Sierra Daily: November 2010
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21 posts from November 2010

Nov 23, 2010

Dim Bulbs

IStock_000001718772XSmall The daggers are drawn over on Capitol Hill over who will preside over the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee. Since former chair Rep. Joe Barton (R-BP) has termed out, the job should go to Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), but Barton wants a waiver of the rules so he can continue. Hence a campaign to identify Upton as "all socialist," in the words of talk-show host Glen Beck. His crime? Co-sponsoring an energy bill signed into law by George W. Bush in 2007 that included a phaseout of incandescent light bulbs in favor of more energy-efficient models. 

“This would be a tone-deaf disaster if the Republican leadership lets Fred Upton ascend to the chairmanship of the House energy committee,” Limbaugh said this week [reported in Politico]. “This is exactly the kind of nannyism, statism, what have you, that was voted against and was defeated last week. No Republican complicit in nannyism, statism, can be rewarded this way.”

Bowing to the new GOP orthodoxy, Upton has already promised to recant: "If I become chairman, we'll be reexamining the light bulb issue, no problem." If seeing who can advocate wasting the most energy is the issue, though, why stop at lightbulbs? Electricity is for weenies--why not bring back the gas lamp?

--Paul Rauber

Nov 22, 2010

Green Tea Party?

Conventional wisdom has it that the coming influx of Tea Party-influenced members of Congress means nothing but doom and gloom for environmental progress. (Sample quote: "This is what the 2010 midterm elections will change about U.S. climate policy: Cap-and-trade was dead. Now it will be deader.") But as conservative columnist Timothy Carney points out, a likely target for budget-slashing Tea Partiers are the generous subsidies for ethanol producers that are set to expire at the end of the year.

If Republicans were serious about their expressed belief in the free market and opposition to subsidies, they would let the subsidies die this year or next. If Democrats were truly concerned about the environment and want to end corporate welfare for big oil, they would, too. 

For Carney's argument about how ethanol subsidies benefit Big Oil, see his column. But plenty of environmentalists would be happy to see the subsidies go away for a simpler reason: There is little if any evidence that "first generation" biofuels like corn ethanol reduce greenhouse gases at all. In fact, a recent analysis by the EPA found that current refining methods may result in higher emissions for ethanol over gasoline.
The debate over extending the subsidies should be entertaining, in that it unites Tea Partiers and environmentalists on one side, and corn-state legislators of both parties on the other. Let the wild rumpus start!
--Paul Rauber

Nov 19, 2010

A Green-Week Get

ROYALS-articleInline Be sure to unkill your television tonight so that you can watch Charles, Prince of Wales, discuss all things environmental in the documentary Harmony. No slouch when it comes to green issues -- Charles converted Duchy Home Farm to organic farming way back in 1986 -- the royal-green celeb takes viewers on a tour of his biggest issues, including climate change, green energy, and sustainable agriculture. There's even a 20-year-old clip of Prince Charles discussing the need for greater international cooperation with our own ahead-of-his-time eco-visionary, Al Gore.

Harmony airs on NBC at 10 p.m., following an hour-long interview with anchor Brian Williams that covers more mundane topics like the prince's marriages and the upcoming nuptials of his son William.

--Reed McManus

Mash Note to the Arctic Refuge

Sweetheart: First, I apologize for not having seen you for 20 years. And yes, there have been other refuges since then. But none like you! Honest, baby, it was love at first sight--me flying high above the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in a 30-year-old Cessna 185, eating gummy worms to keep from throwing up, you spread out below me, a sea of green and brown tundra, flowing water, and swirling caribou. Here's what I wrote in Sierra back in 1992 (sorry, pre-digital!):

The herd seemed to be coming from heaven. Hundreds, thousands of caribou were pouring out of the clouds, down from the misty pinnacles of the mountains. Led by a majestic black-horned bull, they traversed impossible scree falls, some of the calves sliding down the steep ice fields. Baby 'bou gamboled around their mothers; decrepit cows tottered toward a rendezvous with a wolf or bear. For hours they streamed north toward the plain, maybe 5,000 strong. As we fell asleep, caribou grazed golden in the midnight sun just outside our tents.


