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March April 2014

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Mar 25, 2013

Maybe We're Not Doomed After All!

LabeyondcoalSpringtime is busting out all over--well, except where dramatic Arctic sea-ice loss is leading to frigid temperatures. But all of a sudden normally gloomy enviros are feeling unfamiliar sensations of hope for the future. Yours truly admits to same after watching last Friday's announcement by Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa that his city would be entirely coal free by 2025. (Video of the event below.) Former vice president Al Gore concluded his barnburner of a speech this way:

If somebody had told you three years ago that on this beautiful March day, 58-60% of the American people would say, “We are in favor of gay marriage,” you would say, “No, we can’t change that much, that fast.” But we can, and we did, and we will win the carbon conversation, because we have been inspried by the city of angels.

Over at the often-dour Grist,Ted Glick asks "Are We Winning the Clean vs. Dirty Energy Battle?" and concludes in the affirmative. "[O]ver the last month or two . . . I’m beginning to believe that the human race has a fighting chance of preventing runaway, catastrophic climate change and, in so doing, open the way for a much more just, peaceful and democratic world." Among the reasons he lists are President Barack Obama's focus on the climate crisis in his State of the Union speech; the ongoing battle against the Keystone XL pipeline; and the explosive growth of renewable energy.

In the New York Times, Elisabeth Rosenthal considers whether there is "Life After Oil and Gas," and concludes that yes, it seems quite possible:

“It’s absolutely not true that we need natural gas, coal or oil — we think it’s a myth,” said Mark Z. Jacobson, a professor of civil and environmental engineering and the main author of the study, published in the journal Energy Policy. “You could power America with renewables from a technical and economic standpoint. The biggest obstacles are social and political — what you need is the will to do it.”

Most optimistic of all is Paul Gilding of the Post Carbon Institute with a powerful blog post, "Victory At Hand for the Climate Movement?" And once again, he finds that the answer is yes. 

There are signs the climate movement could be on the verge of a remarkable and surprising victory. . . . the fastest and most dramatic economic transformation in history. This would include the removal of the oil, coal and gas industries from the economy in just a few decades and their replacement with new industries and, for the most part, entirely new companies. It would be the greatest transfer of wealth and power between industries and countries the world has ever seen.

His short argument for why this miraculous transformation may come about is that "what was predominantly an ecological question in now primarily an economic one. . . . When non-fossil fuel companies understand the broad economic risk posed by the lack of climate action, they will become genuine and strong advocates demanding climate action – in their own self-interest."

We are now in a period of extremely rapid social transformation. Attitudes on marriage equality and immigration are shifting faster than anyone ever imagined. Let's hope our optimists are right that attitudes on climate change will follow.

 

Photo by LA Beyond Coal/Gloria Mena

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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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Mar 22, 2013

Out With the Old...Without Guilt?

MonitorsElectronics “take-back” programs are such a godsend. You clean out your shelves, closet, or garage of unwanted devices with dangling cords, and as an extra reward you get to replace your old stereo or television with the latest electronic technology, guiltlessly. Well, not so fast. 

A recent New York Times article points out that “as recently as a few years ago, broken monitors and televisions…were being recycled profitably. The big, glassy funnels inside the machine -- known as cathode ray tubes, or CRTs -- were melted down and turned into new ones. But flat-screen technology has made those monitors and televisions obsolete, decimating the demand for the recycled tube glass used in them and creating what industry experts call a ‘glass tsunami’ as stockpiles of the useless material accumulate across the country.” The economics have been turned upside-down: Recyclers were once paid $200 a ton to provide glass for use in new products; today, those recyclers must pay more than $200 a ton to get rid of the stuff.

The good news is that it’s still profitable for recyclers to process computers, cellphones, and printers because they contain precious metals. As for your old tube TV or computer monitor gathering dust in the basement? Don’t resort to tossing it in the trash, ever. Virtually anything is better than adding toxic waste to a landfill. Hey, plug it in and maybe you can still use it after all. But if you do recycle it through a local “take back” program, contact them to confirm that the devices are responsibly recycled. (This holds true for “take back” programs offered by specific electronics manufacturers too.) Good resources for finding recyclers include e-Stewards.org and the Electronics TakeBack Coalition.

Image byiStock/PashaIgnatov.

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 20, 2013

Might, Right, and the Fight for Safe Cities

TrafficSierra is already working on its second annual installment on electric cars. (Look for it in our July/August issue.) The category grows as more automakers offer more models -- from gasoline-free electrics like the Nissan Leaf to gasoline-sipping plug-in hybrids like the Chevy Volt -- and more public charging stations are installed, primarily in our urban areas. The Charge Point network, for example, lists more than 800 charging stations in or near the San Francisco Bay Area. 

