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Sierra Daily: February 2013
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11 posts from February 2013

Feb 26, 2013

A Kick-Start for Yellowstone’s Wolves

Yellowstone wolfWolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park starting in 1995 and since then have attracted plenty of researchers and wildlife-lovers. Penn State grad student Emily Almberg, a researcher with the Yellowstone Wolf Project, wants to bring those two groups together with an ambitious project: a "crowd sourced" website where wolf-watchers -- many of whom have elaborate photography equipment, natch –- can contribute their sighting information to further scientific study.

Almberg turned to the highly addictive "crowd funding" website Kickstarter.com for help. It's where the makers of Inocente, the documentary short that won an Oscar this past weekend, found funding. Inocente needed $50,000, while Almberg's's only asking for $7,000 -– and she’s already there. With 48 fundraising days remaining, contributors have pledged more than $8,400 as of Tuesday, February 26. Funds above the initial $7,000 will support the site's upkeep and expansion, so you can still chip in for the wolves.

Over the years, researchers have learned some fascinating things thanks to reintroduced Yellowstone wolves (which numbered 98 wolves in 10 packs -- plus two loners -- at the end of 2011). For instance, wolves are buffers against the effects of climate change: While milder winters result in fewer elk deaths and fewer food for scavengers (including bald eagles and grizzly bears), that's less of a problem in areas where wolves are free to hunt elk. For more, take a look at Mother Jones's succinct 10 Reasons We Need Wolves.

Image by iStock/JudiLen.

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."

Feb 22, 2013

Electric Vehicles Go The Distance

Nissan leafLast week’s debate between Tesla Motors and the New York Times over whether an electric Tesla Model S could go the distance between Washington, D.C. and Boston had as much range as the 265-mile electric car itself. By the time the dust settled, CNN, CNBC, and some Tesla owners had mounted their own more successful charger-to-charger jaunts up the Eastern Seaboard in the $100,000 EV, and the Times’ public editor had chimed in. (The Times story had “problems with precision and judgment, but not integrity”). What remained this week was just some minor tweeted squabbling between the Times automotive editor, James Cobb, and Tesla CEO Elon Musk. (Musk accused the Times journalist of having “enough sour grapes …to start a winery.”)

So it’s time to return our attention to electric vehicles that more modestly affluent consumers might buy. And there’s good news. Nissan now offers a version of its electric Leaf that is some $6,000 cheaper than any 2012 model, and travels more miles between charges. The Nissan Leaf S stickers for $29,650 (including the mandatory $850 delivery charge). Lop off $7,500 for the federal tax credit, and you’re down to $22,150. Live in a state like California, where you can get a $2,500 rebate, and a Leaf can be yours for under $20,000 -- penny pinching by today's standards. And the Leaf’s range, while not as lofty as the top-tier Tesla, is up from 73 to 75. That seems minimal, but the EPA recently changed its testing procedure. Instead of testing batteries at 100 percent charge, it calculates a mix of 100 percent and 80 percent (which extends overall battery life). Had the 2013 Leaf been tested under the old parameters, its range would be up to 84 miles. And the electric-car revolution continues.

Image from Nissan North America.

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.”

Feb 21, 2013

The Wind Is Red

GR_Wind_Map"The wind blows where it wishes," says John 3:8, and apparently it has a preference for red states. Below is a map [click to expand] showing mean annual wind speeds-essential information for anyone planning to invest in a wind turbine. The most consistently windy portion of the nation is that running up the center, right through the Republican heartland. That explains why the Republican governors of New Mexico, Oklahoma, Kansas, and North and South Dakota joined in the-ultimately successful-lobbying effort to convince Congress to renew the wind industry's federal tax credit.

Map: Peter and Maria Hoey; Source: AWS Truepower

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

 

 

Feb 20, 2013

Is Vegetarianism Worth It? Part 2

Meat and veg

Last week I trolled my friends in the plant-eating community with a post entitled "Is Vegetarianism Worth It?," the basis of which was a study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition that suggested that the carbon difference between carnivorous and vegetarian diets was much less than is usually assumed. The post prompted a very thoughtful response from Robert Goodland, who has served as lead environmental advisor to the World Bank, as follows:  

A shocking headline, "Plant-based diets may not be environmentally friendly," appeared last week above an article about a new French study (first published January 13, 2013).  Even more surprising was the publisher of that headline -- Occupy Monsanto -- an environmental group that would normally be skeptical of such a study. Hundreds of publications have published similar articles. However, the French study doesn't conclude what most have said it does.

The French study actually compares greenhouse gas emissions said to be attributable to livestock products versus emissions attributable to fruits and vegetables -- and it concludes that a meal consisting of vegetables and fruits low in caloric density could be responsible for as much greenhouse gas as a meal consisting of meat.       

