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  May/June 2008
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Lay of the Land
May/June 2008

The Political Climate Is Changing | WWatch | Big Footprint | Will They We Greased? | Bold Strokes | Going for the Goldman | As The World Warms

The Political Climate Is Changing
Who has the best plan to turn down the thermostat?

After seven years of denial and inaction on global warming under President George W. Bush (all of which rank among the ten hottest on record), the debate in the United States has finally moved on to how we're going to cool the planet. It won't be easy: Stabilizing something as amorphous as the world's climate requires enormous societal changes, and legislating that shift will make the debate over the reality of global warming look like a game of patty-cake.

The first member of Congress to put a comprehensive climate-change bill on the table was Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) in 2003. There's been a lot of carbon under the bridge since then, but McCain's bill would only reduce carbon dioxide emissions to 65 percent below 2005 levels by 2050--an amount most scientists think insufficient to slow global warming. Unlike other climate plans, McCain's features subsidies for nuclear energy.

Much greater cuts are called for by the climate bill advanced by Senators Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), which is backed by Senators Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) and Barack Obama (D-Ill.). Lauded as the "gold standard" of climate legislation, the Sanders-Boxer bill would net a reduction of 83 percent below 2005 levels by 2050.

Both plans would gradually reduce emissions via tradable "carbon credits." McCain would initially grant most of the credits to power companies, oil refineries, and other polluting industries, while Sanders and Boxer would auction them off, potentially raising trillions of dollars to help lubricate the shift to a clean-energy economy.

How will that clean new economy come about? Clinton and Obama back legislative proposals to get 25 percent of our energy from renewables by 2025. McCain says he supports renewables but hasn't set any targets and has, in fact, consistently voted against them over the years.

Americans are ready for aggressive action. An Opinion Research Corporation poll shows nearly nine out of ten citizens support a five-year plan to phase out carbon-based energy. They know what needs to be done; now they need the leadership to take them there. —Paul Rauber


WWatch
Keeping Tabs on Washington

SONAR SWAN SONG In a February ruling that halted 14 planned sonar training exercises by the U.S. Navy, a federal judge in Los Angeles scoffed at the Bush administration's contention that complying with court-mandated whale-protection measures would create a national security emergency. Meanwhile, a San Francisco federal judge has ruled that the Navy must create sonar-free zones in places where whales and other marine mammals congregate, including the Galápagos Islands, the Great Barrier Reef, and part of California's Monterey Bay.

GLOWING REPORT Some people come to the Grand Canyon for the view, others for uranium. The U.S. Forest Service has quietly awarded U.K. company Vane Minerals a contract to explore for the radioactive ore in Kaibab National Forest just outside the boundary of Grand Canyon National Park. Under the lax 1872 Mining Law, the agency was bound to allow exploration without environmental review, even though officials acknowledge that uranium mining has been associated with contaminated aquifers and streams. And there's a sizable stream nearby: The Colorado River flows through the canyon, providing drinking water for millions of residents downstream in southern Nevada and California.

COALED COMFORT In February a federal appeals court ruled that the EPA's cap-and-trade plan for controlling mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants violates the Clean Air Act. Fourteen states had sued the EPA, pointing out that since mercury stays close to its source, it wasn't fair to allow some facilities to keep spewing the dangerous neurotoxin into surrounding neighborhoods. The states argued the federal plan would create mercury "hot spots" around polluting plants. The nation's 417 coal-burning power plants emit about 50 tons of the neurotoxin each year. —Dashka Slater


Big Footprint

Many people in the industrialized world are at least vaguely aware that their hyperconsumptive, carbon-spewing ways aren't so good for all the countries that are barely scraping by. In fact, Stephen Pacala, director of the Princeton Environmental Institute, claims that the planet's richest 700 million people--a mere 7 percent of the world's population--are responsible for half the global greenhouse-gas emissions produced by fossil fuels.

Now an analysis of the ecological damage caused by rich countries puts a price tag on the previously unacknowledged costs of our consumption. According to a group of researchers at the University of California at Berkeley, the cost of the damage wrought by the world's rich countries on poor ones works out to be some $2.3 trillion--enough to dwarf the total Third World debt of $1.8 trillion. The researchers assessed greenhouse-gas emissions, ozone depletion, deforestation, overfishing, the impacts of agricultural expansion, and the conversion of mangrove swamps into shrimp farms. —Reed McManus


Will They Be Greased?

The lucky polar bears are in Manitoba, where the Canadian government recently declared them a "threatened" species. They're not lucky because they're threatened, of course, but because they live in a country that pays attention to science. Alaskan polar bears, as of this writing, are still waiting for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to rule on whether melting ice in a warmer world threatens their survival. The U.S. Geological Survey says that all Alaskan polar bears could die out if global warming continues, but it can't make endangered-species declarations. Neither, happily, can Alaska's oil-friendly senator Ted Stevens (R): "The polar bear is adaptable," he says. "If the ice goes away, I'm sure they'll survive."

