Sierra Daily: September 2010
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18 posts from September 2010

Sep 15, 2010

How much is left?

Continuing on yesterday's "only one planet" cool Web-video theme, our colleagues at Scientific American have a very snazzy interactive Web gizmo called "How Much Is Left? The Limits of Earth's Resources." (For those annoyed by snazzy interactive Web gizmos, there's a companion piece in the print edition, but you gotta pay for it.) How long will the glaciers in the Alps last? The world's supply of copper? Orange roughy? The navigation is not always intuitive, but poking around is well rewarded. 

Kids balloons

Oh, and one they missed that's coming up in the next (November/December) issue of Sierra: helium. Yes, we're running out, so keep those party balloons tied firmly to your wrist.

--Paul Rauber

Sep 14, 2010

Hint: Don't say, "Make a baby"

Test Tube, a very cool short video featuring Canadian scientist and environmental activist David Suzuki has a trick question at the very start. Just take my advice on it, OK?

My only quibble is that the film gives the strong impression that population growth is exponential--the old Mathusian fallacy. (The gunman who recently took over the Discovery Channel headquarters before being shot and killed turns out to have been an adherent.) In fact, growing access to family planning services and changing economic signals (you don't need ten kids to help you work the farm anymore) are bringing down birthrates the world over. In the United States the fertility rate has dropped to 13.5 per 1,000 inhabitants, the lowest rate ever. On the other hand, population growth is expected to continue through at least mid-century while resources remain finite. That's why the old bumper sticker was so funny: one planet is all we get.

--Paul Rauber

Sep 13, 2010

"Don't know much about a science book"

The United States has a long history of anti-intellectualism, but being on the losing end of the global-warming debate has led our modern Know Nothings to turn science into a partisan issue. "Science Scorned," a devastating editorial in the British journal Nature, quotes Mr. Anti-Science himself, Rush Limbaugh:

“The four corners of deceit: government, academia, science and media. Those institutions are now corrupt and exist by virtue of deceit. That's how they promulgate themselves; it is how they prosper.”

Science, continues Limbaugh,"has become a home for displaced socialists and communists." The way you can tell, apparently, is that they insist on coming up with replicable experiments and mountains of data that keep pointing out the inconvenient truth of global warming. Says Nature:

US citizens face economic problems that are all too real, and the country’s future crucially depends on education, science and technology as it faces increasing competition from China and other emerging science powers….  Yet the public often buys into anti-science, anti-regulation agendas that are orchestrated by business interests and their sponsored think tanks and front groups.

Once you reject science as the work of commies, however, you quickly find yourself on a slippery slope. If government, the media, academia, and scientists teamed up to make up global warming, what else might they have cooked up? Here's an example of where we might be headed: A conference devoted to the proposition that Galileo was wrong.

--Paul Rauber 


Sep 10, 2010

"When in doubt, follow the money."

Why is it that amidst the biggest U.S. oil spill ever, in a summer of searing heatwaves, catastrophic fires and floods, and dramatically disintegrating ice sheets, the U.S. Senate couldn't even bring climate-change legislation up for a vote? Many possible explanations have been offered: congressional fatigue after the health-care debate; political cowardice in the face of public confusion on the issue; and straight-up political gamesmanship. Following the advice of Deep Throat, Steve Kretzmann, executive director of the group Oil Change International recommends "When in doubt, follow the money." You can do so at his organization's new interactive DirtyEnergyMoney.com site, which tracks the flow of petro-dollars into the halls of Congress. You'll learn, for example, that the coal industry favors Democrats, while the GOP remains the favored recipient of oil-and-gas money. The biggest spending company of them all? That would be Koch Industries, the goblin at the bottom of so many money trails. Happy hunting!

--Paul Rauber

Sep 09, 2010

Blame Dispersants

On Wednesday, BP issued a 193-page report that blamed the Gulf of Mexico oil disaster on "a complex and interlinked series of mechanical failures, human judgments, engineering design, operational implementation and team interfaces” by its own staff as well as rig operator Transocean, cementing company Halliburton, and Andarko--BP’s main partner on the Macondo well.

Transocean and Halliburton quickly blasted BP’s internal investigation, claiming it unfairly paints them as equally responsible for the disaster. That’s not surprising, since the companies have a lot at stake: The stock prices of BP, Halliburton, Transocean, and Anadarko each sank between 25 and 45 percent during the past four months, with the threat of fines and criminal penalties hovering over all involved parties.

The finger-pointing won’t be over for some time. Investigations by the U.S. Coast Guard and a presidential commission are under way, as well as a criminal inquiry by the U.S. Justice Department.

