Sierra Daily: October 2010

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26 posts from October 2010

Oct 29, 2010

World Series of Climate

Texas and California couldn’t have more different styles, and we’re not just talking about the World Series now under way in baseball parks in San Francisco and Arlington, Texas.

On Friday, California unveiled the final draft of its long awaited cap-and trade plan for curbing greenhouse gases. In 2006, the state passed AB32, which requires it to return to 1990 levels of greenhouse gas emissions by 2020.

Meanwhile, Texas announced that it will not meet new federal greenhouse-gas emission rules that go into effect in January. In its refusal to join 49 other states in agreeing to the federal rules, the Texas Commission on Environment Quality and state Attorney General Greg Abbot told the EPA: "Texas has neither the authority nor the intention of interpreting, ignoring or amending its laws in order to compel the permitting of greenhouse gas emissions.”

Former presidents and oil men George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush will be throwing out the ceremonial first pitch at Sunday’s crucial Game 4 in Texas. It would be awfully snarky to say something like “Let’s hope they don’t follow their adopted state’s energy policy and throw in the wrong direction.”

-- Reed “Fear the Beard” McManus

Above: California environmentalists mess with Texas outside San Francisco's AT&T Park, reminding local baseball fans that two propositions on next Tuesday's ballot heavily favor oil companies, and that one of them -- Proposition 23 -- is bankrolled by Texas oil companies. 

Oct 28, 2010

Arnold Schwarzenegger, Climate Hawk

It was little more than a week ago that the "climate hawk" was first identified as a species, and now you see them everywhere. In case you haven't been following, climate hawks are those who "understand climate change and support clean energy but do not share the rest of the ideological and sociocultural commitments that define environmentalism as historically understood in the U.S."

The textbook example of climate hawkdom just gave an interview with ABC's Dianne Sawyer, in which he offered a spirited attack on Proposition 23, the oil-company-funded attack on his state's landmark global warming initiative. Soon to be term limited out of office, he doesn't hold anything back. Watch:


--Paul Rauber

Oct 25, 2010

A Conservative Carbon Tax?

Could environmentalists be the wrong ones to pushfor action on climate change? The Intertubes are all aflutter with news of the discovery of a new species: the climate hawk, one of those who "understand climate change and support clean energy but do not share the rest of the ideological and sociocultural commitments that define environmentalism as historically understood in the U.S."

Personally, I wouldn't mind if someone didn't like cute furry creatures as long as they could get tough climate legislation past Congress. Just look at what's going on across the pond, where the United Kingdom's ruling Conservative Party is instituting a $1.5-billion carbon tax on 4,000 of the country's largest businesses. As part of the new government's enormous deficit-reduction push, any company or public-sector body that uses more than 6,000 megawatt hours of electricity a year will pay a price of £13 per ton (excuse me, "tonne") for starters. Originally the money collected through this "Carbon Reduction Commitment" was to be returned to the most energy efficient companies--what we call in this country a "feebate." Times being what they are, however, the fees will now go to help relieve Britain's massive deficit.

Could it catch on here? We've got the big deficit; no one in Washington is showing much enthusiasm for raising personal taxes; and even politicians running on platforms of deficit reduction are having a hard time identifying any government programs they might actually cut. All we need to do is to get the climate hawks to crossbreed with the deficit hawks and we're on our way.

--Paul Rauber


Oct 22, 2010

The Greenest Battle Ever

Call it the battle of Old and Mean versus New and Green. This week, Microsoft founder Bill Gates coughed up a $700,000 contribution to California’s No on 23 campaign, joining those trying to thwart an initiative on the state’s upcoming November ballot that would suspend California’s landmark 2006 global warming law, AB 32. That law put California on a path to reducing greenhouse gases to 1990 levels by 2020 and promotes clean-energy innovation.

The top nerd’s contribution gets added to those of other high-technology heavy-hitters, according to Politico: “Tom Steyer, a billionaire from his work as managing partner of Farallon Capital Management, has donated $5 million. Venture capitalist John Doerr and his wife, Ann, have given $2 million. Other big spenders include Vinod Khosla, former chairman and CEO of Sun Microsystems, who is now working in venture capital ($1.037 million); former Intel CEO Gordon Moore ($1 million); and Wendy Schmidt, wife of Google CEO Eric Schmidt ($500,000).

It turns out California’s green is economic as well as environmental. California companies collect 60 percent of the country’s clean-technolgy venture capital, according to the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, a trade association, and California has registered more clean technology patents than any other state. The No on 23 forces have amassed $28 million

On the other side of the debate, Texas oil giants Tesoro and Valero have been the largest contributors to a $9.1 million pool to suspend AB 32 until the state unemployment rate drops to 5.5 percent for four consecutive quarters –- something that has happened only three times in the past 40 years. Prop 23 would require the refiners to install new emission-control tools. The two are joined by oil conglomerate Koch Industries, which donated $1 million to defeat AB 32.

