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Sierra Daily: July 2012
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13 posts from July 2012

Jul 30, 2012

This Sucks, Which Is a Good Thing

Antarctica cunfek iStock_000019078157XSmallOceans are critical to the climate change dynamic, absorbing about 25 percent of man-made carbon dioxide emissions annually. Now a research team from Britain and Australia have discovered one way that all that carbon gets locked away. In a study published in Nature Geoscience, they report that wind, eddies, and currents in the Southern Ocean work together to create huge carbon-sucking funnels. Some 40 percent of that locked-away carbon is in the Southern Ocean surrounding Antarctica.

Using 10 years of data obtained from deep-sea robotic probes, the researchers found five whirlpool-like funnels some 60 miles in diameter. “We found in the Southern Ocean there are five such funnels," study author Jean-Baptiste Sallee told AFP. "This is a very efficient process to bring carbon from the surface to the interior.” As for how climate change will affect these eddies, Sallee says: “We have no idea." Global warming theoretically could “affect the nature and effect of the Southern Ocean eddies by changing ocean currents, intensifying winds, or creating stark temperature spikes.”

Image by iStock/cunfek

HS_ReedMcManusReed McManus is a senior editor at Sierra. He has worked on 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.”

Jul 27, 2012

High-Speed Solar

Solar mojave iStock_000015227956XSmalThis week the Obama administration released its final blueprint for expediting utility-scale solar energy development in six southwestern states. The plan encompasses 285,000 acres of public land in 17 “solar energy zones” in Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, and Utah. With an additional 19 million acres of land identified as “variance” areas available for solar development (but without the “fast-tracking” allowed in the 17 zones), the administration estimates that it is laying the groundwork for the development of 23,700 megawatts, enough energy to power 7 million homes.

The process has been contentious, as environmental groups supportive of renewable energy development (including the Sierra Club) have worked to protect fragile public lands while opening them to what amounts to industrial devlopment. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar said that his agency addresses such concerns in the final plan, which covers about 40 percent of the land that had been considered for speedy solar energy development. Writes the New York Times: “Officials said they were fencing off more than 78 million acres of public land from solar development because the areas had less solar energy potential, did not have immediate access to transmission lines or posed a threat to important archaeological or cultural sites, endangered species, scarce water resources or other environmental values if developed.”

“This Administration’s design for solar development on public lands is based on sound principles, particularly by focusing projects in locations with the lowest impacts on wildlife habitat, lands and water,” said Barbara Boyle, senior campaign representative at the Sierra Club. “Limiting projects to low impact zones will also reduce the financial and natural resource costs of electrical transmission.”

Image by iStock/trekandshoot

HS_ReedMcManusReed McManus is a senior editor at Sierra. He has worked on 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.”

 

Jul 25, 2012

Keystone XL: Like a Bad Boyfriend

You know how it is: You try to dump your loser boy/girlfriend, and just when you thought they're out of your life for good they show up at the door, all smiles and ready to make up? That's how it is with the Keystone XL pipeline, which TransCanada wants to build across the U.S. to carry the world's dirtiest oil from the hellish tar sands pits of Alberta, Canada, to ports in Texas. You may have thought the story was over when President Obama rejected Keystone's original proposal, or maybe when Congress refused to let the pipeline get attached to unrelated legislation--like the transportation bill.

Didn't work. Now Keystone is back knocking at the door again with another permit application--which the State Department is considering accepting with an environmental review process that doesn't even account for effects on the climate. You can add your voice to the Sierra Club petition to Secretary of State Clinton here--and shut the door on that jerk for good.

 

Special h/t to our friends at Post Carbon Institute for the brilliant video.

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PAUL 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.

Jul 24, 2012

London Fog

London smog iStock_000002440582XSmallVisitors to the upcoming Olympics in London will want to keep tabs on gold, silver, and bronze rankings…and air pollution levels. The website London Air provides up-to-date air quality updates for all Olympic venues in a city that has the highest levels of nitrogen dioxide pollution of any capital city in Europe, levels comparable to Beijing, according to the Clean Air in London campaign.

Unlike Beijing, where government officials shut down factories and banned half of all cars leading up to and during the 2008 Olympics, London is relying largely on voluntary efforts to reduce traffic and associated breathing problems for residents, visitors, and athletes.

According to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology, “the combination of rigorous exercise and London pollution may be a predictor of extra breathing troubles for competitors who have asthma or a related condition called exercise-induced bronchoconstriction (EIB).” EIB affects an estimated 20 percent of top athletes and 1 in 6 Olympic athletes, according to the group.

