Sierra Daily: February 2011
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26 posts from February 2011

Feb 17, 2011

Big Lie Country


Like King Canute commanding the tide to stop, the state of Montana may take up a bill that would declare that "global warming is a natural occurrence and human activity has not accelerated it" and that "global warming is beneficial to the welfare and business climate of Montana." The bill, which is already being compared to Indiana's famous attempt in 1897 to redefine pi as 3.2, is the handiwork of freshman legislator Joe Read (R), helpfully interviewed by Wonk Room here.

"Sometimes you have to do fairly radical things to address a federal government," Read said. "Our weather is not going to change drastically. Even if it does get warmer, we’re going to have a longer growing season. It could be very beneficial to the state of Montana. Why are we going to stop this progress?"

In other news, Glacier National Park is expected to lose the glaciers it has had for the last 7,000 years, possibly as early as 2020.

--Paul Rauber 

Feb 16, 2011

Coal Coverup on the Columbia


Coal from giant coal buckets like this at Wyoming's Black Thunder Mine could soon be on its way to China. Photo by Melissa Farlow

Just up on Sierra's Web site is Peter Frick-Wright's "Digging a Hole for China," an examination of the audacious plan to export coal from Wyoming's Powder River Basin halfway around the world to feed new power plants in China. Obviously that's one hell of a supply chain. It looks something like this:

Map by Michael Newhouse

The weak link is at Longview, Washington, where a company called Millenium Bulk Logistics (now Millenium Bulk Terminals), a spinoff of Australian corporate giant Ambre Energy, wants to build a shipping terminal. That required a public hearing before the Cowlitz County Commission. Here's how the meeting went down:

First, the three commissioners vote on whether the time has come to put the county's beloved Chevy Lumina up for auction after 30 years of service. They agree it has. Then Tom McGuire, the county planner who reviewed Ambre's application, gives a short slide show on the proposal, outlines the creosote pillars to be replaced with concrete, the rail crossings, the greenhouse gases, and the coal dust, from both trains and the storage pile. When he's done, he takes a long breath. "Staff recommends approval," he says.

Pretty pro forma, huh? But wait: Newly revealed secret company documents show that Ambre Energy and Millenium were duping the commissioners and the public. In its original application to export 5 million tons of coal a year, the county asked Millenium "Do you have any plans for future additions, expansion, or further activities related to or connected to this proposal?" The company responded, "There are no other current plans by Millennium associated with the existing multi-modal bulk materials handling facility."

 Unfortunately for Millenium, documents obtained as part of a lawsuit by environmentalists (including the Sierra Club) show that the company concealed plans to later expand the facility to ship up to 60 million tons a year. Jeff Torkington, Millenium's CEO until last October, wrote to his board that

. . .Millennium should deliberately wait at least two months before proposing an expansion. Otherwise, he wrote, “Millennium will be perceived as having deceived the agencies” and the company’s “good reputation would be lost overnight.”

Whoops! As an Ambre official stated in an email,

"We are [at] too sensitive a juncture to raise the plans to build a second berth.  The community is small and the risk to the current permit path is too large."

Much more from Columbia Riverkeeper here

--Paul Rauber  

Feb 15, 2011

Book Your Alaska Tour NOW!

EGfromNatureTrail Rapidly retreating glaciers, mudslides prompted by early thaws, vistas obscured by proliferating brush, invasive species: Not exactly the picture postcard of Alaska we in the Lower 48 imagine. But it’s the future for the Last Frontier’s parks, as outlined in a recent National Park Service study. A Reuters article sketches out the problem: “Since the mid-1970s, Alaska has warmed at three times the rate of the Lower 48 states, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. And with nearly two-thirds of U.S. national parkland located in Alaska, the issue of climate change is especially pressing there, officials say.”

Some of the changes won’t be noticed by infrequent visitors, but others are glaring. The retreat of Exit Glacier in Kenai Fjords National Park (above) “forced park managers to reroute trails through areas that were under ice just a few years ago. The glacier's retreat also has left a sheltered pavilion that was built in the 1990s far from the spectacular views of blue ice. ‘We used to build these things with a sense of permanence," said Jeff Mow, the park's superintendent.’”

The Park Service is scrambling to respond to climate threats throughout its system. You can read more here.

--Reed McManus

Supreme Court or Supreme Koch?