--Reed McManus


China Buying Australia: Not Just the Coal

Earlier this year, Sierra engaged Adam Minter, a young freelancer based in Shanghai, and Guy Pearse, a climate research fellow at the University of Queensland, Australia, to explore the relationship between their countries in "Addicts and Enablers." While Australia has an international reputation as a leader in addressing climate change, it is simultaneously shipping vast amounts of coal to Japan, Taiwan, and (increasingly) China. Meanwhile China is pouring vast resources into alternative energy--while simultaneously stepping up its burning of coal, the main fuel for its rapid industrial expansion.

Untitled  Turns out that coal is not the half of it. In the latest Bloomberg Businessweek, Malcolm Knox pithily describes the two countries' relationship: "The deal is simple. Australia gets money, China gets Australia." For example, China now buys A$22 billion of Australian iron ore a year. China has long-term commitments to buy natural gas from Chevron in Australia, and has pumped billions of dollars in direct investment into a wide variety of mining projects. This is all great news for the enormous mining companies headquartered in Australia--BHP Billiton, Xstrata, Anglo, and Rio Tinto--not so much for ordinary Australians, like the Queensland farmers who are being strung along by Xstrata as it decides whether or not to buy out their family farms for a huge new coal mine. "A happy farming community has been turned into something else," says one resident of Wandoan. "You could say a lot of people wish the resources were somewhere else."

--Paul Rauber

Sep 08, 2010

Why Health Care and Not Climate?

As we stumble toward the midterm elections, environmentalists might be forgiven some rueful speculation about what might have happened had Barack Obama stuck with his original intention of tackling climate-change legislation before health care. "Energy we have to deal with today,"said then-candidate Obama in the second presidential debate. "Health care is priority number two."

Last week, New York Times columnist David Brooks rhapsodized about a fictitious past in which Obama stuck with his original plan:

Obama decided to do energy first. The economy was uppermost on everybody’s mind. Americans were wondering where new innovations would come from, what new jobs would emerge. By doing energy first, Democrats were able to spend the entire summer talking about technological advances, private sector growth and breakthrough productivity gains.

As we know, health care came first after all, and by the time the Senate finally took up energy, the Democrats' political willpower had fizzled. "Future generations are likely to view Obama’s choice of health care over energy and climate legislation as a blunder of historic proportions," pronounces Joe Romm in his invaluable blog, Climate Progress. Today Matthew Yglesias and Ezra Klein both wrestle with the topic, coming to a similar conclusion: As hard as health care was, it was (politically) easier than putting a price on carbon. Health care companies make a lot of money, but their profit margin is a third that of the oil and gas industry. UnitedHealth Group, the top grossing health care company, made profits last year of nearly $3 billion. ExxonMobil, the top oil company, came in at $45 billion. Big Oil is the Big Dog of the American economy. It's hard to blame Obama for taking on the insurance companies first. But when will we ever get another chance at comprehensive climate legislation?

--Paul Rauber

Sep 03, 2010

Monday Morning Presidents

While President Barack Obama has done much to foster alternative energy, there are still a lot of environmentalists--including many here at the Sierra Club--who can't get over the feeling that the BP oil-spill disaster was a missed opportunity. Wasn't it his own chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, who famously said "You never want a serious crisis to go to waste?" Yet what did we get for this one? A temporary ban on deepwater drilling, and a vague call for cleaner energy:

For decades, we have known the days of cheap and easily accessible oil were numbered. For decades, we’ve talked and talked about the need to end America's century-long addiction to fossil fuels. And for decades, we have failed to act with the sense of urgency that this challenge requires. Time and again, the path forward has been blocked--not only by oil industry lobbyists, but also by a lack of political courage and candor.  

That lack of political courage was very evident when the Senate declined to bring climate legislation to a vote. Obama mentions the desirability of a national renewable energy standard, which would increase the percentage of electrical power coming from renewable sources, but the Senate wouldn't vote on that either. His remaining items--increasing efficiency standards for buildings, and new funds for energy research and development--are small potatoes indeed.

What's missing is any indication that deterring global warming and preventing future oil-spill disasters might involve non-trivial changes to the "American way of life." That discussion was effectively removed from the table in 1980 when Ronald Reagan made Jimmy Carter a one-term president. As my cycling friend (and sometimes Sierra contributor) Andrew Leonard recently blogged in Salon, the destruction of Carter's presidency that was started by the hostage crisis in Iran was completed in his famous "malaise" speech of  July 15, 1979. In it he called for Americans to end their dependence on foreign oil--not just through the usual federal programs, but through individual action:

I'm asking you for your good and for your Nation's security to take no unnecessary trips, to use carpools or public transportation whenever you can, to park your car one extra day per week, to obey the speed limit, and to set your thermostats to save fuel. Every act of energy conservation like this is more than just common sense--I tell you it is an act of patriotism.

It, uh, didn't go over very well. What Americans wanted to hear, it turned out, was that it was "morning in America." Watch military scholar Andrew Bacevich talk about this turning point with Bill Moyers:


So don't look to Obama to call for sacrifice. The word has been purged from the American political vocabulary.

--by Paul Rauber


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