While the Fish and Wildlife Service is taking its sweet time, scientists at the Interior Department's Minerals Management Service (MMS) reported being under "extreme pressure" to speed environmental reviews in time for an enormous oil- and gas-lease sale in the Chukchi Sea, where half of all U.S. polar bears live. Oil development there, the department has already admitted, carries a 30 to 51 percent chance of an oil spill. Should that happen, warned MMS polar bear biologist James Wilder in an internal e-mail, large bear populations "are likely to be greased." The lease sale went forward on February 6. —Paul Rauber


Bold Strokes

Green Spooks
The CIA's new northern Virginia campus is a green-certified building, with a 22,000-square-foot living roof and motion sensors to reduce energy use; designated parking spots for carpoolers; and nontoxic paints, carpets, and furnishings. Twenty percent of the building materials were recycled, and innovations like waterless urinals and low-flow toilets will reduce water consumption by 40 percent compared with similar buildings. It's no surprise that the CIA would embrace cutting-edge technology. After all, the agency that developed a remote-controlled dragonfly, a robotic catfish, and a microscopic camera that looks like tiger droppings has the geeky chops to squeeze efficient design from unexpected places. —Dashka Slater

Patently Ecofriendly
IBM, Nokia, Pitney Bowes, and Sony have lifted the veil of secrecy by offering some of their green inventions to colleagues and rivals as part of an "eco-patent commons" administered by the World Business Council for Sustainable Development. The 31 patents now available for use include IBM's glueless cardboard packaging tray, which eliminates the need for Styrofoam, and Nokia's method for recycling cell phone components into other electronic gizmos. —D.S.

Hoist the Mains'l!
Sixty years after the last square-rigged sailing ship rounded Cape Horn, the age of commercial sail has returned. In January the MS Beluga SkySails departed Bremen, Germany, en route to Venezuela carrying 10,000 tons of cargo and powered, in part, by a computer-controlled, 3,400-square-foot "towing kite." Any freighter can be retrofitted to use the system, says manufacturer SkySails, and it can deliver fuel savings of 10 to 20 percent--depending on how the wind doth blow. —P.R.

Toilet to Tap
Lakes Mead and Powell are drying up, but not to worry. California's Orange County has a new source of drinking water: the toilet. Its $490 million reclamation plant runs treated sewage effluent through microfilters; sprinkles it with hydrogen peroxide; zaps it with ultraviolet rays; and then, when every bacteria, virus, chemical, heavy metal, and hormone has been removed, injects it into the groundwater basin for further filtration. Before you say "Eww," consider this: Almost one-fifth of the volume of the Colorado River, a source of much of the Southwest's tap water, started out as treated sewage. —D.S.


Going for the Goldman
The winners of the 2008 Goldman Environmental Prize, given annually to average people doing extraordinary work for their communities and the planet

Jesús León Santos: Dirt Rich
Mexico's Mixteca region is one of the world's most eroded landscapes. But since the early 1980s, Jesús León Santos and his organization, CEDICAM, have been working to develop--or rediscover--sustainable farming techniques that can help this arid area prosper.

Leon has encouraged farmers to revive long-forgotten methods of capturing rainwater. Farmers have dug miles of contour trenches, which protect soil and recharge local aquifers. Leon, a farmer himself, argues that those who till the soil can save the earth. "We produce the food, and we are responsible for the natural resources. Without us, they'll be exploited and sold off."

Pablo Fajardo Mendoza and Luis Yanza: Oil and Water
Between 1964 and 1990, Texaco dumped 17 million gallons of crude oil and 20 billion gallons of drilling wastewater in the Ecuadorian rainforest, according to the Ecuadorian government. In 1993 Luis Yanza and Pablo Fajardo Mendoza took the multinational to court, filing a lawsuit on behalf of 30,000 rainforest residents whose drinking water remains contaminated and whose cancer rate is seven times the national average. Now refiled against Chevron (which acquired Texaco in 2002), the case will be the first ever tried by Fajardo, a former oil-field laborer who earned his law degree from a correspondence course.

Rosa Hilda Ramos: Swamp Things
The 35,000 residents of Cataño, Puerto Rico, an industrial community near San Juan, have an average annual income of $8,400. Throughout the 1990s, they also had the highest incidence of cancer and respiratory problems in the commonwealth, thanks to pollution from power plants run by the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority. But in 1991 a housewife named Rosa Hilda Ramos cofounded Communities United Against Contamination, which persuaded the EPA to levy $7 million in fines against the utility-- and to use $3.4 million of the money to protect part of a 1,235-acre marsh from development.