Yet vegetables and fruits are rarely eaten instead of meat. The French study failed to compare analogous products, such as beef versus one of its many plant-based substitutes, which normally consist primarily of calorie-dense grains and legumes, rather than fruits and vegetables. 

Further, the French study relied entirely on estimates by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization that livestock are responsible for up to 18% of worldwide anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, while all other food production is responsible for up to 12% of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions.   

Over time, the Sierra Club, like other environmental groups, has publicized a range of environmental perspectives on food.  It's understandable that little seems settled when it comes to food and climate change.  The myriad of views about food -- let alone the range of views about climate change -- make it exceptionally hard to determine the truth when food and climate change are looked at together. 

For example, the Sierra Club has publicized the "Meat Eaters' Guide" published by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), which pegs greenhouse gas emissions attributable to livestock at about 5% of anthropogenic greenhouse gas in the U.S. The Sierra Club has also publicized the FAO's much higher estimate. 

In fact, the EWG's estimate fails by its assignment of too much weight to methane attributable to ruminants and not enough weight to deforestation for feed production and for grazing cattle, and by its omission to count other amounts of greenhouse gas attributable to all livestock products.   

Those mistakes could be explained by a view that apparently preceded development of the "Meat Eaters' Guide," and which was written into it, stating that most people simply "aren't going to give up meat". It's phrased as a fact -- but it's actually an opinion, and it's as misplaced as a similar opinion would be in a professional environmental assessment of chlorofluorocarbons or coal.  One way to tell that it's not a fact is by viewing a video featuring Bill Gates making a prediction that a large-scale replacement of livestock products with better alternatives could occur within the next five years.   

Similarly, the FAO's widely-cited estimate of greenhouse gas emissions attributable to livestock was published in an FAO report that included no analysis of alternatives, which is a standard tool in environmental assessment.  The FAO report simply prescribed one key action  -- and that's more factory farming (see p. 236): "The principle means of limiting livestock's impact on the environment must be... intensification."   

That FAO prescription was made even though one of its co-authors, Cornelius de Haan, served as lead author of the World Bank's 2001 livestock strategy that advised institutions (see p.65) to "avoid funding large-scale commercial, grain-fed feedlot systems and industrial milk, pork, and poultry production." 

That leap from avoiding factory farming over to expanding it seems inexplicable, especially considering that the FAO report pegged the adverse impacts of livestock at a higher level than the World Bank report did. The best explanation may be that the FAO report was authored by livestock specialists, rather than by environmental specialists. As a rule, environmental assessment of activity entailing significant environmental risk is most reliably performed by environmental specialists. 

On the other hand, reports published by the FAO are normally considered authoritative, given the FAO's status as a UN specialized agency. Yet the Sierra Club has cited in one place after another an assessment of livestock strikingly different from the FAO's -- and which has been authored by environmental specialists employed by two other UN specialized agencies, the World Bank and International Finance Corporation. I'm one of those specialists, and the New York Times published my critique of the FAO's partnership with global meat, dairy, and egg industry associations.     

The latest version of our analysis was published in the January 2013 issue of Nature Climate Change.  There, we've cited the warning from both the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the International Energy Agency (IEA) that the next five years may be the world's last real chance to reverse climate change before it's too late.   

We've also cited the IEA's estimate that US$18 trillion of spending is required in the next 20 years to reverse climate change by replacing fossil fuel infrastructure with renewable energy infrastructure. This suggests that focusing mainly on energy usage while neglecting to address food and agriculture could end up guaranteeing climate catastrophe.  

In the domain of food and agriculture, an astonishing 45% of all land on earth is now estimated to be used for livestock and feed production. Yet reforestation and regeneration of forest can proceed quickly and at relatively low cost, unlike action to replace fossil fuel infrastructure with renewable energy infrastructure (though such action should still be taken over the long term).   

In fact, we've proposed that large-scale reforestation and regeneration of forest could absorb all of today's excess atmospheric carbon -- while sufficient land can be freed up by replacing at least 25% of today's livestock products with better alternatives (i.e., fulfilment of Bill Gates' aforementioned prediction).  So the food industry is the key to reversing climate change in the short term as needed. 
Indeed, the food industry is more exposed to climate change's risks than any other industry.  Yet food companies develop better foods as a matter of course.  They control lots of land on which livestock and feed production can (and should) be reduced, and they can sell carbon credits from reforesting land.   