Urban areas are already the best served by public transit -- and often laced with bike lanes -- so it justifiably leads some to ask: Are cars necessary at all? Treehugger points us to a fine essay on the impact of autos in London. Bruce McVean, founder of the Movement for Liveable London, notes that "the big villain isn't the internal combustion engine, it's the car." McVean writes: "Even when driven carefully and slowly, cars dominate our streets and impose themselves on other users. They're bulky and everyone knows their potential to harm. Add speed to the equation and they own the street completely. As Ian Roberts and Phil Edwards argue in The Energy Glut (another must read), "Possession combined with brute force make up ten-tenths of the law."

McVean points to research that shows that cars are needed for about one-third of the trips that are taken now. As anyone tempted to move beyond car ownership (and climate-disrupting fossil-fuel use) knows, there are plenty of opportunities: a sturdy pair of walking shoes, a sleek commuting bicycle, a car-sharing program among them.

Image by iStock/maogg.

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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How Disappointed Will You Be If Obama Okays Keystone?

Disappointed womanPretty darn disappointed, according to a new poll for the Center for Biological Diversity by Public Policy Polling. Among those who voted for President Obama in the last election, 61 percent said they'd feel "disappointed" or "betrayed" if he greenlights the 1,700 mile pipeline from the tar sands pits of Alberta to refineries in Texas. 57 percent said that such a move would break the president's pledge in his State of the Union address to combat climate change. And 69 percent said the president's legacy should be about clean energy rather than expanding the production of fossil fuels.

Things didn't look so good for Keystone among voters in general either. 74 percent said it was not in the United States' "best interest." 76 percent were concerned about its environmental effects. (This number does not include the authors of the State Department's recent draft Environmental Impact Statement, which found the project to be environmentally sound. It was later revealed that the study had been contracted out to firms with direct connections to TransCanada and the oil industry.)

Of course President Obama doesn't have to run for anything again, so he's less constrained by public opinion than he otherwise might be. On the other hand, he does have ambitious goals for his second term and is encouraging his supporters to actively work to advance them. All of which is prelude to pointing out that rather than resigning yourself to feelings of disappointment or betrayal, you can do something about it right now by calling on the president to reject Keystone XL.

Photo by drbimages/iStock 

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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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Mar 14, 2013

Direct Action to Stop the Other Pipeline

Clipboard01Keystone XL gets most of the press, but many other oil pipelines criss-cross the country--including four that run through land restored by the Interior Department in 1945 to the Red Lake Anishinaabe Nation in northern Minnesota. These pipelines, laid from 1948 to 1972, are owned by Enbridge Energy, the same company that is seeking to build the "Northern Gateway" pipeline from Alberta's tar-sand pits to ports in British Columbia.

Trouble is, Enbridge doesn't seem to have ever procured an easement or any other agreement from Red Lake for their pipelines. So beginning on February 28, Red Lake member Marty Cobenais, a Tar Sands organizer with the Indigenous Environmental Network, occupied the site with a number of supporters, both Red Lake members and non-Natives. "The pipleines are here illegally," said Cobenais, reached at the site. "We're going to make a stand here, and make them shut down the pipeline."

The lively video below shows the occupiers' first effort--construction of a fence in the frozen ground along the pipeline route, which they hoped would force Enbridge to shut down the flow as a safety precaution. (That has yet to take place.) Enbridge claims to be in negotiations with the tribe on the issue, but no talks have taken place since last August. Cobenais, who calls the encampment a "pinch-point for Enbridge," says the new permanent structures will soon be going up above the pipelines until Enbridge turns off the oil.

 

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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Mar 11, 2013

Hope for the Devils

Tasmanian DevilTwo years ago, when I wrote Sympathy for the Devils (below) for Sierra's "Critter" department, the Tasmanian devil faced almost certain extinction on the Australian mainland due to a bizarre infectious cancer of the face. Today's good news from Nature is that there is hope for a vaccine, following identification of the mechanism by which the disease bypassed the devils' immune systems:

“It’s probably the most promising lead we’ve had for a vaccine since the initial characterization of the disease,” says immunogeneticist Hannah Siddle of the University of Cambridge, UK, who is first author of the report, published online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Read more at NatureThe original article follows: 

When what is now Australia separated from ancient Antarctica in the Miocene era, it became a laboratory for something called convergent evolution. Its marsupial mammals filled many of the same ecological niches dominated elsewhere by the more familiar placental mammals: Wolves were echoed by the (now extinct) thylacine, marmots by the vombatiforms (wombats and koalas), and wolverines by the fierce Tasmanian devil, the largest carnivorous marsupial.

