Sierra Daily: April 2012
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18 posts from April 2012

Apr 12, 2012

The Steep Price of Auto Efficiency

Plug in iStock_000018866857XSmallGiven the state of gas prices, it’s no surprise that sales of hybrid, plug-in hybrid, and electric cars have shot up: They were the fastest-growing U.S. vehicle segment in the first quarter of 2012. Electric-drive vehicle sales jumped 49 percent from a year earlier to more than 117,000 vehicles.

What’s intriguing is that the premium cost of most alternatives to standard internal-combustion-engine-powered vehicles often doesn’t pencil out for many years, according to the New York Times, based on research by the automobile research site TrueCar.com.  That scenario doesn’t change even if gas prices rise to $5 per gallon. The Times found that the owners of Toyota Prius and Lincoln MKZ hybrids and Volkswagen Jetta diesel would begin to see overall savings in less than two years of driving. A Ford Escape Hybrid driver would need more than 11 years to recoup the price premium of $7,000 over the standard Escape, computed at gas prices of $3.85 per gallon. 

But people choose higher-mpg vehicles for reasons other than simply saving at the pump. “Fuel economy has become a social attribute,” Tom Turrentine, a University of California, Davis, anthropologist and director of the university’s Plug-In Hybrid and Electric Vehicle Research Center, told the Times. “People want to have good fuel economy because if they have poor fuel economy they might look stupid.”

Photo by iStock/wakila

Blog photo   HS_ReedMcManus (1)Reed McManus is a senior editor at Sierra. He has worked at the magazine since Ronald Reagan’s second term.  For inspiration, he turns to cartoonist R. Crumb’s Mr. Natural, who famously noted: “Twas Ever Thus.” 

Apr 10, 2012

Showoff Swiss

Swiss cowThe Swiss, apparently, do everything better than we do. Or at least that's what one gathers from today's news.

Item #1: In "The Crisis in American Walking" at Slate, Tom Vanderbilt reports that Americans walk less than citizens of any other industrialized nation. The average Yank, pedometer studies show, takes 5,117 steps per day, compared to 7,168 by the average Japanese and a bracing 9,650 taken by my doughty Swiss relations.

Why do we walk so comparatively little? The first answer is one that applies virtually everywhere in the modern world: As with many forms of physical activity, walking has been engineered out of existence. 

Item #2: In a bit of good news, reports Sarah Kliff at the Washington Post's Wonkblog, America's teen pregnancy rate has hit an all-time low of 34.4 births per 1,000 women aged 15 to 19. However, that rate is still 10 times higher than--you guessed it--Switzerland's. In fact, U.S. teens have higher pregnancy rates than any other industrialized country. Why? Kliff blames income inequality, citing this study by Kearney and Levine:

The researchers found a state’s level of economic inequality to be a significant influence in the birth rates. All other things being equal, “teens in the highest-inequality states are roughly 5 percentage points more likely to give birth as teens in the lowest-inequality states,” Kearney and Levine wrote.

Another factor, cited by Amanda Peterson Beadle in ThinkProgress Health: Teen pregnancies are highest in states with abstinence-only sex education.

Still to be reported upon is the reason for Switzerland's success. Teens too busy walking to have sex, perhaps? Or perhaps they're too busy laughing at the remarkable commercials for Swiss milk. They even do ads better than us!

 Photo by iStock/dcdr

HS_PaulRauberPAUL RAUBER is a senior editor at Sierra. He is the author, with Carl Pope, of the happily outdated Strategic Ignorance: Why the Bush Administration Is Recklessly Destroying a Century of Environmental Progress. Otherwise he is a cyclist, cook, and father of two. Follow him on Twitter @paulrauber.


Apr 09, 2012

Ocean Degradation’s $2 Trillion Price Tag

Valuing the oceanAttaching a numerical value to nature can seem, well, unnatural. But a group of marine experts recently released a report entitled “Valuing the Ocean,” which does just that. And the price tag these experts assign to ocean degradation is a hefty one. By their estimates, damage to the world’s oceans could cost us $2 trillion per year by 2100 if we do not take immediate action.
“Valuing the Ocean,” sponsored by The Stockholm Environmental Institute (SEI), focuses on six threats to our oceans and by extension, our global economy. The report claims that ocean acidification, hypoxic "dead zones," sea-level rise, ocean warming, marine pollution, and overuse of marine resources comprise the "multiple stressors" that are acting in awful synergy to harm the ocean services that hold an essential if unrecognized place in our economic future. If we fail to take these stressors seriously and allow the global temperature to rise by four degrees Celsius, we risk a future of depleted fisheries, disrupted tourism, bleached coral reefs, terrifying floods, and tropical cyclones, all of which bear heavy financial and environmental costs.

Continue reading "Ocean Degradation’s $2 Trillion Price Tag" »

Temperatures Rise, Records Fall

Butterfly iStock_000017690888XSmallTemperatures in the lower 48 states shattered heat records during January, February, and March, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, far exceeding old records. AP notes that the first quarter of 2012 broke the January-March record by 1.4 degrees.  U.S. temperature records, which date back to 1895, are usually broken by one- or two-tenths of a degree, but temperatures in March were 8.6 degrees above normal, and averaged out to 6 degrees above normal for the three-month period.  “This is not good,” Jerry Meehl, a climate scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, told AP. “It’s a guilty pleasure. You’re out enjoying this nice March weather, but you know it’s not a good thing.” 

