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Sierra Daily: October 2012
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19 posts from October 2012

Oct 15, 2012

Climate Change Will Break Your Heart

Farmer hugging dairy cowThere was a heartbreaking story in yesterday's San Francisco Chronicle about climate change. That was the real subject; on its face, however, it was about the expected loss, by year's end, of 100 California dairies.

The nation's drought and high corn prices are devastating California's $8 billion dairy industry to the point where farmers can't afford to feed their cows - and their professional trade organization has been regularly referring despondent dairymen to suicide hotlines.

 "This is what climate change looks like," author Rebecca Solnit told her legions of Facebook followers: "suicidal farmers in places far from the initial disaster."

Sadly, the effects of drought are not limited to California or even the United States. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, doughts in the U.S., Ukraine, and elsewhere have resulted in world grain reserves that are dangerously low:

“We’ve not been producing as much as we are consuming. That is why stocks are being run down. Supplies are now very tight across the world and reserves are at a very low level, leaving no room for unexpected events next year,” said Abdolreza Abbassian, a senior economist with the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). With food consumption exceeding the amount grown for six of the past 11 years, countries have run down reserves from an average of 107 days of consumption 10 years ago to under 74 days recently. 

Time to call the climate-change hotline.

Photo by egeeksen/iPhoto

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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 He is the author, with Carl Pope, of the happily outdated Strategic Ignorance: Why the Bush Administration Is Recklessly Destroying a Century of Environmental Progress.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. 

Snuffing Out a New Industry

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The wind doesn't distinguish between red states and blue, but that hasn't stopped wind power from becoming a political flashpoint. At issue is the renewable-energy production tax credit, a subsidy President George H.W. Bush signed into law in 1992. At a cost of about $1.6 billion annually, it has helped make the U.S. wind industry second only to China's as the world's largest. This summer the installed capacity of U.S. wind turbines hit 50 gigawatts–as much as can be generated by 44 coal-fired power plants, or 11 nuclear-powered ones.

Wind might account for an even bigger part of the U.S. power supply today had this tax credit not been allowed to lapse three times in the past two decades. Each time it did, the number of new installations cratered. It takes roughly 18 months to develop a new wind field, and without the certainty of subsidies, investment dries up. (The far greater subsidies for oil–$2.7 billion to $4 billion a year–have never been allowed to lapse.) The American Wind Energy Association, an industry group, says that if the wind tax credit is not renewed at the end of the year, 37,000 American jobs could be lost.

As of this writing, Republican opposition in Congress has blocked reauthorization. That opposition, however, is far from unanimous. GOP politicians in major wind-producing states like Iowa, where the industry employs up to 7,000 people and supplies 20 percent of the state's power, are pressing hard for an extension. Republican representative Tom Latham, for instance, said opponents "lack [a] full understanding of how important the wind energy tax credit is for Iowa and our nation."

In August the Senate Finance Committee, on which pro-wind Iowa senator Charles Grassley (R) sits, passed a one-year extension of the credit, with the full Senate expected to follow suit. That leaves it to the GOP-controlled House, where Representative Mac Thornberry (R-Texas–the nation's leading wind-power state) is supporting a 10-year extension.

For many workers, it's already too late: 167 have been laid off from DMI Industries in Oklahoma; 94 from LM Wind Power in Arkansas; and 165 from Gamesa in Pennsylvania. Wind-turbine manufacturer Vestas is preparing to lay off 1,600 in Colorado. When the 112th Congress promised to focus on jobs, few realized that would mean getting rid of them.

Photo by Stephen Mally: Workers inspect turbine blades at TPI Composites in Newton, Iowa.

HS_PaulRauberFINAL (1)

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. 

 

 

Oct 12, 2012

More Important Than Big Bird

UntitledMore important than the San Francisco Giants. More important than Gangnam Style. More important than the new iPhone. More important than Joe Biden's teeth. You get the idea. What is it? It's the list of "year-to-date temperature anomalies" just released by the National Climatic Data Center, for the period January through September 2012. The interactive listing is far too lengthy to post here; to get the full effect you need to visit the NCDC site. A terrifying added feature is added when you click through on a particular locale's ranking and get a new chart showing its 2012 temperatures in relation to its previous records, including the 5 previous coldest (blue lines) and 5 previous warmest (red lines). To pick a city at random, Buffalo, New York's records go back to 1939, so its "Haywood plot" looks like this:

Buffalo
The heavy line is 2012. Buffalo was 4.4 degrees warmer from January to September than the 1981 to 2010 average. It's not just Buffalo, though. Just scroll through the list.