Devils were extirpated from Australia before European contact, probably by dingoes. They survived and thrived, however, in dingo-free Tasmania, only to be nearly eliminated by white settlers who thought them a danger to sheep. Protected since 1941, they now face a new threat: a bizarre infectious cancer called devil facial tumor disease. The sickness is spread when amorous or aggressive devils bite each other on the mouth; the resultant tumors eventually leave the animals unable to eat. As few as 2,000 devils may remain in the wild, and all that stands between them and extinction are a couple of disease-free Australian refuges. Once the disease dies with the last wild devil, these arks could give the species the rarest of gifts: a second chance. —Paul Rauber

Tasmanian Devil in Tasmania's Something Wild Sanctuary by Dave Walsh

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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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Mar 07, 2013

The Hockey Stick Gets Sharper

Ellesmere islandThat the Earth’s atmosphere has warmed unnaturally since the dawn of the industrial era is accepted by anyone who follows climate issues (except, maybe, by those who think Oklahoma Sen. James Inhofe is on to something with his “hoax” claims). Now researchers from Oregon State University and Harvard have looked at data going back 11,300 years and confirmed that, yep, we’re in the middle of a massive heat spike. The study, posted today in the journal Science, concludes that temperatures have risen steadily since the end of the last ice age some 12,000 years ago, “leaving us now with a global temperature higher than those during 90% of the entire Holocene.” 

According to Candace Major, program director in the National Science Foundation's Division of Ocean Sciences, which co-funded the research, “This research shows that we’ve experienced almost the same range of temperature change since the beginning of the industrial revolution as over the previous 11,000 years of Earth history – but this change happened a lot more quickly.”

“The work reveals a fresh, and very long climate ‘hockey stick,’” writes the New York Times’ Andrew Revkin, referencing the now-familiar graph of global temperature changes. Revkin adds: “While the researchers, led by Shaun Marcott of Oregon State, conclude that the globe’s current average temperature has not exceeded the warmth that persisted for thousands of years after the last ice age ended, they say it will do so in this century under almost every postulated scenario for greenhouse gas emissions.” That conclusion is underscored by Penn State climatologist Michael Mann, who told Revkin: “The rate of warming appears to be unprecedented as far back as the authors are able to go (to the boundary with the last ice age). And the rate of warming appears to have no analog in the past, as far back as the authors are able to go.”

As if to underscore that sobering news, a recent study concludes that Canada’s Arctic glaciers are melting fast, and the process could be unstoppable. Published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, researchers concluded that 10 percent of Canada's Arctic glaciers may vanish by the end of the century, adding 1.4 inches to sea-level rise. According to lead author Dr. Jan Lenaerts of Utrecht University, "Even if we assume that global warming is not happening quite so fast, it is still highly likely that the ice is going to melt at an alarming rate. The chances of it growing back are very slim."

Image of Ellesmere Island, Canada by iStock/jerom400.

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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Fox Poll Finds Everyone Loves Keystone XL

AfpJust arrived in my inbox is a missive from Tim Phillips, president of the Koch brother's lobbying organization, Americans for Prosperity:

“President Obama has stalled long enough on Keystone, and is finally out of excuses. The final obstacle to the Keystone Pipeline was removed last month and now over 70% of the public, including 53% of Democrats, support the pipeline and the thousands of American jobs it will bring."

Oh really? Here's the wording of the poll, conducted by Anderson Robbins Research/Shaw Research:

A proposed oil pipeline known as Keystone XL would transport oil from Canada to refineries in the United States. Supporters of the pipeline say it would bring needed oil to the U.S., lowering gasoline costs and creating jobs. Opponents of the pipeline have environmental concerns, including the risk of a spill, and also say the pipeline would increase American dependence on oil. What about you -- do you think the pipeline should be built or not? (IF NOT SURE, ASK: Well, if you had to choose would you build it or not?)

Grace McRae, the Sierra Club's resident polling expert, points out the features that make it dubious.  For starters, she says,

this poll fails to mention that the Keystone XL pipeline would carry tar sand oil. In fact, the survey's question-wording could lead people to believe that the "oil" is conventional oil destined for the United States - not toxic tar sands to be exported to foreign countries. Fox claims that pipeline proponents say it would "bring needed oil to the U.S., lowering gasoline costs and creating jobs." The gas price argument is a flawed one, as even TransCanada economists have admitted that the pipeline would have no real impact on U.S. gasoline prices.

