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March April 2014

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Sierra Daily

Sep 13, 2013

Eat Everything On Your Plate

Food garbageAccording to a new U.N. report, about a third of all food for human consumption, about 1.3 billion tons, is wasted, along with the energy, water, and chemicals required to produce it. If “global food waste” was a country, its carbon*emissions -- 3.3 billion tons per year-- would fall behind only China and the United States, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization "Food Wastage Footprint: Impacts on Natural Resources.”

In developing countries, inefficient farming and a lack of proper food storage leads to food waste; in developed countries, it’s exactly what you’d expect: We buy too much and throw away what we don’t eat. Last year, a study by the Natural Resources Defense Council found that Americans throw away nearly half their food every year, waste worth roughly $165 billion annually.

Image by iStock/lucentius

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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Sep 10, 2013

We Know You Have a Choice in Airlines…

Airlines-fuel-efficiency-icct.jpg.662x0_q100_crop-scaleFlying has its environmental cost, but you don’t have to forgo your environmental sensibilities -- or the fun of travel altogether -- to maintain some sense of ecological righteousness. Ranking 15 major airlines, the International Council on Clean Transportation found whopping differences in the fuel efficiency of carriers, even among those flying identical routes. The most efficient airline overall, based on 2010 data, was Alaska Airlines; the least efficient, Allegiant. Alaska was 26 percentage points more efficient than Allegiant. 

“This gap is larger than what might be expected in a mature aviation market during a period of high fuel prices,” the report’s authors wrote. About one-third of efficiency differences can be attributed to more efficient aircraft designs and technologies. (Old, inefficient fleets -– in 2010, at least -- hindered both Allegiant and next-to-last American.) The rest is “due to a mix of factors including route circuity, airport congestion, differing average percentages of occupied seats, and fuel-saving operating practices such as taxiing with only one engine.”

Alas, airlines aren’t scrambling fast enough to replace old fleets. That’s because the cost of the latest, most-efficient plane may not be recouped soon enough to satisfy quarterly balance sheets. According to the report, “the purchase of newer, more fuel-efficient jets might make little sense when older ones are available at a significant discount because the fixed cost of state of-the-art aircraft might not be offset by the projected fuel savings.”

Image: ICCT

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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Why Space Junk Threatens Earth Conservation

Space junk litters low Earth orbit
A digital representation of lower orbit debris, from the upcoming documentary “Space Junk 3D.”

This month, the U.S. Air Force announced that it will shut down its “radar fence,” which tracks space trash. They cite federal government sequestration as the reason, and lament having to close the fence. Wait, there’s space trash? And it’s important enough to be tracked by the Air Force? Yup.

From flakes of paint shaken off of rockets to the broken up bodies of abandoned satellites, humankind’s machine waste now clutters low-Earth-orbit, the 2000 kilometers (1243 miles) above Earth’s surface. This important zone hosts most of our satellites, including those crucial for conservation and environmental management: the Earth Observing System (EOS) satellites, launched by NASA and used by the Forest Service and environmental science academics. One data collector is MODIS, an imagery sensor that flies on the Terra and Aqua satellites.

“We use MODIS data for fire detection,” says Brad Quayle, a remote sensing specialist for the Forest Service. “We also monitor tree health to keep track of pests and pathogens.” For example, Quayle's team can remotely detect a slight bark beetle outbreak through changes in satellite images of forests. 

Without low-Earth-orbit satellites, environmental science would be sent back to the Stone Age, or at least the '60s. Yet Earth’s spacefaring nations have polluted what was once seen as a public good: the "limitless" vastness of space. It took only two acts of human negligence to create one third of the space debris currently tracked by NASA. In 2007 China intentionally smashed a weather satellite, and in 2009 American and Russian communications satellites collided accidentally (see a video reenactment below). Both events scattered thousands of pieces of junk into orbit. The remaining pieces accumulated from rocket stages of human spacecraft, dead satellites left in orbit, and other miscellaneous trash. 

Continue reading "Why Space Junk Threatens Earth Conservation" »

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Jul 24, 2013

Bombs A—WAIT!

Great Barrier ReefIn what might be the most surprise attack in world history, two U.S. fighter jets dropped four bombs on Australia's Great Barrier Reef, a World Heritage Site, on July 16. The jets were taking part in a drill prior to Talisman Saber, a biennial joint training exercise with the Australian Defense Force intended improve "measures to defend Australia and its national interests."

The unarmed ordnance — two bombs contained concrete and two contained explosives but didn't have their fusing mechanism in place — were supposed to be jettisoned over the Townshend Island bombing range, almost 450 miles north of Brisbane. But, U.S. Navy Commander William Marks told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, "the approved area where they could do some of this live training with these 500-pound bombs . . . was not safe. There were civilian boats right below them."

Further complicating matters, the two AV-8B Harrier jets were running low on fuel (for reasons that are being investigated), and they couldn't make a safe landing on their amphibious assault ship while still carrying the bombs. So, what's a poor pilot to do?