“Elite athletes in the Olympics have an increased prevalence of EIB,” says William S. Silvers, MD, of the group’s Sports Medicine Committee. “They may not have suspected it, since they don’t have chronic asthma but rather a narrowing of the airways that comes specifically with exercise.” Air pollution can affect athletes’ performance. CNN notes: “Silvers suggests it could mean the difference between first and second place for Olympic athletes with breathing problems. Marathon runners could be particularly affected.” 

A recent study found that Beijing residents benefited from air pollution restrictions during the 2008 games, but only as long as the restrictions were in effect. Clean Air in London reports that London has repeatedly failed to meet European Union clean-air standards. (h/t ThinkProgress

Image by iStock/CaroleGomez

HS_ReedMcManusReed McManus is a senior editor at Sierra.  He has worked on 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.”

Jul 20, 2012

Generation X on Global Warming: Whatever.

Drought iStock_000020877764XSmallAccording to The Generation X Report, based on the Longitudinal Study of American Youth at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research, the demographic group born between 1961 and 1981 is even less concerned about climate issues than they were two years ago. The group is “uninformed about the causes, unconcerned about the potential dangers, and doubt it is happening,” writes Hank Campbell on the blog Science 2.0.

“Even with most of the country mired in a historic drought, a spate of storms that left millions without power in the mid-Atlantic, and seemingly more frequent natural disasters, people have better things to worry about than global warming, according to a new study of Generation X-ers,” writes Jason Koebler of USNews.

“Why the drop? Study author and University of Michigan professor Jon Miller says that climate change is a complex issue that requires a lot of time to fully understand. It also isn't likely to start meaningfully affecting people's lives for many years, when Generation X will have died out.”

To paraphrase 1992’s Teen Talk Barbie, “Science is hard.”

Says Miller: "You don't have to know a lot of biology to know what you think about abortion, and if you lose your job, you're going to be concerned with the economy. Questions like stem cells, climate change, and nuclear power are different. Without some level of scientific understanding, you can't get into them. If each season was progressively a little bit warmer, people might be able to more easily understand climate change, but if it's perturbed, it's hard for people to grasp. I'm not sure common sense alone will ever carry the day on this. The pattern is not likely to be consistent."

The good news? Miller says that the ambivalence is not necessarily a bad thing, as long as politicians take the long view. (Oops.) According to the study, just 10 percent of respondents are "doubtful" or "dismissive" about climate change. Most are simply "disengaged."

Image by iStock/stockerman

HS_ReedMcManusReed McManus is a senior editor at Sierra. He has worked on 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.”

Jul 17, 2012

The Mall at 60

Parking lot iStock_000000270638XSmallVienna-born architect Victor Gruen first wrote about his vision for an enclosed shopping mall in the June, 1952 edition of Progressive Architecture, back when people shopped, you know, downtown. The result 60 years later is the sea of asphalt that practically defines suburbia.

Today malls have lost their luster: “At the mall’s peak popularity in 1990, America opened 19 of them. But we haven’t cut the ribbon on a new one since 2006,” writes Emily Badger in the Atlantic. Now we’re stuck with monoliths more a half-century old and wondering what to do with them. Georgia Tech professor Ellen Dunham-Jones says that about a third of America’s malls are dead or dying. Comic Chris Rock once noted that “every town's got two malls: They got the white mall, and the mall white people used to go to.”

Interestingly, Gruen thought he was saving cities. “He hated suburbia,” writes Badger. “He thought his ideas would revitalize cities. He wanted to bring urban density to the suburbs. And he envisioned shopping malls as our best chance at containing sprawl… He wanted these places to be civic areas as much as commercial ones, with day cares, libraries, post offices, community halls, and public art.” Gruen’s prototype, a mall in Edina, Minnesota that broke ground in 1954, was “supposed to be the centerpiece of a 500-acre master plan to include houses, apartments, office buildings, a medical center, and schools.”

Edina’s Southdale is still kicking, with 120 stores and 4 anchor tenants in 1,300,000 square feet surrounded by parking lots. It’s that asphalt that irritates architecture critic Mark Hinshaw, who came across 1954 standards for commercial development. “For every square foot devoted to human activity within buildings, three additional square feet would be devoted to parking cars,” Hinshaw writes. “In their idealized future — which when you think about it, is now — more than 75 percent of developed land is covered in asphalt. Most predictions of the future have failed. This one, unfortunately, was pretty spot on.”

Image by iStock/P_Wei.

HS_ReedMcManusReed McManus is a senior editor at Sierra. He has worked on 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.”

Jul 16, 2012

What Climate Change Looks Like, Drought Version

DroughtThose aren't just dying lawns in this NASA satellite image: That's the nation's breadbasket. This image (click to enlarge) contrasts the period from June 25 to July 10 with the ten year average; brown indicates plant growth "less vigorous than normal," while green areas are more lush than usual. Last week, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack declared 1,000 counties in 26 states to be disaster areas--the largest such declaration ever.

