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Sierra Daily: December 2012
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14 posts from December 2012

Dec 21, 2012

Big Red Bicycle Christmas

Big red bicycleIt's easy to get caught up in the wonkery of fighting climate change: cap and trade and feed-in tariffs and vehicle miles travelled. It's important stuff, and our bread and butter here at Sierra Daily, but we admit: It's not a whole lot of fun. On the other hand, what is a whole lot of fun--and is protecting our beautiful planet at the same time--is riding your bike. Preferably that big red shiny bicycle you found beneath the Xmas tree. (Sorry, the Sierra Club's limited edition Public Bike comes only in green.)

Sierra's offices will be closed next week while we all go out and focus on the the second part of the Club's motto: "Explore, Enjoy, and Protect the Planet." Meanwhile, here's a holiday treat: Nora and One Left's ode to the joy of riding your bike. Happy holidays from all of us at Sierra.

 

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 He is the author, with Carl Pope, of the happily outdated Strategic Ignorance: Why the Bush Administration Is Recklessly Destroying a Century of Environmental Progress.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

Dec 20, 2012

How Much Of A Threat Are Those Big Bad Wolves?

When the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service removed wolves in Wyoming from the endangered species list last August, the state promptly put them on the hunting list. In Idaho, hunters have the option to kill wolves year-round. And when hunters in Montana failed to kill enough wolves in 2011, state wildlife commissioners allowed wolf trapping as well. These efforts are motivated, in large part, by the belief among ranchers that wild wolves are a major threat to livestock. But looking at 2010 data, the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that wolves accounted for just 0.2 percent of "unintended [i.e., pre-slaughterhouse] cattle losses"--fewer than are lost to theft, domestic dogs, or vultures.

GR_graphic

Illustration by Peter and Maria Hoey

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 He is the author, with Carl Pope, of the happily outdated Strategic Ignorance: Why the Bush Administration Is Recklessly Destroying a Century of Environmental Progress.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

Dec 19, 2012

Coaled Comfort

Coal trainBetween 2011 and 2017, U.S. coal consumption will fall by 14 percent. The Sierra Club is making strides in its effort to effectively retire a third of the nation's aging coal fleet by 2020. Despite an absence of federal climate legislation, the U.S. will likely meet its 2009 pledge to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 17 percent by 2020.

So what’s not to like? Well, for starters, the U.S. is an anomaly. According to a new report from the International Energy Agency, surging coal demand in China and India particularly will bring coal within reach of surpassing oil as the world’s top energy source by 2017. “The IEA expects that coal demand will increase in every region of the world except in the United States, where coal is being pushed out by natural gas,” says IEA Executive Director Maria van der Hoeven. “The world will burn around 1.2 billion more tons of coal per year by 2017 compared to today –- equivalent to the current coal consumption of Russia and the United States combined. Coal’s share of the global energy mix continues to grow each year, and if no changes are made to current policies, coal will catch oil within a decade.”

Van der Hoeven notes that once-ballyhooed carbon capture and sequestration technologies cannot be expected to come to the rescue. “CCS technologies are not taking off as once expected, which means CO2 emissions will keep growing substantially. Without progress in CCS, and if other countries cannot replicate the US experience and reduce coal demand, coal faces the risk of a potential climate policy backlash.” 

Image by iStock/BeyondImages

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.”

I Can Haz Fishburgerz?

GR_critterIn an era that's produced the Internet Cat Video Film Festival and a reality show about people who write captions for cat photos, one feline has remained elusive: Prionailurus viverrinus, or the fishing cat. About twice the size of your average Fluffy, it lives in pockets of wetlands in Thailand, Cambodia, India, and other countries in South Asia. It stands in the shallows and snares freshwater fillets with its paws or dives right in and hooks a fish with its teeth. The fishing cat also dines on frogs' legs, escargot, and fowl—and after eating, it cleans its face every bit as cutely as does Felis catus.

But its native marshlands and mangrove swamps are being cleared for housing, agriculture, and aquaculture. Deprived of their fishing holes, some cats head into nearby villages to hunt livestock and end up getting killed by farmers. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature, which classified the fishing cat as endangered in 2008, notes that the feline seems to have disappeared completely from several of its former perches.

In Thailand, however, biologist Passanan Cutter of the Fishing Cat Research and Conservation Project has found a handful of breeding cats near Sam Roi Yot National Park, where this rare photo of one in the wild was taken with a camera trap. Cutter and other cat fans are hoping for a robust kitten season. You can keep track of the latest sightings at fishing-cat.wild-cat.org. --M.P. Klier

Photo by Morgan Heim/TandemStock

 

Dec 18, 2012

Coal for Your Christmas Stocking

MT_CoalHere's what happens when plutocrat-funded anti-renewable energy fossil-fuel boosters get cocky and attempt humor. This is one of several "Merry Taxmas" e-cards available from Americans for Prosperity, the Tea Party group founded and partially funded by the oil billionaire Koch brothers. One of AFP's latest efforts is campaigning against extension of the wind production tax credit, the federal subsidy to wind energy production that expires at the end of this year. (It zealously defends, however, the far larger subsidies that have gone for decades to the oil and gas industries.) The e-card below perfectly captures wind opponents' position: We at the Sierra Club couldn't have put it better ourselves. Merrytaxmas1And here's what's at stake for wind, from an update I wrote for the current issue of Sierra.

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.

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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.

 

Dec 17, 2012

Climate, Weather, or End of Days?

End timesWhile six in 10 Americans believe severe weather events like Superstorm Sandy are caused by climate change, four in 10 believe the natural disasters are evidence that the world is coming to an end. That’s the finding of a recent poll by the Public Religion Research Institute in partnership with the Religion News Service.