 Honey, I know that 50 years is a long time to be "just a refuge." When Congress created you, it wasn't ready to commit, and it left your beautiful coastal plain open to possible oil exploration. And we all know what happens to arctic areas when that happens--all you have to do is look just a few miles to the west to see the industrial wasteland of the North Slope. But we didn't let that happen to you! Remember back in 1995 when Newt Gingrich shut down the federal government? The precipitating factor was President Bill Clinton's veto of a budget reconciliation bill that included revenues from drilling your coastal plain. If only he had taken the next step and declared you to be a national monument! Now Barack Obama can make good on that old promise, and give you the status you deserve. Twenty-five U.S. Senators have written Obama asking him to permanently protect you, and thousands of your fans are adding their names to the petition here. After so many years of courtship, we'll make a monument of you yet. Fondly,

--Paul Rauber

Nov 18, 2010

You've Entered The Twilight Zon(ing)

When fundamendalists take over the local school board, we know what can happen to school curricula. When tea partiers take over your local planning commission, it's not hard to imagine our communities looking more and more like the infrastructure mayhem in northern India seen in one of the most unlikely testimonials ever for sane civic planning, The History Channel's IRT Deadliest Roads.

Today, Mother Jones offers an eye-opening roundup of efforts by conservative activists to impede local planning and zoning commissions, which the activists believe "are carrying out a global conspiracy to trample American liberties and force citizens into Orwellian 'human habitation zones.'"

For a full dose of "taxed enough already" meets "environmental impact statement," check out Freedom Advocates, which devotes itself to promoting "the unalienable rights of Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness." Here's what the group considers the most recent assault on all things truly American: a decision by city fathers in Fort Collins, Colorado, to reduce a four-lane roadway that runs past Colorado State University to two lanes in order to make room for new bike lanes. (This blogger's favorite Freedom Advocates headline: "Are Scenic Byways Another Way to Steal Your Property Rights?") Sierra Daily has already touched on the fears of the tin-bike-helmet crowd: In August, Colorado gubernatorial candidate Dan Maes claimed Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper's efforts to increase bike riding were "converting Denver into a United Nations community."

--Reed McManus

Partisan Reality

Pew is out with a new poll on public beliefs about global warming. It's not pretty:

These figures are not a whole lot different from Pew's similar poll last year. That one found 57% saying there was solid evidence for global warming, compared to 59% today. Sounds like progress! But compare that to 2006, when 79% thought there was good evidence for global warming, and 50% thought it was caused by human activity. Only 34% believe that now. That is largely because now global warming has become a partisan issue:

Pew threw some new questions into the mix this year, and found that the epicenter of global warming denialism in the GOP rested with those who identify with the Tea Party:

It's going to be a long two years--at least.

--Paul Rauber


Nov 17, 2010

Plastic State of Mind

It would have been convenient if Los Angeles County had waited another month before passing a sweeping ban on single-use plastic bags, because then I could have taken credit for it. But my feature article for the January/February 2011 issue, "Beyond Oil in 20 Years: Here's How to Get There" is still at the printer, so I can't. Even though heavy industry lobbying succeeded in killing a statewide ban on the bags in late August, however, the movement suddenly has new momentum. And wait until this parody of the Jay-Z and Alicia Keys by the LA-based Green Sangha gets around:


--Paul Rauber


The Fire Next Time

You've gotta hand it to Noah: 4,454 years after the Flood (by this guy's reckoning), and he's still making news. First, as my colleague Reed McManus noted the other day, one of the GOP candidates for the chairmanship of the House Energy and Commerce Committee is John Shimkus (R-Ill.), who opined in 2009 that we didn't have to worry about global warming because of God's promise to Noah. However! In the folk tradition version, God just promises no more floods:

God gave Noah the rainbow sign, no more water the fire next time.

In Indonesia, next time has come. This extraordinary satellite image from DigitalGlobe from last Thursday shows lava from the Mt. Merapi volcano overwhelming a golf course.

