Sierra Daily: February 2012
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15 posts from February 2012

Feb 14, 2012

Climate Hero Washed Away in Coup

Island1_1Earlier this week Mohamed Nasheed, the democratically elected president of island-nation of the Madlives, was deposed under murky circumstances. Nasheed was most famous in the West for bringing attention to the very immediate danger climate change poses to his low-lying nation. He personally installed solar panels on his house, lobbied international meetings like 2009's climate talks in Copenhagen, and even held a cabinet meeting underwater in order to dramatize the danger of rising sea level.

There are more dangers in the world, however, than climate change. Here's the NYT on his ouster:

After Mr. Nasheed left office last week in what he says was a coup, the government issued a warrant for his arrest on unspecified criminal charges and invited members of the business elite and representatives of the former dictatorship to join the cabinet, raising fears among many people here that the country’s progress toward democracy may be slipping away.

So too is the country's leadership on climate change. Bill McKibben, when he isn't collecting 700,000 signatures to stop the Keystone XL pipeline, is also circulating a petition through 350.org calling on national leaders around the world to put pressure on the Maldives to achieve a peaceful, democratic resolution to the crisis. You can find the petition here. And for a review by Sierra editorial assistant Jake Abrahamson of The Island President, a new documentary film about Nasheed, see here.

--Paul Rauber

--Image by visitMaldives.com

Feb 08, 2012

"This Much Mercury . . ."


Sound familiar? Sharp-eyed photographer Michael Udelson spotted this unusual public-service message on the marquee of Kahn & Keville, a tire and auto-service shop in San Francisco's gritty Tenderloin district. The reference is to longtime-Sierra contributor Dashka Slater's story about mercury hazards from coal-fired power plants in our November/December 2011 issue. I asked K&K co-owner Bill Brinnon why the issue caught his attention. "It seemed like something people ought to be thinking about," he said. "That phrase seemed irreducible--plus the article backed it up with facts. It was also something we had enough letters for--that's always a consideration."

Brinnon says that, thus far, customer reponse has been entirely positive, although one did express surprise at the tiny amount of mercury involved--a common reaction to Sierra Art Director Tracy Cox's striking graphic (below). It may be easier to get one's head around it if you remember the mechanism of deposition. Mercury doesn't ordinarily get into lakes by means of someone breaking an old-style thermometer and spilling the contents; it gets there when fine particles blown from a coal-fired power plant settle down over the water. Whichever way you look at it, it doesn't take much.

--Paul Rauber

--Photo by Michael Udelson

Feb 07, 2012

What's Worse Than a Climate Denier?

Nocera_New-articleInline-v2Unlike the ravers on the editorial pages of The Wall Street Journal or The Washington Post, the op-ed stable at The New York Times is intellectually honest enough to refrain from climate-change denial. The more subtle approach, however, is arguably even worse: i.e., ignoring the subject altogether.

That's the tack taken today by regular op-ed columnist Joe Nocera in The Poisoned Politics of Keystone XL. In Nocera's view, the source of that "poison" is--guess who?--environmentalists!

I realize that President Obama rejected Keystone because, politically, he had no choice.  My guess is that, in his centrist heart of hearts, the president wanted to approve it.  But to give the go-ahead before the election was to risk losing the support of the environmentalists who make up an important part of his base. 

Why environmentalists are so adamant about Keystone, Nocera never quite mentions. The project, he assures us, "is hardly the environmental disaster many suppose." He quotes Sierra Club executive director Michael Brune--"The effort to stop Keystone is part of a broader effort to stop the expansion of the tar sands. It is based on choking off the ability to find markets for tar sands oil.”--but again dimisses him without argument: "This is a ludicrous goal.  If it were to succeed, it would be deeply damaging to the national interest of both Canada and the United States."

Nocera's argument that can only be made by completely ignoring the scientific consensus that global climate change is a fast approaching catastrophe, which the development of dirty oil substitues like Canada's tar sands will only exacerbate. Ignoring climate change is no more intellectually responsible than denying it.

--Paul Rauber

--Image Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times


Feb 06, 2012

Photosynthesis Works for Plants, And Solar Panels

Pisy_001_svp"Within a few years, people in remote villages in the developing world may be able to make their own solar panels, at low cost, using otherwise worthless agricultural waste as their raw material,” writes the MIT News Office. By stabilizing the plant molecules that carry out photosynthesis and enabling them to form a layer on a glass substrate, researchers such as Andreas Mershin of the university’s Center for Bits and Atoms envision organic solar cells.

The process is in its infancy -- early examples were so weak they had to be blasted with lasers to produce current -- but Mershin says researchers have simplified the process to the point where it can be replicated in almost any lab. (His breakthrough? Imagining solar chips like densely packed pines, which are particularly good at maximizing surface area exposed to sunlight. ) “The new system’s efficiency is 10,000 times greater than in the previous version -- although in converting just 0.1 percent of sunlight’s energy to electricity, it still needs to improve another tenfold or so to become useful,” Mershin says. But the potential is vast. One day, even your lowly grass clippings could be fuel for your rooftop solar panel.

-- Reed McManus 

Image: USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database, USDA-NRCS ND State Soil Conservation Committee


Feb 01, 2012

Praise the Lord and Pass the Butter

LobstersAt first glance, the little six-line story in the New York Times, "Maine: A Record Haul of Lobster Last Year," would appear to be unalloyed good news. The Maine lobster fleet last year harvested 100 million pounds of the tasty crustacean, an all-time record. Even more good news seems to come in the last line: "The lobster population has benefited from conservation measures . . ." [yay team!] ". . . warmer waters off Maine . . ." [uh oh] ". . . and a decline in predators like codfish [more uh oh]." Those same warming waters that favor lobsters, it turns out, may be a new threat to already troubled Atlantic salmon stocks. And the disastrous decline of North Atlantic cod stocks is a heavy price to pay for the occasional lobster roll. We can only hope that conservation measures can do for the cod what they seem to have done for the lobster.

--Paul Rauber

Image by iStock 

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