Farmers are feeling the pain now, but consumers will soon join them. Corn prices are up by 4.9 percent today alone, and prices are also rising for soybeans and wheat. While prices in the grocery store are not expected to rise immediately, they are definitely going up. And the crops that do survive may have a hard time getting to market: The drought is lowering the water level in the Mississippi River, closing many river ports and causing barges to run aground.

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PAUL 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.

 

Jul 12, 2012

Driving on Sunshine

EV iStock_000013844653XSmallWhat do former Reagan Secretary of State George Schultz and former Clinton CIA director James Woolsey have in common? Both are foreign policy hawks, and their thinking has put them front and center in the small-c conservative argument in support of moving away from fossil fuels as a national-security issue. Woolsey co-founded the Set America Free Coalition and the U.S. Energy Security Council. The latter proclaims: “Oil's status as a strategic commodity undermines U.S. national security and weakens the U.S. economy. Reducing oil's strategic importance requires breaking its virtual monopoly over transportation fuel.”

Schultz leads the Shultz-Stephenson Task Force on Energy Policy at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and chairs the advisory boards of Stanford's Precourt Institute for Energy and MIT’s Energy Initiative. In a new Stanford University News interview, Schultz explains his involvement with energy issues, from his days as Secretary of the Treasury when the Arab oil embargo hit in 1973, to the successful campaign to defend California’s ambitious greenhouse-gas-reduction law in 2010, to his current efforts to build support for a carbon tax.

Says Schultz: “What we do today is going to have a big impact on the future. I have three, soon to be four, great-grandchildren. I've got to do what I can to see that they have a decent world. And if we let this go on and on the way it's going right now, they're not going to have one. Getting control of carbon is right at the heart of the problem.”

The two statesmen also walk their talk, and with sound bites. When I interviewed Woolsey in 2009, his plug-in Toyota Prius wore a bumper sticker that proclaimed “Bin Laden Hates This Car.” In his recent interview Schultz quips about his electric Nissan Leaf powered by rooftop solar panels: "I'm driving on sunshine. Take that, Ahmadinejad!"

Image by iStock/KrivosheevV

HS_ReedMcManusReed McManus is a senior editor at Sierra. He has worked on 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.”

Polluting Bryce Canyon to Power Los Angeles

So how does Los Angeles feel about polluting Bryce Canyon National Park in order to power its street lights and air conditioners? We will soon find out, because on August 1, when the Los Angeles City Council returns from its July break, it is expected to debate a resolution opposing the expansion of Alton Coal's stripmine in southern Utah onto public land.

What does that have to do with LA? One quarter of the city's electrical power comes from the Intermountain Power Project in Delta, Utah--the destination of Alton's coal. And as I recently reported in Sierra, the project has a slew of negative environmental and economic effects, not least of which is that the National Park Service fears that an expanded mine would degrade the famously pristine air quality which makes Bryce Canyon one of the nation's premiere destinations for stargazing.

Despite the fact that Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has pledged to make the city coal-free by 2020, the council's decision won't be easy. One majorcomplication is that the city has contracted to buy power from the Intermountain Power Project through 2027. But since it's clear that LA would not renew the contract (California law, in fact, forbids the renewal of coal power contracts), Intermountain may see the writing in the coal dust and switch to natural gas--and a vote against Alton could inspire it to do so sooner rather than later.

My suggestion for the LA City Councilmembers is that they a few minutes to look at the excellent short video on the issue, below, produced in collaboration with Center for American Progress--part of a series called "Public Lands, Private Profits."

 

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PAUL 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.

Jul 10, 2012

Extreme Weather: Get Used To It

Here's what I'd be worried about, were I a climate-change denying politician, the head of a major oil company, or a professional obfuscator at a right-wing think tank: Sooner or later (and likely sooner the way things are going), a deteriorating climate is going to wipe away any shred of doubt that we are in a heap of trouble--and people are not going to be very happy with those who tried to fool them into thinking otherwise. You can see one of the aforementioned--Rex Tillerson, CEO of Exxon Mobil--in the fabulous short video below, blithely telling people that they can learn to adapt to the situation his corporation's greed has helped to bring about. Maybe in coming years we'll have a category of villain analagous to the war criminal--call them "climate criminals." Rex Tillerson will be prominent among them. And he'll have lots of company.

While we wait for the Climate Crimes Tribunals to get underway, take a few moments to watch this riveting film by Peter Sinclair of the invaluable blog, Climate Denial Crock of the Week. It puts the weather disasters so many have been suffering this year into the context that so many spend so many millions trying to get you to ignore. Share it with your friends. And welcome (in the apt phrase of Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson), to the rest of our lives. 

 

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PAUL 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.


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