Continue reading "Bombs A—WAIT!" »

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May 30, 2013

Biking: Not Just for White Guys With Tattoos

ACT_01Cycling is starting to happen. Bike commuting is up 47% nationwide between 2000 and 2011--and the largest increases are being seen among women, youth, and people of color. "The New Majority, Pedaling Towards Equity," a new report by the League of American Bicyclists and the Sierra Club, lays out how the fastest growth in percent of all trips by bike is among African-Americans, Asian-Americans, and Hispanics--and how cycling numbers could be even higher with better cycling infrastructure, safe places to store bicycles, and riding clubs like Red, Bike, and Green or Black Women Bike. Allyson Criner Brown is on the leadership team of the latter; Sierra interviewed her for our upcoming issue--Paul Rauber

"People just lose their minds when they see a black woman on a bicycle. You should see the looks of shock. The message that's out there is that it's unusual to be a black woman biking in D.C., that biking's not for us. That's not true.

"Our mission is to get black women on bicycles. We aren't going to get you to the point of high skill, but we want to get you on a bike. Last year we had a woman who was in her 60s who lived in one of D.C.'s underserved neighborhoods where you don't see much bike infrastructure. She hadn't been on a bike in 40 years. She rented one from Capital Bikeshare, and her face was glowing afterward. We always have women who come out and say, 'I'm so glad that I found you. I'm so glad that you exist.'

"I came back to biking as an adult. I didn't know what kind of bike I should get, how to lock it up, how to be safe. Who do you ask? A bike shop can be intimidating. Look at who works there -- people wearing bike-chain bracelets and with bike tattoos. Is that the person you want to be asking for advice if you're a beginner?

"And there's another type of interaction: I can walk into a bike shop and nobody will say anything to me until I'm about to walk out the door, even if I'm looking at high-level gear. At Black Women Bike, people can feel comfortable asking questions. One of the things we talk about is what shops will give you good service.

"I ride on a nice piece of '70s red steel named Starburst. I've done three triathlons, but I started as a commuter, and I mostly use it to commute, which takes about 14 minutes. I work in education, and when I tell the teachers I work with that I rode my bike to school, they say, 'What?' I tell them there are hundreds of us, and we all ride our bicycles."
--interview by Jake Abrahamson

Photo: Benjamin Tankersley

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May 10, 2013

Best…Car…Ever?

Tesla SOn Thursday, product-review powerhouse Consumer Reports announced that the all-electric Tesla S sedan “outscores every other car in our test Ratings. It does so even though it's an electric car. In fact, it does so because it is electric.”

The Tesla impresses. It goes zero-to-sixty in 4.2 seconds, travels up to 265 miles between charges, and uses about half the energy of a Toyota Prius every mile. (Its price impresses, too: Consumer Reports paid more than $89,000 for its test vehicle with the biggest available battery. “Cheaper” versions with more limited range start at $62,400 after accounting for a $7,500 federal tax credit.) This writer recently enjoyed 20 minutes of ear-to-ear-grin driving in a Tesla S. My only trepidation involved was provided by the many squirrels that populated the roads near Tesla’s Palo Alto, California, headquarters, and the fear of local headlines that would follow if a Sierra Club employee crashed the pricey ride trying to avoid hitting one.

The S sedan is a no-compromises electric vehicle. Writes Consumer Reports: “Built from the ground up as an EV, this car's overall balance benefits from mounting the battery under the floor and in the lowest part of the body. That gives the car a rock-bottom center of gravity that enables excellent handling, a comfortable ride, and lots of room inside.” Several other manufacturers modify existing gasoline-powered cars for EV use, along the way cutting into cargo and interior space because of the bulk of electric-vehicle batteries.

“So is the Tesla Model S the best car ever?”, asks Consumer Reports. “We wrestled with that question long and hard. It comes close. And if your needs are confined to the Tesla's driving range, it just may be. But for many people, the very thing that makes cars great is the ability to jump in and drive wherever you want on the map at a moment's notice. And on that measure the Tesla has its limitations. So the Model S may not satisfy every conceivable need, but as we've learned through our testing and living with it, the Model S is truly a remarkable car.”

Check out Sierra’s comparison of electric cars, and the organization’s Go Electric campaign.

Image 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.”

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Apr 18, 2013

Gritty Journalism

Oil rich sand of the oil sand region of CanadaThis week the scrappy blog InsideClimate News won the 2012-2013 Pulitzer Prize for national reporting for its coverage of the 2010 Kalamazoo River oil spill, “the biggest oil spill you’ve never heard of.” Its investigation into the 100 million gallon spill of dirty, sticky Canadian tar sands oil broadened into “an examination of national pipeline safety issues, and how unprepared the nation is for impending floods of imports of a more corrosive and dangerous form of oil.” 

The New York Times’ Andrew Revkin offers up an online chat with publisher David Sassoon, editor Susan White and reporter Lisa Song.