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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. 

Think Globally, Map Locally

Hestia.video.still.adjNow you can watch your city spew CO2 in 3D! Researchers at Arizona State University recently unveiled The Hestia Project, a modeling program that visualizes an urban area’s carbon dioxide emissions all the way down to roads and individual buildings. (Until now, planners and lawmakers have had to work with much broader data.) Aggregating information from public databases, traffic simulations, and building-by-building energy-consumption models, Hestia (named after the Greek goddess of hearth and home) has created dramatic high-resolution visual representations of Indianapolis, Indiana, with Phoenix and Los Angeles next in line. The researchers hope to cover all major urban areas in the U.S. eventually. According to the American Geosciences Institute, seventy-five percent of global carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel use comes from cities.

As reported by Discovery News, “multi-colored columns resembling skyscrapers reveal where, when, and how greenhouse gases were emitted. The map breaks them down into three segments, one for residential areas, another for vehicles, and a third showing industrial, commercial, electricity production, and airports.” Those red columns towering over Indianapolis are hard to miss. The tallest pinpoint the city's international airport and a coal-burning power plant.

Image by the Hestia Project.

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.”

Oct 11, 2012

Kids, or Coal? Maryland Tries to Decide

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In case your subscription has lapsed, Power magazine ("Business and Technology for the Global Generation Industry") has named the C. P. Crane coal-fired power plant in Middle River, Maryland, as one of its "2012 POWER Top Plants." It also won the coveted "Plant of the Year" award from the Powder River Basin Coal Users' Group--presumably because Constellation Energy just spent $70 million retooling it to burn highly combustible subbituminous coal from Wyoming's Powder River Basin. Constellation's parent company, Exelon, is now seeking to sell the plant and two others to Riverstone Holdings LLC, but the deal can't go through unless the Maryland's Department of the Environment (MDE) agrees to transfer their pollution permits.

The problem is that, despite its awards from the coal industry, Charles P. Crane could emit sulfur dioxide pollution resulting in levels more than four times what the EPA has deemed safe. The Sierra Club has released a report showing how pollution from the Crane, along with the nearby Herbert A. Wagner plant, can affect the more than 35,000 kids suffering from asthma in Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties. The graphic above shows the schools, health facilities, and parks within the plant's toxic plume.

The Sierra Club is calling on the MDE to refuse to transfer the plant's right to pollute in excess of EPA standards or--better yet--for Riverstone Holdings to retire the Crane and Wagner plants. More on the Maryland Beyond Coal campaign here.

*This post has been corrected. The modeling done for the Sierra Club report measures SO2 concentrations in the air, not emissions from the Crane plant.

HS_PaulRauberFINAL (1)

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. 

 

 

Oct 09, 2012

Good News For Species? Really?

Colombia park iStock_000010219959XSmall traveler 1116If you’re one of those planet-loving people who sighs with despair whenever you hear yet another story about a species in danger, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature feels your pain. The IUCN, which has published its respected Red List of Threatened Species since 1963, recently announced that it will add some good news to its cataloging efforts: a Green List of Well-Managed Protected Areas and a Green List of Species.

"The concept of a green list is that it can throw a spotlight on things that are actually working," Trevor Sandwith, director of IUCN's Global Protected Areas program, told OurAmazingPlanet. “We already have well-managed, protected areas in the world, which no one is recognizing." Sandwith notes that good practices can be implemented anywhere, not just in the First World. One of the program’s first test cases is Colombia’s Parques Nacionales Naturales. “It’s motivating to show where success is occurring, and to show why and how it’s occurring,” says Sandwith. “If someone gets it right, then that’s the model to copy.” The Protected Areas list will be unveiled in 2014, while the Green List of Species is still in the concept stage.