Hey you, Sierra Daily reader! You're a "reasonable person," right? And an informed one too, so you already know that Supreme Court justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas were part of the 5-to-4 majority on the court that gave corporations vast new powers to influence elections in the case known as Citizens United. So as a reasonable person, would you have reason to doubt Thomas and Scalia's impartiality if you knew that, prior to announcing their verdict, both had participated in political strategy sessions with corporate leaders at a four-day retreat in Palm Springs hosted by the billionaire pollutocrat brothers, Charles and David Koch?  

Common Cause thinks you might. That's why they're petitioning the Justice Department to investigate the matter and, if it finds that the justices should have disqualified themselves, to ask the U.S. Solicitor General to petition the Supreme Court to vacate Citizens United. Common Cause is also questioning Justice Thomas's reporting of the visit: While a spokesperson said that he had only made a "brief drop-by" at the event, his financial report says that the Federalist Society, a conservative legal organization, had paid him an undisclosed amount for "transportation, meals, and accommodations" at the Koch brothers' wingding. 

“Koch Industries is one of the biggest polluters in America," says Sierra Club executive director Michael Brune, "so it’s not surprising that they’ve spent millions blocking measures to protect our air and water. They have a lot of money, and they’re not afraid to spend it to influence politicians, fight public health safeguards and spread misinformation about pollution and climate disruption.”

--Paul Rauber

The Perfect Wave (Machine)?

Sierra outdoor-gear reviewer Steve Casimiro's excellent Adventure Journal reports on what may be the Holy Grail of the nascent sport of river surfing: a working wave machine:

The technology is being tested on an unnamed river in the Basque country in Spain. Casimiro notes that many questions remain unanswered; e.g., what do the machine's makers mean by the "minimum impact" it makes on waterways? Meanwhile, those unfamiliar with this obscure pursuit can bone up on it via Peter Frick-Wright's profile (Sierra, May/June 2010) of its colorful U.S. evangelist, Elijah Mack.

--Paul Rauber


Feb 14, 2011

Can't Have a Smart Grid with Dumb Meters

Clean energy isn't just about the fuel that delivers the energy or the mechanism that uses it. Enormous savings can be had by improving what comes in between. Our friends at Good, together with graphic designer Oliver Munday, offer this impressive infographic showing the potential benefits of a "smart grid" system:

What jumped out at me was that the single most important technical improvement would be widespread use of "smart meters," the new-generation electrical meters that record information in tiny increments, and report it to utilities and consumers frequently. Power companies can tailor their supply to meet the demand, while consumers can save money by, for example, running appliances at off-hours when prices are cheaper.

Unfortunately, there is no environmental action without an equal and opposite reaction, and Sierra's home in Northern California is the epicenter of anti-smart meter hysteria. Last month, opponents in Marin County convinced their board of supervisors to declare a one-year moratorium on installation of the devices. The issue has also captured the imagination of Tea Partiers, who "have raised concerns about how the utility would use the information about individuals' appliance use." ("Quite frankly you really don't need to know if I ran my margarita blender 40 times one one night," wrote one commenter to Todd Woody's story on the subject at Grist.) Still concerned? Check out Jess Zimmerman's fine column, "Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions About Smart Meters."

--Paul Rauber

Feb 11, 2011

"Why Don't Americans Believe in Global Warming?"

So good of The Economist to chime in--in its own blunt British manner--to our ongoing discussion of the psychological mechanisms at work in climate-change denial. To review, it shouldn't be hard to make the case that the earth is warming. Climatologists are virtually unanimous on the subject, and people all over the country are experiencing exactly the kind of extreme weather events predicted in climate-change models. Yet according to a recent Rasmussen poll, 38 percent of Americans remain unconcerned about the issue. Among those who concede that global warming might be happening, a larger percentage (44) think it is due to "planetary trends" than those who (correctly!) believe it to be due to human influence (40).

Wazzup with that?Economist columnist "E.G." lays out the possible explanations:

Psychological: The consequences of climate change are too awful to contemplate. Therefore, we're denying the issue, as we used to deny monsters in the room by hiding under the blanket. If you don't look at it, it can't look at you.

Economic: The costs of a large-scale effort to fight global warming are too steep to bear. Therefore, we're trying to ignore the issue, or pretending it doesn't exist, or we believe that the economy (including development) is more important.