--Paul Rauber

Nov 16, 2010

Gearheads Go Gaga


The automotive press loves the soon-to-be released Chevrolet Volt, whose innovative powertrain allows most owners to drive on electric power for up to 40 miles, then shifts to a gasoline-powered generator that extends the vehicle’s range up to 300 miles. The accolades are piling up: The Volt recently received awards for Automobile of the Year from Automobile magazine, and Car of the Year from Motor Trend magazine.

Sure, there are some detractors, like perpetually grimacing conservative pundit George Will. The Volt is expensive: Even with federal tax credits, consumers will pay some $33,000 for the four-seater. But its technology is being recognized as a “game changer” in gear-head bastions that normally froth over off-the-line power, not gas-sipping technology.

As Motor Trend’s editors put it: “The genius of the Volt's powertrain is that it is actually capable of operating as a pure EV, a series hybrid, or as a parallel hybrid to deliver the best possible efficiency, depending on your duty cycle. For want of a better technical descriptor, this is world's first intelligent hybrid. And the investment in the technology that drives this car is also an investment in the long-term future of automaking in America.”

If the Volt’s pricetag is too steep, or the 100-mile range of the upcoming all-electric $25,280 (after federal credits) Nissan Leaf seems too limited, we can exult in the fact that the renewed interest in fuel efficiency is broad. Ford is trumpeting the news that four of its 2011 vehicles are rated at 40 miles per gallon or better, and Hyundai announced recently that every model of its 2012 Elantra will achieve 40 miles per gallon on the highway.

--Reed McManus

Nov 15, 2010

Clean Coal and Magic Ponies

For the past week I've been mulling over James Fallows' provocative story in the December Atlantic, “Dirty Coal, Clean Future.” Fallows, an old China hand, points out that China has now surpassed the United States as the world’s largest producer of greenhouse gases, and that while it leads the world in producing wind turbines and solar panels, “other sources of power are growing faster in relative terms. . . year by year the most dramatic increase is in China’s use of coal.” Sadly typical of the depressing details he marshals is this:

Part of the reason China has committed some $80 billion over the next decade to build light-rail networks across the country is to get human passengers off the main rail lines, opening up more capacity to move coal.

Vastly increased use of coal is inevitable, he argues, so the only hope to avoid a future of climate chaos is to hope that the United States and China can follow through successfully on their current efforts to develop "clean coal" technologies. While environmental organizations (including the Sierra Club) generally regard clean coal as an "insulting oxymoron," Fallows maintains, "China has faced reality, in launching an all-out effort to 'decarbonize' coal." The United States should join it in this effort, he argues, although he fears we lack the "seriousness" to do so.

Obviously there's a lot to digest here, and no synopsis is an excuse for reading Fallows' original. Dave Roberts took him to task in Grist for what he took to be "hippie punching"--i.e., framing his article as a rebuke to anti-coal environmentalists rather than pro-coal "powers that be."  Fallows replied, convincingly, that his interest was not in beating up on environmentalists, but only in drawing attention to the little known collaboration between U.S. scientists and engineers on clean coal technology. He continues:

In my experience, "most people" who take climate issues seriously assume that coal is unambiguously the enemy. What I'd learned over these past years in China convinced me that coal is an enemy but an unavoidable one, and that while working on every other front we'll be better off if we try to clean up coal too, rather than assuming it away.

Whether or not environmentalists are mistaken about clean coal is an issue, I am afraid, rather above my pay grade. I don't doubt that if China's rulers--or ours, for that matter--were presented with an effective and economically viable method for decarbonizing coal they'd be happy to adopt it. But as Fallows makes clear, China isn't waiting around until such a method is developed, and neither are coal-powered utilities in this country. Clean coal is something of a magic pony plan; it would be cool if it existed, but it doesn't--not at prices anyone wants to pay, at any rate. It may also be that China's rulers desire this magic pony more than ours; after all, half of the incoming freshman class of GOP members of Congress are global warming deniers. But especially in the absence of a price on carbon, the eternal quest for clean coal all too easily becomes an excuse for doing nothing. Are we really willing to bet our planet's future on a magic pony?  

--Paul Rauber

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