Here’s the breakdown, according to Reuters: “Most Catholics (60 percent) and white non-evangelical Protestants (65 percent) say they believe disasters like hurricanes and floods are the result of climate change. But nearly two-thirds (65 percent) of white evangelical Protestants say they think the storms are evidence of the ‘end times’ as predicted by the Bible. Overall, 36 percent point to end times and 63 percent to climate change.”

It turns out that politics, like religion, can’t keep itself out of weather. According to the survey, “more than three-quarters of Democrats and six in 10 independents believe that the weather has become more extreme over the last few years, while less than half of Republicans say they have perceived such a shift. ‘Their political leanings are even affecting how they experience weather, which is pretty fascinating,’" PRRI research director Daniel Cox told Reuters.

Image by iStock/DNY59.

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.”

Meltdown

IceFor decades, climatologists have watched the steady shrinking of Arctic sea ice. But what they saw last summer wasn't steady; it was catastrophic.

In July, scientists discovered that all but 3 percent of Greenland's massive ice sheet had thawed at the surface. That was nearly double the usual summer melt, with much of it happening over the space of just four days.

Sea ice followed suit: On September 16, the point of maximum melt, there was more open water in the Arctic than had ever been recorded. The amount surpassed the previous record by 18 percent, or an area the size of Texas.

Every summer for the past ten years has seen far less ice than the 1979-2000 average, leaving the remaining ice thinner and less resilient. But 2012's massive, record-shattering melt is a particularly ominous sign of things to come, says Michael E. Mann, director of the Earth System Science Center at Pennsylvania State. The last record melt, in 2007, Mann says, "was outside the range of what climate models predicted," and some climatologists regarded it as a fluke. "The 2012 melt caused [climate] modelers to step back and say, 'Maybe nature really is proceeding much faster than our models predicted.'"

The pace may get faster yet, given the triggering of "feedback loops." Ice reflects heat, and dark, ice-free water absorbs it. Melting permafrost is emitting the powerful greenhouse gas methane, also at a faster rate than scientists initially predicted. Oil companies are rushing to take advantage of the ice-free waters for new drilling, which will further feed carbon emissions.

Because changes in the Arctic affect the jet stream, they can have major impacts on weather far away: Scientists are drawing connections to the slow-moving, persistent storms of recent winters and to last summer's extreme drought and wildfires. "There's a tendency to overemphasize the melting Arctic environment and polar bears at the expense of talking about impacts that are every bit as real, right where we live," Mann says. "This melting should be seen as something much larger: as truly fundamental change to our planet."

Photo by graphicjackson/iStock

--Brooke Jarvis

Dec 13, 2012

Largest Iceberg Calving Ever Filmed

Clipboard01Watching this video (below) will be the scariest 3:49 you will pass this year. It's a clip from James Balog's new documentary, "Chasing Ice," in which he shows in terrifying detail the unprecedented melting of the Arctic. This particular clip shows the largest iceberg calving ever filmed--the breakup of the lulissat glacier in Greenland, involving 7.4 cubic kilometers of ice. (For a look at Greenland and the Iulissat glacier in 2007, see Edward Readicker-Henderson's "The End of the World."

"Chasing Ice" is now playing nationwide. Go see it with a climate skeptic.

 

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.

Dec 12, 2012

Infographics On the Eve of War

Oceanbetween8

In recent years wonky charts have achieved cult status online. But they aren't new--back in the middle 20th century, P. Sargant Florence and Lella Secor Florence were creating graphics not that different from what you might encounter in Sierra magazine today. Their 1946 book, "Only An Ocean Between," compared life in the United States and Great Britain. The graphic style was ISOTYPE-- the International System Of TYpographic Picture Education--pioneered in the 1930s by Austrian sociologist Otto Neurath and his wife, Marie.

The example at left is especially familiar; it compares energy use in a variety of countries on the eve of World War II (click on graphic to expand). The units--tons of oil per capita--are not so easy to extrapolate today, having largely been replaced by Btus or Joules. Not that at the time, hydropower was the only alternative to burning fossil fuel--no wind, no solar, and (as anyone who has ever dealt with early 20th century appliances will know) no efficiency. It's also worth noting that the "synthetic petrol" used by Germany came, in part, from coal, via a process that fossil fuel fanciers are still trying to foist on us.  

Graphic from "Only an Ocean Between,"  P. Sargant Florence and Lella Secor Florence, 1946 via Maria Popova's "Brainpickings"

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.

Dec 11, 2012

Mowed Town

Abandoned house in DetroitToday the Detroit City Council approved the sale of 1,500 inner-city parcels to Hantz Farms, the brainchild of multi-millionaire financial-services executive and Detroit resident John Hantz. His operation claims it will plant the lots with 15,000 carbon-dioxide-absorbing hardwoods as part of a beautification project -- with an eye toward harvesting the trees as they mature. Detroit has lost a million residents over the last six decades, and it’s estimated that as much as 40 square miles of the city’s 139 square miles lie vacant or abandoned. Ownership of much of that land fell to the city through foreclosure. 

Hantz claims he will clean up and maintain the overgrown land -- which is crisscrossed by city streets and will remain accessible to the public -- and demolish at least 50 blighted buildings. Hantz Woodlands, which bills itself “the world’s largest urban farm,” got a pretty sweet deal, paying $520,000 for 140 acres. That irked community activists who say that ordinary Detroit residents have had a much harder time buying empty lots in the city, and that Hantz got special treatment. The good news for potential community gardeners, if you can call it that: Hantz’s 1,500 parcels are a drop in the bucket. The city controls an estimated 60,000 vacant lots lost through foreclosure.

Image by iStock/Kngkyle2.

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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