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Sierra Daily: March 2012
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19 posts from March 2012

Mar 30, 2012

GM's U-Turn on Heartland

2011-Chevrolet-Volt-052This week General Motors announced that its General Motors Foundation would stop funding the Heartland Institute, a free-market think tank that has made itself famous denying the science behind global warming. The news was reported by Greg Dalton of Climate One, the Commonwealth Club of California’s sustainability project.  A campaign by Forecast the Facts, an advocacy group that works to get TV meteorologists to report on climate change, had garnered 20,000 signatures, half of them from GM vehicle owners, protesting the automaker’s donations. 

Earlier this month, Dalton interviewed GM Chairman and CEO Dan Akerson about his position on global warming and why GM supported Heartland. Akerson surprised the audience with his response: “The first time I was interviewed by the press, I was stunned with the following reaction. Some guy says, 'Do you believe in global warming?' And I said, 'Well, yeah, I do.' Several GM executives said, 'You don’t say that in public!’ Well this may surprise you, my underwear doesn’t have GM stamped on it and I am an individual and I do have my own convictions.” 

--Reed McManus / Photo of Chevy Volt by GM

Mar 29, 2012

Polling Economy and Environment

Gallup 1 ebig9rbniksbutp8ynleoaAccording to a new Gallup poll, Americans prioritize economic growth over environmental protection 49 percent to 41 percent. That eight-point deficit might be expected give the shaky condition of the economy, but the results are far better than the 18 point spread in last year’s polling. Then, only 36 percent of Americans put environmental protection ahead of economic growth.

For nearly three decades, when asked whether economic growth or environmental protection should be “given priority” -- even if it caused the other category to suffer -- environmental protection has come out on top. In 1991, 71 percent of Americans thought environmental protection should take precedence over economic growth. Gallup notes that “even as the recession and financial crisis were getting underway in early 2008, more Americans favored the environment than economic growth, by a seven-point margin. This trend changed as the recession deepened in 2009, with economic growth taking priority over the environment and continuing to do so through this year.” A blip in favor of the environment occurred after the Gulf of Mexico oil spill in 2010.

 -- Reed McManus / Graph: Gallup

Mar 28, 2012

Going to Extremes

Gwarming iStock_000011096937XSmallAmid news of irreversible climate tipping points, today the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a nearly-600-page report on managing the risks of extreme weather events. “Global warming is leading to such severe storms, droughts and heat waves that nations should prepare for an unprecedented onslaught of deadly and costly weather disasters,” summarizes AP.

According to Reuters, “the report sidestepped the politically divisive issue of tougher action on curbing greenhouse gas emissions blamed for stoking global warming.” That’s because governments wanted to know what could be done in the next few decades. "That's a time frame where most of the climate change that will occur is already baked into the system and where even aggressive climate policies in the short term are not going to have their full effects,” said lead editor Chris Field, director of the Carnegie Institution's department of global ecology.

For a helpful (albeit depressing) video summary of climate-change inaction over the past 3 decades, check out “What We Knew in ’82,” based on a 1982 talk given by climate scientist Michael McCracken, now Chief Scientist for Climate Change Programs at the Climate Institute in Washington. D.C.

--Reed McManus / Photo by iStock/acilo

Mar 23, 2012

Unclean Waters

Water pollution iStock_000007514645XSmallAccording to a new report by Environment America, 226 million pounds of toxic chemicals were discharged into 1,400 waterways across the country in 2010. Just five states—Indiana, Virginia, Nebraska, Texas, and Georgia—account for forty percent of the total amount of toxic discharges in that year, the latest for which data is available from the EPA’s Toxics Release Inventory. The single largest polluter was Ohio’s AK Steel, which dumped nearly 30 million pounds of pollutants into waterways in 2010, and the Ohio River ranked first among the nation's waterways for the most toxic discharges, with 31.1 million pounds.

Go here for information on efforts to strengthen the Clean Water Act.

Reed McManus / Photo by iStock/Phototreat

 

Mar 21, 2012

Drilling Down

Offshore oil platform iStock_000000807449XSmallWith rising gasoline prices front and center in presidential candidates’ stump speeches, Associated Press decided to look at the numbers. AP analyzed 36 years of monthly, inflation-adjusted gasoline prices and U.S. domestic oil production and found no statistical correlation between U.S. oil production and what consumers pay at the pump. “More oil production in the United States does not mean consistently lower prices at the pump,” concludes the analysis, based on Energy Department figures for regular unleaded gas prices adjusted for inflation to 2012 dollars. “Sometimes prices increase as American drilling ramps up. That's what has happened in the past three years. Since February 2009, U.S. oil production has increased 15 percent when seasonally adjusted. Prices in those three years went from $2.07 per gallon to $3.58. It was a case of drilling more and paying much more.”