One wouldn't know it from most reports on the new French study, but promising activity is actually underway in the food industry to replace livestock products (that is, meat, dairy, and egg products) with better alternatives.  Consumers have an equal role in their capacity to act themselves to replace livestock products with better alternatives--Robert Goodland
 

Illustration by craftvision/iStock

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

Feb 19, 2013

Anti-Keystone Campaigners Doing It All Wrong

Kxl rallyLike many 7-year-olds, my daughter Ada has a standard response when faced by a difficult situation: She screams "I GIVE UP!" New York Times columnist Joe Nocera did something similar in his column yesterday, How Not to Fix Climate Change. According to Nocera, the 40,000+ people who had rallied on the Mall in Washington, D.C. the day before to demand that President Obama nix the Keystone XL pipeline were doing it all wrong:

In fact, this should be a no-brainer for the president, for all the reasons I stated earlier, and one more: the strategy of activists like McKibben, Brune and Hansen, who have made the Keystone pipeline their line in the sand, is utterly boneheaded.

Nocera's argument is simple: There's still a big worldwide demand for fossil fuels, Canada has a lot of 'em, so Canada will eventually win. He's good enough to note famed climatologist James Hansen's call for a carbon tax, but concludes that "[I]t would also likely make the expensive tar sands oil more viable,"--an argument demolished by Wonkblog's Brad Plumer.

After dismissing James Hansen, Michael Brune, Bill McKibben and 40,000 others as boneheads, Nocera leaves us hanging as to what we should be doing about climate change. Regarding Canada's dirty tar sands, he says, "The emphasis should be on demand, not supply. If the U.S. stopped consuming so much of the world’s oil, the economic need for the tar sands would evaporate"--ignoring that the whole point of Keystone XL is to export the dirty oil abroad.

It could be that Nocera's right--the immediate economic pressure (as opposed to the far greater economic consequences of ignoring a rapidly warming globe) will win out, and the Keystone XL pipeline will be approved. But for the sake of my kid and all the other 7-year-olds out there, I'm really proud of the folks who braved the cold in D.C. the other day and didn't give up.

Photo by Shadia Fayne Wood/Project Survival Media

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

Feb 15, 2013

When Sparks Fly

Tesla s sedanThis week the blogosphere has been ablaze with a back-and-forth between Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla Motors and John Broder, energy reporter for the New York Times over nothing less than the viability of electric cars on America's roads. A week ago, the Times published Broder's report of his test of Tesla’s electric-vehicle “supercharger” stations between Washington, D.C., and Boston. Things didn’t go so well for Broder, who at one point had to have his loaned Tesla S sedan unceremoniously towed on a flatbed truck. That’s not great p.r. for Tesla, whose $100,000 vehicle has an EPA-rated range of 265 miles, far superior to the 80-and-under range of lesser priced EVs available today.

Musk accused Broder of faking his data, then posted blow-by-blow details from the car’s computer logs. Undaunted, yesterday Broder fired back. It’s still too hard to conclude that Musk is absolutely wrong or that Broder is absolutely wrong, but one thing is easy to conclude: While most Americans tend to treat automobiles like household appliances (and why shouldn't they?) electric vehicles and their charging infrastructure are still so new to the roads that they require an aficionado-like diligence. (Buy a Nissan Leaf in the San Francisco Bay Area, for example, and you may be tempted to join the “Bay Leafs” owners group -- a dedication to information sharing that you’d unlikely consider when, say, buying a Kenmore refrigerator.)

Image of Tesla S by Tesla Motors.

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.”

Feb 13, 2013

Thanks Boss!

Brune CD

There's something uniquely heartwarming about seeing one's boss being hauled off to the pokey--especially for a good cause. That's what happened this morning when Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune, Sierra Club President Allison Chin, and 46 others were arrested while conducting civil disobedience in front of the White House, demanding that President Obama nix the proposed Keystone XL pipeline. 

Doing so would not seem to be much of a stretch, considering the President's words about the importance of acting on climate change in last night in his State of the Union address:

"For the sake of our children and our future, we must do more to combat climate change. . . . If Congress won't act soon to protect future generations, I will. I will direct my Cabinet to come up with executive actions we can take, now and in the future, to reduce pollution, prepare our communities for the consequences of climate change, and speed the transition to more sustainable sources of energy."

President Obama's own EPA has estimated that building the Keystone pipeline would boost U.S. carbon emissions by 27.6 million metric tons--the same as if we put another 6 million cars on the road. (New research suggests that that figure may underestimate the carbon toll by a further 16.6 million tons.) Today's civil disobedience--the first in the Sierra Club's 120-year history--was a simple but forceful invitation to the President to follow up on his promise.

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

Feb 12, 2013

Is Vegetarianism Worth It?