Readers struggling with the “Is it weather or is it climate?” conundrum -- individual weather events can’t be pinned on global warming -- nevertheless know that with global warming comes more frequent weather extremes. This weekend, the New York Times' Andrew Revkin offered up a must-read story on climatologist James Hansen, who has "updated his analysis of how the buildup of human-generated greenhouse gases is loading the climate ‘dice’ so that hotter extremes are ever more likely. “

In an attempt to find slightly uplifting climate news, research from the University of York in the U.K. finds that some butterflies take to the shadier, cooler parts of their habitat as temperatures rise -- a good thing as temperatures rise in southern Europe. Alas, the researchers discovered that while the majority of butterfly species they studied could adapt to cooler areas, not enough individual butterflies were actually doing so, most likely sticking to areas with food and other habitat resources. 

Photo by iStock/kryczka

Blog photo   HS_ReedMcManus (1)Reed McManus is a senior editor at Sierra. He has worked at the magazine since Ronald Reagan’s second term.  For inspiration, he turns to cartoonist R. Crumb’s Mr. Natural, who famously noted: “Twas Ever Thus.”

Apr 06, 2012

Fox News v. Chevy Volt

Volt X11CH-VT123If you haven’t followed the politics surrounding GM’s high-mpg plug-in hybrid Volt, the quick summary is that Fox News has slammed the vehicle over the past few years as an icon of all that’s wrong with Barack Obama, the federal government’s auto bailout, unions, liberals, the nanny state, the car’s design (coolant leaks caused fires in federal crash tests), and whatever else the right-tilting media outlet happens to want to rail at.

While President Obama has promised to buy a Volt once he leaves office -- “in five years,” he says -- the GM bailout was begun under President George W. Bush and its development began in 2006, under then-GM vice chairman (and global-warming skeptic) Bob Lutz.

Autoblog Green provides a concise summary of the Fox anti-Volt campaign, noting: “This revolutionary, game-changing, fine-driving, extended-range, electrically-driven car, which can travel 25-40 miles fuel-free after charging, then as far as you want it to as a small, fuel efficient engine generates electricity to keep it going, has been remarkably problem-free so far. It is expensive at $40K-plus, but it can be leased for a very reasonable $349 per month. And it sold a record 2,289 units (vs. 579 Nissan Leafs) in March despite that dishonestly overblown fire scare and despite being unfairly trashed almost daily by Fox News and conservative commentators.”

The automotive press has noted that even Fox has started Volt-positive coverage. And it was recently announced that former President George H.W. Bush purchased one of the “extended range” vehicles for his son Neil.

--Reed McManus / Photo by GM

Apr 05, 2012

The REAL Mr. Coal Guy Speaks!

Mrcoalguy-300x175By now you have no doubt seen the Sierra Club's new series of ads taking potshots at the big fat target on the back of the dying coal industry. Their tag line: "Coal will say anything." Now, as if on cue, Mr. Coal Guy emerges from his pit to outdo the guys in the awesome gold jumpsuits with a fancy new ad touting the non-existent virtues of "Clean Coal." Take a look, then read our friend Kate Sheppard's skewering of Big Coal's favorite Magic Pony over at Mother Jones.


They really will say anything!

Apr 04, 2012

You Can “Like” Saving Energy

Utilities-600This week Facebook, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and energy information software maker Opower unveiled a free social networking app that  enables customers of 16 utilities around the country to “easily start benchmarking their home’s energy usage against similar homes, compare energy use with friends, enter energy-saving competitions, and share tips on how to become more energy efficient.” In theory, 20 million current utility customers could be perusing each other’s utility bills. (All voluntarily, of course: The app connects your energy utility to your Facebook account with your permission and posts your monthly energy use.) 

According to NRDC, “improvements in energy efficiency have the potential to deliver more than $700 billion in cost savings in the U.S. alone. Motivating consumers to take action—something that has traditionally been a challenge—is the key to unlocking this potential.”

--Reed McManus / Image from Opower

Apr 02, 2012

Little Fish Need Love, Too

Herring iStock_000002600743XSmallCiting plummeting stocks worldwide, a group of marine scientists is calling for major cuts in the commercial fishing of “forage fish” such as sardines, anchovies, herring, and menhaden. According to “Little Fish, Big Impact,” financed by the Lenfest Foundation, these fish account for 37 percent, by weight, of all fish harvested worldwide. That’s up from about 8 percent half a century ago.

So except for an antipasto or Cesar salad every so often, why aren’t these fish prominent in Americans diets? Well, they are, indirectly. Writes the New York Times: forage fish “are ground and processed for use as animal feed and nutritional supplements and, increasingly, as feed for the aquaculture industry, which now produces about half of all the fish and shellfish that people eat.” They are important links in the marine food chain, preying on plankton and transferring its energy up to larger fish such as tuna and cod, marine mammals, and seabirds. 

The study estimates that forage fish left in the wild are worth some $11 billion, twice what they're worth when processed for aquaculture and other uses. 

--Reed McManus/ Photo by iStock/agreeen

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