Political: The fact that Democrats are always hammering on about climate change and Republicans aren't suggests that this is a political issue, not a scientific one. This creates a feedback loop: if climate change were real, why is it so polarising? Because it's so polarising, it must be slightly suspicious.

Epistemological: Why should we believe in climate change? Where's the evidence? All we know is what scientists say, and scientists are sometimes wrong. And don't even get me started on Al Gore.

Metaphysical: God isn't going to let millions of people die in an epic drought.

Ouch. The author concludes, however, that the most likely path forward is building support for renewable energy, which happily "doesn't have the political or epistemological baggage of climate change." While the Rasmussen poll shows only 58 percent of the populace believing in global warming, 66 percent think that renewable energy is the way to go.

--Paul Rauber

Feb 10, 2011

Hot Flashes

We are moving toward a general psychological theory about belief in global warming, and boy is it depressing. First, if it's unseasonably warm when it ought to be cold, people seem to recognize that global warming is happening but they don't care. Second, if it snows a lot in the winter people start disbelieving in global warming, even if increased snowfall is predicted by climate models. Contrariwise, now comes a study by Jane Risen of the University of Chicago and Clayton Critcher of the University of California at Berkeley demonstrating that, as described by Tom Jacobs in Miller-McCune, "belief in global warming increases along with the temperature one is currently experiencing."

The researchers found that when university students were taken outside (on a pretext of judging the height of various campus buildings) and then asked to fill out a questionnaire,

"ambient temperature significantly predicted the belief in the validity of global warming, with participants reporting greater belief on warmer days. In fact, the effect of temperature was a strong as ideology, and was not qualified by it. Thus, outside temperature influenced liberals and conservatives similarly."

Another study conducted indoors achieved similar results; students who took the questionnaire in a heated cubicle were more likely to view global warming as a fact than those in cooler spaces. As Jacobs notes, this leads to a "tragic irony":

Thanks to our use of greenhouse gas-emitting energy supplies, we now spend our summers in air-conditioned buildings and cars, which makes it harder for us to comprehend, on a visceral level, the reality of a warming world. Without such a sense, dire scenarios seem implausible and easy to dismiss.

--Paul Rauber

Feb 09, 2011

There's Not Enough Oil In Saudi Arabia. . .

With gas prices on the rise (today's national average is $3.11), Big Oil's friends in Congress are once again calling for looser regulations and more offshore drilling. Fred Upton, the chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, cites as his model Ronald Reagan's "free market and limited government approach," and concludes

Two critical first steps would be to remove the obstacles to domestic oil production and put an end to EPA's global warming regulatory overreach.

Upton's "bogus '80s nostalgia" is thoroughly dissected by Andrew Leonard in Salon here. But a cable released by WikiLeaks and discussed in the UK Guardian reveals that not even the Saudis think they have enough oil to keep prices from escalating.

According to the cables, which date between 2007-09, [Sadad al-Husseini, a geologist and former head of exploration at the Saudi oil monopoly Aramco] said Saudi Arabia might reach an output of 12m barrels a day in 10 years but before then – possibly as early as 2012 – global oil production would have hit its highest point. This crunch point is known as "peak oil".

Husseini said that at that point Aramco would not be able to stop the rise of global oil prices because the Saudi energy industry had overstated its recoverable reserves to spur foreign investment.

Uh-oh. This might be a really good time to get Beyond Oil.

Pacific Walrus Swimming in Limbo

Walrus small On Tuesday, The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service determined that the Pacific walrus deserves protection from the effects of climate change, but that other worse-off species will get the agency’s attention for now. In a bit of Noah’s-ark triage, the walrus will be added to the agency’s “warranted but precluded” list, the equivalent of a consolation prize in the endangered-species regime.  According to the Center for Biological Diversity, which petitioned to have the walrus listed as threatened or endangered, some species have been on this close-but-no-cigar list for more than 20 years.

Like the polar bear, which was listed as a threatened species in 2008, the Pacific walrus depends on summer sea ice, which could disappear by 2030. But the walrus’ “greater population numbers and ability to adapt to land-based haulouts make its immediate situation less dire than those facing other species such as the polar bear," according to Geoff Haskett, the service's Alaska region director.

--Reed McManus

Photo Credit: Joel Garlich-Miller/USFWS Alaska

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