That’s because oil is a global commodity and U.S. production has only a small influence on supply. “Unlike natural gas or electricity, the United States alone does not have the power to change the supply-and-demand equation in the world oil market, said Christopher Knittel, a professor of energy economics at MIT. American oil production is about 11 percent of the world's output, so even if the U.S. were to increase its oil production by 50 percent - that is more than drilling in the Arctic, increased public-lands and offshore drilling, and the Canadian pipeline would provide - it would at most cut gas prices by 10 percent."

U.S. crude oil production, currently about 5.6 million barrels a day, is at its highest level since 2003. Citi analysts expect U.S. oil and gas production to pass Saudi Arabia and Russia by the end of 2013.

--Reed McManus / photo by iStockphoto/FauxCaster

Mar 19, 2012

Rising Sea Levels and Expanding Bellies

IStock_000018115156XSmallAfter studying the development of obesity over 22 years, Danish researchers have concluded that CO2 may be making people fat. Both fat and thin people taking part in long-term MONICA  (“Monitoring of Trends and Determinants in Cardiovascular Disease) studies added weight in amounts equivalent to the increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. 

What may be happening, according to Lars-Georg Hersoug, now a post-doc at the Research Centre for Prevention and Health at Glostrup University Hospital, is that orexins, a hormone in the brain that stimulates wakefulness and energy expenditure, may be affected by CO2.

Further studies are in under way, but the theory is apparently no excuse to stop exercising, however:  “If you’re out running, you get your blood circulating and you can pump much of the CO2 out of your body, so our hypothesis is really further evidence that exercise is healthy,” Hersoug says.

--Reed McManus / Photo by iStock/imagedepotpro

Mar 16, 2012

Florida: Still Here, For Now

Key west  iStock_000006128585XSmallDon’t tell former GM vice president Bob Lutz, but his Key West property really is at risk. The legendary climate-change denier was a panelist on Bill Maher’s Real Time earlier this month, and with lying-eyes authority declared “The Florida Keys are supposed to have disappeared by now. I have a house there!”

Lutz was referring to a statement by that other former vice president, Al Gore, in his 2006 documentary An Inconvenient Truth, in which Gore shows a computer-animated map of an inundated South Florida and states: “If Greenland broke up and melted, or if half of Greenland and half of West Antarctica broke up and melted, this is what would happen to the sea level in Florida,” Gore said. 

Five years later Florida is still with us, but a recent study in the journal Nature Climate Change says that the “complete melt of the Greenland ice sheet could occur at lower global temperatures than previously thought.” And the nonprofit organization Climate Central recently unveiled a searchable, interactive online map underscoring its conclusion that “sea level rise due to global warming has already doubled the annual risk of coastal flooding of historic proportions across widespread areas of the United States.” 

--Reed McManus / Photo by iStock/marcellus2070

Mar 14, 2012

No Stomach For a Fuel-Tax Hike

Fuel pump iStock_000016318913XSmall“Somehow we have to figure out how to boost the price of gasoline to the levels in Europe.” -- Steven Chu, then-director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, in September 2008, to the Wall Street Journal.

"I no longer share that view. Of course we don't want the price of gasoline to go up. We want it to go down." -- Steven Chu on Tuesday, testifying before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

(For the record, the 2008 Journal article, published in December 2008 after Chu was nominated to be Secretary of Energy, noted that then-President-elect Obama believed “that a heightened gas tax would be a ‘mistake’ because it would put ‘additional burdens on American families right now.'")

Supporting any sort of a tax hike in an election year is touching the proverbial third rail, but plenty of tax and energy experts believe that increasing taxes on fossil fuels is one of the quickest and most efficient ways to reduce America’s reliance on foreign oil, encourage the development of alternative energy, and address climate change. Howard Gleckman, a resident fellow at the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center, offers a concise who’s-who of one-time fuel-tax proponents: As a GOP presidential candidate, John McCain supported cap and trade, effectively a tax on carbon-based fuels. Gleckman points out: “Newt Gingrich used to support cap-and-trade. So did both presidents Bush. As governor of Massachusetts, Mitt Romney initially backed the idea though he eventually abandoned it.” (N. Gregory Mankiw, a professor of economics at Harvard who advised President George W. Bush and is now an adviser to Romney, recently wrote about the benefits of boosting the current 18.4 cent per gallon federal gas tax to $2: “Economists who have added up all the externalities associated with driving conclude that a tax exceeding $2 a gallon makes sense. That would provide substantial revenue that could be used to reduce other taxes. By taxing bad things more, we could tax good things less.)