Also missing is any indication of the increased climate disruption that would follow from expansion of Canada's tar sands production. Finally, she points out, the poll pressures respondents not to say they are unsure or don't know. What the poll does establish is that a tendentious question can elicit the desired response.

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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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Mar 06, 2013

Every Country Becomes the Saudi Arabia of Oil

Oil rig in north dakotaRemember Peak Oil? The idea that we were running out of fossil fuels as early as, er, now -- which made it particularly critical that we ramp up renewables? Thanks to hydraulic fracturing, horizontal drilling, and deepwater drilling techniques, the world is facing a “deluge” of fossil fuels.

“Contrary to what most people believe, oil supply capacity is growing worldwide at such an unprecedented level that it might outpace consumption,” states Oil: The Next Revolution, a 2012 report by Harvard University's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. In a recent CNN op-ed, writer and former special assistant to President George W. Bush David Frum notes: “The International Energy Agency predicts that the United States will overtake Saudi Arabia and Russia to become (again!) the world's leading oil producer by 2017. If the agency's estimates prove correct, the United States and Canada together will become net energy exporters by about 2030, and the U.S., which uses 20% of the world's energy, will achieve energy self-sufficiency by the mid-2030s.”

And in Pacific Standard, a publication of the Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media and Public Policy, author Vince Beiser offers up a more-than-harrowing tour of oil and gas fields in North Dakota, Southern California, and Brazil, and gives us a hint of what’s in store for Argentina, Australia, Tanzania, Mozambique, China, Israel, several countries in Europe, the Gulf of Mexico, and elsewhere. Consider it a round-the-globe tour of glop.

Which reminds us that the issue of climate change will be tackled successfully (or not) on its own merits and political will, not because of fears of dry wells and apocalyptically empty fuel tanks. As Frum puts it, “Our oil problem is not that ‘we're running out.’ Our oil problem is that we're producing so much of the stuff that we are changing the planet's climate.” Beiser finds surprisingly helpful voices within the energy industry: “’There’s enough oil and gas out there to last us right through to the end of the next century, without much doubt,’ says David Eyton, head of research and technology at BP. The real problem, Eyton says, is that ‘we’re running out of the carbon-carrying capacity of the atmosphere.’”

Image of oil rig in North Dakota by iStock/mellypage.

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 04, 2013

You Can Stop Worrying About Keystone XL!

Pipeline

It's going to be able to cope with climate change just fine, says the State Department. Last Friday's long delayed draft supplemental environmental impact statement on the Keystone XL project downplayed the climate effects of building a giant pipeline to transport the world's dirtiest oil from the tar sands hell of Alberta to refineries in Texas. But it also examined the reverse situation: "the potential impact of climate change effects . . . on the construction and operation of the proposed Project itself."

The section starts off with a discussion of what climate model to use. The IPCC's 2012 report is considered, but it's noted that since "actual CO2 levels are currently higher than what was projected in the IPCC models, this analysis has taken a precautionary approach by using the worst-case projections."

What are those projections? "By 2040–2069, the national average annual temperature is predicted to increase above the baseline of 1980 to 2009 by between 2.8°F and 6.6°F. . . . [H]eat waves and warm spells will likely be more frequent, more intense, and longer in duration." The weather's going to be ugly too, acknowledges the State Department:

Annual precipitation is expected to increase across most of the climate regions from the 1980-2009 baseline. . . . More of the precipitation is predicted to be associated with severe storm events, which are projected to increase in frequency over future time periods. . . .Increased rainfall in a shortened time span increases the likelihood of flooding, soil submersion, heavy snow, runoff, sinkholes, riverbed scour, washouts, landslides, and (in mountain regions) avalanches."

 Sounds bad! How is the poor pipeline going to be able to cope with conditions like that?

"Keystone has confirmed that [its] design standards are sufficient to accommodate an increased number of hot days or consecutive hot days. Keystone has also stated that because the proposed pipeline would be buried to at least 4 feet of cover to the top of the pipe [sic], it would be below most surface temperature impacts, including wild fires and frequent freezing and thawing."

The report is similarly reassuring with respect to flooding:

"Keystone has confirmed that the design of pipeline crossings of all waterbodies is required. . . to accommodate lateral stream migration and scour. In addition, areas where subsidence is known to be present will be designed accordingly."

Alrighty then! The upshot is that even in the worst possible scenario, with blistering heat waves, wildfires sweeping the prairies, and deluges scouring the streams and rivers, the Keystone XL pipeline will be able to carry on its business of fueling exactly those catastrophic effects. The public now has 45 days to comment on the project; you can do so here.

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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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