Meat and vegIt is an article of faith among many of those seeking a low-carbon lifestyle that consuming less meat and more plant-based food will have a large impact on one's toll on the planet. (See, for example, my own "Old MacDonald's Carbon Footprint.") But a new study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition complicates that tidy narrative. Researchers analyzed the eating habits of 2,000 French adults alongside lifecycle studies of those diets' various components. When judged by weight alone, meat came out far more carbon intensive--14 times as much as produce. But when the diets are weighed by grams of CO2 emitted per calorie, the gap turns out to be much narrower--only 3 times as much. The energy content of meat is very high--one of the reasons for its enduring popularity. Fruits and vegetables require fewer carbon inputs to produce, but you have to eat a lot more of them to get the same energy content.

The most greenhouse gas - 857 grams - was still emitted to produce 100 kcal of meat, but it was only about three times the emissions from a comparable amount of energy from fruit and vegetables.

Greens also ended up emitting more gas for the calories than starches, sweets, salty snacks, dairy and fats. It was also about as much gas as pork, poultry and eggs.

And when [senior author Nicole] Darmon and her colleagues looked at what people actually ate to get a certain amount of energy from food every day, they found that the "highest-quality" diets in health terms - those high in fruit, vegetables and fish - were linked to about as much, if not more, greenhouse gas emissions as low-quality diets that were high in sweets and salts.

Of course, a plant-based diet one third as carbon intensive as a meat-based one is still a laudable thing for many reasons. (But do read, however, former farmboy Mr. Green's stirring defense of meat). One lesson here seems to be that it is very easy for us to underestimate our carbon impact on the planet--especially when as many as two-thirds of self-professed vegetarians are eating burgers on the side. In fact, this Yale study puts the number of true vegetarians in the U.S. at 0.1%. Let she who abjures bacon cast the first stone.

Illustration by craftvision/iStock

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

Feb 08, 2013

Don't Get Snowed

Staircase in blizzardAs a blizzard descends on the Northeast, the Union of Concerned Scientists presents a handy explanation of why serious winter weather does not mean global warming ain’t happening, useful for forwarding to your Drudge-Report-reading climate-contrarian friends and relatives.

In sum:

Weather is what’s happening outside your door right now. Climate is the pattern of weather over decades.

The past decade has been the hottest on record.

Hotter air -- caused primarily by heat-trapping emissions -- causes moisture to be held in the air. This added moisture can fuel more intense rain and snow.

The amount of rain or snow falling in the heaviest one percent of storms in the U.S. has risen nearly 20 percent.

The interplay of “Arctic sea ice decline, ocean patterns, upper winds, and the shifting shape of the jet stream could lead to extreme weather in various portions of the northern mid-latitudes – such that some places get tons of snow repeatedly and others are unseasonably warm.”

So stay safe, northeasterners. And take some solace that spring weather arrives 10 days earlier than it used to, on average.

Image by iStock/martinedoucet

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.”

Feb 07, 2013

The Right Targets Clean Energy

Attack on renewable standards

First they scotched a tax on carbon. Then they nixed a national cap-and-trade system for carbon emissions and tried to block an extension of subsidies for wind turbine production. Now the nation's fossil fuel-friendly think tanks and public policy organizations are taking aim at state-level policies promoting renewable energy.

At present, 29 states plus the District of Columbia have renewable energy standards that require utilities to get a certain proportion of their electricity from renewable sources by a certain date. Nearly two-thirds of the country's new clean energy capacity has been added in states with active or impending renewable energy standards.

Leading the movement to repeal them are the libertarian Heartland Institute-famous for its billboards last year comparing believers in climate change to murderer Ted Kaczynski-and the American Legislative Exchange Council, which crafts "model legislation" for conservative politicians to introduce in their home states. ALEC's major donors include Peabody Energy, the world's biggest private coal company; ExxonMobil; and ultraconservative dirty-energy industrialists Charles and David Koch. Exxon and the Koch brothers have also contributed to Heartland.

ALEC's fill-in-the-blanks vehicle to roll back clean energy is the Electricity Freedom Act, written by staffer Todd Wynn. It casts renewable energy standards as a regressive tax that, says Wynn, forces "citizens, businesses, and industry within a state to purchase renewable energy whether or not they value or can afford it." (ALEC's dedication to market freedom, however, stops short of opposition to the far larger taxpayer subsidies that go to the oil and gas industries.)

It's a tough argument, because clean energy is a good deal. When the nonpartisan Energy Information Administration evaluated an 80 percent national standard, it found that it would have "a negligible impact on electricity prices through 2022." Xcel, Colorado's largest utility, says that the state's renewable energy standard of 30 percent by 2020 will save its customers $100 million over 25 years.

The past two years have seen attempts to roll back or repeal clean energy standards in 10 states, and many more are expected. But such attempts can backfire. A move late last year to weaken Massachusetts's standard rallied environmental groups to defend the act and, ultimately, strengthen it.

Illustration by Steve Brodner

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



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