr. Richard Alley, Professor of Geosciences at Pennsylvania State University and author of The Two-Mile Time Machine, speaking at a news conference in Paris about the release of the IPCC Fourth Assessment, of which he is an author.
The panel concluded that global warming is "unequivocal" and that humans have "very likely" causing most of the rise in temperatures since 1950. In this context, "very likely" equates to a certainty of greater than 90 percent.
The White House was quick to point out that the US had played a leading role in studying climate change by dint of pouring billions into research. And yet the Bush administration seemed unimpressed by the results of that research or the urgency of the latest report. The New York Times quoted Secretary of Energy Samuel Bodman who dismissed the idea of of unilateral limits on emissions, saying, "We are a small contributor to the overall, when you look at the rest of the world (?????????!!!!!!!!!!), so it’s really got to be a global solution." (Parenthetical emphasis obviously mine.)
The second part of that statement is reasonable enough, but the first part is just absolutely incredible. As the reporters duly point out in the next paragraph, we are in fact a very large contributor. The single largest contributor, in fact. At roughly five percent of the world’s population, we account for a quarter of all anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. I know this, you know this, anyone who has been paying attention knows this, yet somehow, the Secretary of Energy doesn't know this?????????!!!!!!!!!! Of course he does. He just chooses to pretend otherwise.
The IPCC's 4th Assessement "Summary for Policy Makers" or SPM (now, there's an unfortunate acronym) was released today. This is either really big news or a non-event depending on how you view world affairs. And, of course, there's always something a little anti-climactic about the release of a (yawn) report. But man, this is the Mother of All Reports (well, the policymakers' summary of it; the full scientific report won't be out til April) when it comes to climate change -- a synopsis of the official scientific concensus on climate change.
So, what does it say? I don't know yet. I haven't read it. How's that for honest? But I will, and you might want to as well. Don't worry: It's only 21 pages.
In the meantime, note that the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) has offered $10K, cash on the barrelhead to any economist or scientist who can come up with a refutation of the summary's conclusions. Being funded by Exxon Mobil, the AEI has boatloads of cash but very little shame. Now that I think of it, $10K seems a pretty low figure. Have you seen Exxon's latest earnings? They may want to up the ante.
Atmospheric gases scatter blue wavelengths of visible light more than other wavelengths, giving the Earth’s visible edge a blue halo. At higher and higher altitudes, the atmosphere becomes so thin that it essentially ceases to exist. Gradually, the atmospheric halo fades into the blackness of space.
On the eve of the release of the fourth and long-awaited report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, science historian Naomi Oreskes has a piece in the Op-Ed pages of the Washington Post that gives a capsule history of the issue, stressing that various scientists have been "communicating their concerns about global warming to presidents of both parties since the 1960s." For my part, I remember first learning of the idea that emissions from burning fossil fuels could alter the climate while at university in the late 80s. It came as a surprise to learn that the National Academy of Science was already issuing (mild) warnings about "inadvertant weather modification" to the White House as far back as 1966 -- the year I was born. Oreskes suggests we would do well to keep this history in mind amid the reports following tomorrow's release. She writes:
Scientists and journalists focus on novelty, because both are largely about discovery. But from a policy perspective, what matters is not what's new but what's old. What matters are not the details that may have shifted since the last report, or that may shift again in the next one, but that the broad framework is established beyond a reasonable doubt. Although few people realize it, this framework has been in place for nearly half a century, and scientists have been trying to alert us to its importance for almost that long.
So how does it work? According to the sidebar on the E&E page,
In a typical game, players form teams of four or five. Each team chooses seven wedges (each representing an energy technology or policy ) out of a portfolio of 15. Judges weigh each team's choices and declare a winner. Most games last about 90 minutes to two hours.
Sarah Wade, a Washington-based consultant who has organized about a half dozen wedge events, said the games help people understand that climate change can't be solved by focusing on one technology. It also forces participants to think outside of their comfort zone, selecting nuclear power, for example, over wind energy.
"Inevitably, someone has an option they put forward, but they don't really like it," Wade said. "That's one of the messages about climate change. This isn't going to be an easy thing to fix. We're not going to like all the things we have to do. But what are the best ones given what you want to achieve?"
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