Marina Rikhvanova: Water Works
Siberia's Lake Baikal is the deepest in the world, a UNESCO World Heritage site, and home to 20 percent of the world's freshwater. Protecting it has been Marina Rikhvanova's life's work. A biologist, she turned from science to activism after seeing how paper mill effluent was altering the lake's biology. "I had a moral problem," she has said, "because as scientists we were doing nothing to change the situation."

When Russia planned to route the world's longest petroleum pipeline through the Lake Baikal basin, Rikhvanova spearheaded a national campaign. In one action, Irkutsk citizens left bottles filled with blackened water labeled "Baikal water" at a government office. In 2006, then-president Vladimir Putin agreed to reroute the pipeline.

Feliciano dos Santos: Clean Beat
Mozambique's Feliciano dos Santos pairs two unlikely professions: pop star and toilet promoter. Known to his fans as the "Elton John of Mozambique," dos Santos champions the use of composting toilets called EcoSans. EcoSans turn human waste into fertilizer, thereby eliminating the bacteria that cause disease while doubling agricultural productivity.

Like half his country's population, dos Santos grew up without clean water or sanitation. Disabled from a childhood bout with polio, he went on to become a musical superstar with his Afrobeat band, Massukos. Even when he's making music, dos Santos stays on message: "If you have clean water and proper sanitation," one song says, "you can live long."

Ignace Schops: Green Acres
Trained as a herpetologist, Ignace Schops had a brainstorm to reinvigorate the economy of the former coal-mining province of Limburg, Belgium, by fostering ecotourism.

At the center of Schop's vision was Hoge Kempen, a region of pine forests and heaths that is home to 80 percent of the country's threatened species. Working with a local coal company and an environmental group, Schops spent more than a decade campaigning to turn the 60-square-kilometer area into Belgium's first national park. Hoge Kempen National Park opened in 2006 and is expected to attract tourists worth $37.4 million to the area by 2011. —Dashka Slater


As the World Warms
Quick thinking before we slowly fry

NORWEGIAN WOULD Norway has vowed to cut its global-warming emissions by 30 percent by 2020 and says it will achieve carbon neutrality by 2030--20 years ahead of its previously announced deadline. The nation of 4.7 million hopes to eliminate two-thirds of its emissions by using renewable energy and capturing and storing some of the carbon dioxide it produces. Officials say they'll offset the rest by fighting deforestation in the developing world. Don't dismiss the moves as a Scandinavian fairy tale: Norway is the world's fifth-biggest exporter of oil, and its CO2 emissions rose 80 percent between 1990 and 2004.

BANK ON IT The financial industry is starting to factor the environment into its investment decisions, apparently figuring that planetary collapse is rarely good for the bottom line. The environmental group Ceres rated London's HSBC as the world's greenest bank and gave high marks to Citigroup and Bank of America for integrating global-warming concerns into their internal operations and lending decisions. Wells Fargo got points for being one of the few financial institutions to formally calculate the risk of lending money to companies that might face carbon regulations.

SHINY, HAPPY PLANTS Shiny plants might save the planet. At least that's the preliminary conclusion of scientists at the University of California, Irvine, who say reflective crops could bounce the sun's heat back into space, the way the polar ice caps used to before they began melting into dark, heat-absorbing ocean water. Called geoengineers, these folks have floated antidotes to global warming such as planting leafy trees instead of conifers and painting roofs, roads, and parking lots white to reflect more sunlight. —Dashka Slater



ON THE ONE HAND ...

SANDAL CITY The desert may seem like an unlikely place for an eco-topia. But workers in Abu Dhabi have begun constructing Masdar City, which they say will be the world's first zero-carbon, zero-waste, car-free metropolis. Built in collaboration with the World Wildlife Fund, the 2.3-square-mile city will be entirely powered by solar electricity and aims to use half as much water per capita as the rest of the nation. Cars aren't just discouraged--Masdar's streets, shaded by photovoltaic panels, will be too narrow to accommodate them.

ON THE OTHER ...

MONSTER GARAGE The average U.S. home has more than doubled in size since the 1950s, swelling from 1,000 square feet to 2,500 square feet. But apparently some of us still need more room for all our internal-combustion stuff. Hence the boom in storage unit condos, like those offered by GarageTown USA. Maxing out at 2,000 square feet and costing upwards of $100,000, these fully heated storage spaces offer swank accommodations for cars, boats, and Jet Skis--and may include cable television, telephones, and other amenities. —D.S.


Illustrations, from top: Victor Juhasz, Debbie Drechsler, Lloyd Dangle, Peter Hoey; used with permission.
Photos, from top: Will Parrinello and Jim Iacona, Jon Lea (image of Feliciano dos Santos); used with permission.

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