Sierra Daily: January 2013
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13 posts from January 2013

Jan 11, 2013

News That We’ll Lose?

World climate coverageThe New York Times is dismantling its topnotch 9-person environment department and reassigning its reporters and editors throughout the newspaper. The announcement was cause for alarm among some environmental journalists. “If you don't have the editorial structure to support the kind of commitment needed to do both daily coverage and deeper investigative and explanatory work, it is hard to imagine that you could keep the same level of intensity," Dan Fagin, director of New York University’s Science, Health, and Reporting Program told Inside Climate News

But Times management insists the change is not a bad thing: “Coverage of the environment is what separates the New York Times from other papers,” Dean Baquet, managing editor for news, told Inside Climate News. “We devote a lot of resources to it, now more than ever. We have not lost any desire for environmental coverage. This is purely a structural matter."

Times Dot Earth blogger Andrew Revkin says he believes top editors’ claim. “In a century when the roots of environmental problems often lie half a planet away (consider the ivory trade, or the contribution of greenhouse gases and soot to Arctic ice melting) what's needed most is collaborative post-departmental journalism, not individual desks and editors competing for the front page,” he writes. (Revkin is more alarmed by shrinking revenue at news operations in general: “These background financial pressures building around the industry the same way that heat-trapping greenhouse gases are building in the atmosphere are what will erode the ability of today's media to dissect and explain the causes and consequences of environmental change and the suite of possible responses.”)

The Times stands out when it comes to environmental coverage, consistently leading 5 national papers in number of climate stories published, according to the Center for Science and Technology Policy Research at the University of Colorado--Boulder. What’s troubling, though, is that when the group compares U.S. newspaper coverage of climate issues to papers around the world, at the end of 2012 --the hottest in U.S. history -- U.S. papers’ climate coverage lagged, besting only South American and African publications (graph above).

Graph by CSTPR. 

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.”

Jan 09, 2013

Turning Purple

Australia temperature mapHot enough for ya? In 2012 the U.S. set a heat record and Australia’s hottest spring and summer on record has turned that country purple. Facing forecast temperatures that were literally off the charts, Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology recently added new color bands to its forecast maps. The old maps went only as high as 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit). The new ones go to 54 degrees Celsius (129 degrees Fahrenheit), adding the colors pink and deep purple.

Australia’s average temperature on Tuesday was 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit), the highest since record-keeping began in 1911. “This is the largest heat event in the country's history," David Jones, manager of climate monitoring prediction at the agency told the New York Times.

The 100-plus wildfires raging in Australia have grown so large that they are visible in images taken by the International Space Station, frustrating climate experts who note that extreme weather events like punishing drought are exactly what we should expect with long term climate change. “We are well past the time of niceties, of avoiding the dire nature of what is unfolding, and politely trying not to scare the public,” Liz Hanna, convener of the human health division at the Australian National University’s Climate Change Adaptation Network, told the Sydney Morning Herald.

The U.S. heat record in 2012 beat the next highest year, 1998, by a full degree Fahrenheit. "These records do not occur like this in an unchanging climate," Kevin Trenberth, head of climate analysis at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo., told Associated Press. "And they are costing many billions of dollars."

Image from Australian Bureau of Meteorology

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.”

Jan 07, 2013

Crowdfunded Solar Is Here

CommunitySolar_PH1Looking for a way to support the spread of solar power and earn a good return on your investment while doing so? If you live in California or New York, your moment has arrived, as Oakland, California-based Mosaic has opened its first projects to general investment. I wrote about this innovative organization in my story on community solar power, "Solar for All," in the current issue of Sierra:

Mosaic crowd-funds solar projects, enabling people to invest directly in small to midsize solar projects while earning annual returns of 4 to 8 percent.

Financing is a major hurdle for community-scale solar. Very few banks finance solar projects, and those that do favor big ones—either utility-scale solar operations or solar-leasing companies that front thousands of rooftop projects. When it comes to serving the needs of Oakland's Asian Resource Center or St. Vincent de Paul Society, or the Murdoch Community Center in Flagstaff, Arizona, it's not worth the banks' time to do the risk analysis involved.

Enter Mosaic. In the case of St. Vincent de Paul, it rounded up 80 supporters who kicked in a total of $88,000 to finance 26 kilowatts of solar panels to power the organization's kitchen, where volunteers prepare a thousand meals a day for Oakland's homeless and indigent. All those walk-in freezers and refrigerators require a lot of electricity, says St. Vincent executive director Philip Arca. The solar panels are saving about $1,200 a month, he says, adding, "We want to get as much assistance to people as possible, so for us every dollar counts."

At the time of that writing, Mosaic was waiting for approval from the Securities Exchange Commission for its crowdfunding business model, and had to limit its offerings to small numbers of "non-accredited" (i.e., non-professional) investors. While a decision from the SEC is still awaited, Mosaic has obtained permission from regulators to offer investments to anyone in California and New York--the states where it has offices--who is willing to invest $25 or more. "As a nimble, online maketplace, we're able to source capital from the crowd and lend it to clean energy developers at lower rate than they could get from banks," said Mosaic founder Billy Parish in a morning conference call. "And we're able to offer it at a rate of return better than most other investment products available to the general public."

Mosaic's initial projects--solar arrays atop three affordable housing projects in California--offer a 4.5 percent annual rate of return for a term of about 9 years. Investments can be made online, in an easy process that only takes minutes. Mosaic hopes to offer future projects to investors in other states soon, with rates of return expected to range from 4 to 8 percent. As communtiy solar guru John Farrell of the Institute of Local Self-Reliance in Minneapolis notes, a working crowdfunding model could change the face of solar power in the United State. "If it becomes relatively inexpensive to raise capital for community-based projects," he says, "that really blows the door down."

Photo: Mosaic staff and investors with an early project, an 8.6-kilowatt project atop Oakland's People's Grocery. Courtesy of Mosaic.

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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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