It’s good to fortify ourselves with good news, because our work is cut out for us. Of the 63,837 species the IUCN’s Red List has assessed, 19,817 species are at risk of extinction, including 41 percent of amphibians, 33 percent of reef-building corals, 25 percent of mammals, and 13 percent of birds. While habitat loss is the biggest global threat to species, climate change adds to the danger. And a recent study suggests that current climate models underestimate potential plant and animal extinctions.

For more information on climate and critters, check out the Sierra Club’s Resilient Habitats campaign and the World Wildlife Fund.

Image of Colombia’s Tayrona National Natural Park by iStock/traveler1116.

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.”

Oct 05, 2012

Melts In Your Mouth?

Honeybee  iStock_000014112575XSmall ajma_plScientists struggle to determine the role pesticides play in Colony Collapse Disorder, which has caused bee populations around the world to drop rapidly in recent years. If only the process was as easy as checking the color of honeybees’ honey.

In the Alsace region of France, bees “have been producing honey in mysterious shades of blue and green, alarming their keepers who now believe residue from containers of M&M’s candy processed at a nearby biogas plant is the cause.” When beekeepers around the town of Ribeauville investigated, they discovered that a biogas plant 2.5 miles away has been processing waste from a Mars candy plant, and that “instead of mining local wildflowers for nectar, bees have been sucking up colorful sugar at the plant.” The tainted honey is a problem “for about a dozen affected beekeepers already dealing with high bee mortality rates and dwindling honey supplies following a harsh winter,” according to Andre Frieh, president of the apiculturists’ union. “For me, it’s not honey,” Frieh told Reuters. “It’s not sellable.”

Agrivalor, the company operating the biogas plant, said it has “cleaned its containers and incoming waste would now be stored in a covered hall.” Alsace is home to some 2,400 beekeepers who tend 35,000 colonies that produce about 1,000 tons of honey annually. 

Image by iStock/ajma_pl.

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.”

Verification in Reverse

September_unemployment-payrollsAs you may have heard, the new jobs numbers out this morning showing unemployment falling below 8% for the first time since January, 2009, have spawned a bizarre "Job Truther" movement. Suddenly, the eminently estimable Bureau of Labor Statistics is suspected of cooking its numbers. Former GE CEO Jack Welch led the charge on Twitter, followed by Fox News and even Senator John McCain.

"Frankly I am not enough of an economist to question exactly what those numbers," McCain said Friday on CNBC. "I wouldn't put anything past this administration."

If this all sounds oddly familiar, it's because it's the same conspiratorial, anti-empiricist approach taken by climate-change deniers to try to cast doubt on the incredibly extensively documented warming of our planet. NYU journalism professor and media critic Jay Rosen did the world a service last year by putting a label on what's going on here; he calls it "verification in reverse."

Verification, which is crucial to journalism, means nailing down assertions with verifiable facts. Verification in reverse is taking established facts and manufacturing doubt about them, which creates political friction, and the friction then becomes an energy source you can tap for campaigning. It’s a political technique.  

And friction, of course, is what powers political journalism. Instead of a rapidly heating planet or a better economic picture, the story becomes the dispute.

Update: McCain's spokesperson says the senator was "not questioning the BLS numbers in any way."

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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. 

Oct 04, 2012

Pre-Industrial Polluters

Roman empire iStock_000018202691XSmall andrearoadA study published today in the journal Nature concludes that a 200-year period 2,000 years ago that included the heyday of the Roman Empire and Han Dynasty experienced a spike in greenhouse gases. The culprit was methane, released as forests were denuded for cropland and charcoal was burned for cooking and to smelt metals. Methane has 20 times the warming power of carbon dioxide. The study, based on ice core samples from Greenland, isolated naturally released methane -- such as from decomposition and forest fires -- from that of non-eco-savvy humans. 

While climate change skeptics might look at the information and add it to their long list of reasons to shrug off concern for climate change, during the Roman era the world’s population was a mere 300 million, and emissions then “were discernible but tiny compared with current levels caused by a population of 7 billion.” What’s most significant is that “the findings suggest that man’s footprint on the climate is larger than previously realized. Until now, it was assumed by scientists that human activity began increasing greenhouse gas levels only after the year 1750.”

“Between 100 BC and AD 1600,” the study's authors write, “human activity may have been responsible for roughly 20-30 percent of the total pyrogenic methane emissions.”

Image by iStock/andrearoad.

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.”


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