InsideClimate News is only the third online news organization to win a Pulitzer (the others being ProPublica -- which has won two -- and the Huffington Post). The non-profit, non-partisan ICN paints its mission thusly: “Climate and energy are defining issues of our time, yet most media outlets are now hard-pressed to devote sufficient resources to environmental and investigative reporting,” and it would be more than happy to accept your donation to keep the fires of environmental journalism burning.

Image of oil-rich Canadian sand by iStock/AdShooter.

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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Apr 05, 2013

The New Arctic

Clipboard01We've all read about the shrinking sea ice, melting ice caps, and drowning polar bears. But this simple short film by Kenneth Dutton, Professor of Marine Sciences at the University of Texas at Austin (h/t Joe Romm--video below) made it real to me in a way that computer graphics never can. It made me think back to the amazing Inuit hunters I was lucky enough to hang out with years ago on a Canadian River Expeditions trip to the northernmost tip of Baffin Island, only a couple hundred miles from the North Pole. Even then they were complaining of newly treacherous ice conditions:   

Our last full day was the third in a row with unusually bright, warm weather. The sea ice was covered with puddles and melting rapidly, necessitating long detours. Simon [Qamanariq] took one sledful due east to see the cliffs of the Borden Peninsula, where hundreds of thousands of fulmars nested, while others elected to stay in camp. . . . On the way back, Simon was about to drive over a puddle on the ice when he realized at the very last moment that it was actually open water. He swung his snow machine violently, and his fully loaded qamatiik missed falling through the ice by inches. The most frightening thing, his passengers said, was the look on Simon's normally stoic face; when he came into the mess tent, hours after the incident, he was still visibly shaken.

Dutton's tale of the Inupiat family's fishing tragedy reminded me of the amazingly resourceful people I met on Baffin. It's inexpressibly sad to lose, in the space of a generation, a way of life finely honed over thousands of years. But what I learned from even a short time among them was that whatever our angry, changing world throws at them, they will find a way to survive in it. Unlike so many others in the sordid tale of climate change, they make you proud of being human.

 

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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Apr 04, 2013

MPG Inches Forward

Pumping gasSo 24.6 miles per gallon may not seem a lot to anyone driving a 50 mpg Prius or a gasoline-free electric car, but it’s the highest national average we’ve ever seen. The University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute has calculated the “average sales-weighted fuel economy” of monthly car sales since 2007, which gives more weight to vehicles that sold in higher volumes. So, for cars, SUVs, vans, and pickup trucks sold in March, the average combined EPA fuel economy was 24.6 compared to just under 21 some five and a half years ago. Not bad, and bound to improve as new fuel economy standards, finalized in 2012, go into effect. Those standards will increase every automaker’s average fuel economy to the equivalent of 54.5 mpg for cars and light-duty trucks by 2025. (That’ll be the automaker’s fleetwide average, not the average of every individual vehicle sold.)

And for more transportation inspiration, watch the short video “Americans Are Driving Less” by Streetfilms (“documenting livable streets worldwide”), which celebrates the news that Americans have been driving fewer and fewer miles per capita since 2005 -- an eight-year trend that began before the economy tanked.

Image by iStock/PhotoTalk.

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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Mar 27, 2013

Shipping Oil by Rail--What Could Go Wrong?

Oil tanker trainToday's Wall Street Journal features a story called "Boom Time on the Tracks: Rail Capacity, Spending Soar." The efficiencies inherent in rail transport--in which a gallon of fuel can move one ton of freight 500 miles--are apparently leading to lots of new spending and traffic for the nation's railroads:

On a recent subzero day at a rail station here on the plains, a giant tank train stretches like a black belt across the horizon—as far as the eye can see. Soon it will be filled to the brim with light, sweet crude oil and headed to a refinery on Puget Sound. Another mile-long train will pull in right behind it, and another after that. . . Welcome to the revival of the Railroad Age.

As the lead implies, oil is a major factor in this rail renaissance:

In the U.S. oil boom, rail's new attitude has made it both a preferred mode of transport—and also an instrument of arbitrage. When oil began flowing in North Dakota, BNSF was perfectly situated. Its Burlington Northern Line from Minneapolis-St. Paul to Puget Sound cuts diagonally northwest through 16 of the 19 top oil-producing counties in North Dakota, then parallels the Canadian border through five of the six top-producing oil counties in Montana. Until several years ago, though, it was mostly a high-speed route for loads like lumber from the Northwest and grain from the Great Plains.

If you're guessing where this is headed, you're probably guessing right. This morning, 14 cars of a Canadian Pacific train hauling crude oil derailed in Minnesota, spilling 30,000 gallons of oil.  

Moving oil by rail in Canada and the United States has increased rapidly in the last two years as domestic crude production has grown faster than pipeline capacity.

Environmental concerns have delayed the production of pipelines like TransCanada Corp's Keystone XL, but some experts have argued moving crude by rail poses a larger risk of accidents and spills.

Here's a foolproof safety tip from Sierra Daily: Just leave it in the ground.

Photo by Gudella/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

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