The most cost-effective way to reduce pollution is by taxing it,” Ted Gayer, Co-Director of Economic Studies at the Brookings Institution said at a recent symposium called “Reforming the U.S. Tax System” hosted by the Princeton University Griswold Center for Economic Policy Studies. “Taxes are also more effective than subsidies, because they send a signal to consumers to conserve energy and they send a signal to producers to innovate and develop low-cost and cleaner alternatives.”

But it is an election year. Gleckman continues: “Interestingly, carbon taxes enjoy the support of nearly all mainstream economists, regardless of ideology. But most Americans, who seemingly love their cars more than their spouses, are unconvinced. For them, fuel, like healthcare, ought to be plentiful and cheap.”

Your fossil-fuel fact of the day, courtesy of Forbes, which looked at the history of increases in the federal gas tax (first imposed in 1932 and unchanged since 1993):  “History tends to show gas taxes don’t seem to have that much impact on the overall economy. The hikes have occurred under both Republican and Democratic administrations: the most prominent increases, in fact, occurred under Republicans Hoover, Reagan and Eisenhower.”

--Reed McManus / photo by iStockphoto/aydinmutlu

Any Way the Wind Blows

2011 was a big year for renewable energy. The solar industry saw the installation of 1,855 megawatts of solar voltaic capacity, more than double 2010's figures. Wind power increased by nearly a third. If Congress can be persuaded to renew the crucial Production Tax Creditthat supports the wind industry, wind is poised to grow even larger in the near future. (Failure to extend the PTC will lead to large numbers of layoff at wind plants, including 1,600 at the Vestas wind-turbine production plant in Arkansas.)

Along with growing numbers, turbines are becoming increasingly sophisticated, incorporating, for example, rotor-pitch control, which can ramp output up or down as needed by the electric grid. Planning for the momentary vagaries of the wind are crucial to the industry, but as that motion is largely invisible, it's difficult to visualize. Unless, that is, you create a sculpture of 612 freely-rotating directional arrows and put them on the wall of the Randall Museum in San Francisco, California. Then it looks like this:

 

Windswept from Charles Sowers on Vimeo.

 --Paul Rauber

Mar 13, 2012

Frivolous Solutions to Climate Change

ChromosomesThere is a deeply silly story at the Atlantic's web site by Ross Andersen on "How Engineering the Human Body Could Combat Climate Change." It discusses a forthcoming paper by S. Matthew Liao, a professor of philosophy and bioethics at NYU, in Ethics, Policy & Environment that proposes a novel approach to dealing with climate change: biomedical modifications to humans to help them consume less.

For instance, many people wish to give up meat for ecological reasons, but lack the willpower to do so on their own. The paper suggests that such individuals could take a pill that would trigger mild nausea upon the ingestion of meat, which would then lead to a lasting aversion to meat-eating. Other techniques are bound to be more controversial. For instance, the paper suggests that parents could make use of genetic engineering or hormone therapy in order to birth smaller, less resource-intensive children. 

Mightn't it be ethically problematic to do that to your kids? asks Andersen. Liao makes a "greater good" argument:

The reason we are even considering these solutions is to prevent climate change, which is a really serious problem, and which might affect the well being of millions of people including the child. And so in that context, if on balance human engineering is going to promote the well being of that particular child, then you might be able to justify the solution to the child. 

Curiously, Liao suggests tinkering with the human genome in part because geoengineering, last year's hot techno fix to climate change, is "just too risky." But hormone treatments to encourage smaller children or drugs to reduce or increase the expression of certain genes--what could go wrong with that?

Here's my bioethics question: What are the ethical implications of pretending to address climate change with bizarre and impractical technological fixes instead of addressing the real problems--dependence on coal for electrical power and oil for transportation? Again I have the opportunity to quote the English philosopher J.L. Austin: "There are easier ways to kill a cat than drowning it in butter." It may be amusing to concoct Rube Goldberg-like contrivances for cooling the planet, but in the end it's a matter of cultural change (like the country's 12% decline in meat consumption since 2007) and political will.

--Paul Rauber / Image of chromosomes by iStock/BlackJack3D


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