--Reed McManus


The Race to Raze

Peter and Maria Hoey

The world is rapidly going bald. Satellite imagery reveals that in the first part of this decade, logging, beetle infestation, and wildfires stripped Earth of more than 3 percent of its forest cover. The largest total losses occurred in the nations with the largest forests--Brazil and Canada--but the highest rate of deforestation was in the United States, which ended 2005 with 6 percent less forest than it had in 2000. The ecosystems hammered the hardest were not tropical rainforests but the boreal forests of northern Canada and Russia.

--Paul Rauber

Oct 21, 2010

Too Bad Coal Ash Isn't Red

Hungary_red_sludge_spill_200Reporter Elisabeth Rosenthal has a great essay on the invaluable Yale Environment 360 about the under-appreciated distortion of popular attitudes toward environmental dangers based on what we might call "perceived yuckiness." You're a lot more likely to be killed by a deer (because it causes your car to crash) thank by, say, a giant reticulated python, but death by python seems way more yucky, so we worry more about snakes than deer. Rosenthal's example is the horrific spill earlier this month of red sludge from a Hungarian aluminum plant's tailing pond, which she reported on for the New York Times. Ten people were killed, primarily by drowning, and more than 100 burned by the highly alkaline mud.

I was one of the reporters dispatched to     the site. For nearly a week, scenes of this jarring, red-coated vision of hell were splashed across the Internet and front pages and led the newscasts on television stations across the globe. Those images turned a formerly obscure industrial waste called “red mud” into a brief captivating symbol of environmental danger — even though, on the hierarchy of industrial wastes, “red mud” is not all that toxic.

But humans react much more to threats that look evil, like this waste from bauxite processing, than to more serious risks that our senses don’t see or don’t perceive as so jarring. It is harder to gin up outrage about invisible greenhouse gas emissions, or the relatively muted hues of cyanide containing waste from gold processing, or even coal mine tailings, which are monochromatic. It was far easier to be captivated by the vision of Kolantar’s neat stucco homes coated with red slime. The yuck factor was incredibly high.

Rosenthal's counterexample is a huge issue the Sierra Club is doggedly trying to bring to public attention--the ubiquitous ponds of coal-ash slurry left over from the burning of coal in power plants.

“Reporters were asking me, ‘Has anything like this ever happened here?’” David Graham-Caso, a spokesman for the Sierra Club, recalled this week.

“Well, yes, two years ago,” he said, referring to a massive coal ash sludge spillthat occurred days before Christmas, 2008, in Kingston, Tenn. “In Tennessee, there were billions of gallons of toxic sludge washing up on peoples’ doorsteps.” It barely made the news. The problem: The lead villain was brown, the color mud was supposed to be, rather than blood red, which would have provided Roger Corman horror-film contrast.

It's not something to complain about, really--lurid disasters will always capture the imagination more than invisible ones, just as attractive candidates have an edge with voters. We can't get rid of our biases, but we can be aware of them.

--Paul Rauber 

Oct 20, 2010

Hold On To That Balloon, Kid

The next time you take a drag off a party balloon to amuse your friends with your impression of Alvin and the Chipmunks, consider this: Your squeaky-voiced antics will be sending some of Earth's few remaining molecules of helium irretrievably into the vastness of space.

At present rates of consumption, the world's supply of helium could be exhausted in three decades. "Once it is released into the atmosphere, it is lost to the earth forever," Nobel physicist Robert C. Richardson explained in a recent lecture. The world may be able to survive without Mylar party favors (which, if Richardson had his way, would cost $100 each), but helium is essential to many less-frivolous products: MRI machines, liquid-fueled rockets, microchips, and fiber-optic cables. Scientists are already complaining that helium shortages are delaying research and driving up cost.

The bulk of the world's dwindling supply, 1 billion cubic meters, currently rests in the underground Federal Helium Reserve near Amarillo, Texas, created in 1925 and maintained by the Bureau of Land Management. In 1996 Congress decided to liquidate the reserve by requiring that its contents be sold off by 2015. That decision artificially lowered the price of the gas. This, combined with skyrocketing helium use by China and India, has led to the rapid disappearance of an element that it took 4.5 billion years of radioactive decay to produce. Scientists say there's no cost-effective way to synthesize helium or reclaim it from the atmosphere. Once it's gone, there will be an empty place-setting on the periodic table--an ignoble fate for a noble gas.

--Dashka Slater

Oct 19, 2010

Keeping Up With China

China turbine China’s incentives for low-carbon projects are almost triple those of the United States, according to a new report by the Sydney-based Climate Institute. Measuring efforts to spur renewable energy projects and to tax fossil fuels, and then adjusting for purchasing power in the respective countries, the study estimates that the U.K. spends $29.30 U.S. per ton of carbon on energy incentives, with China coming in second at $14.20. The U.S. trails far behind at $5.10, followed by Japan at $3.10, Australia at $1.70, and South Korea at $0.70.

Clean energy seems good for business, too: China recently overtook the U.S. atop a quarterly index of the most attractive countries for renewable-energy projects compiled by the global accounting firm Ernst & Young. Three of the world’s top ten wind turbine manufacturers, measured in megawatts produced, are based in China.

"The Chinese leadership have made a strategic decision that they missed out on the last two industrial revolutions and they don't want to miss out on the third one," Erwin Jackson, director of the Climate Institute, told AFP.

Don’t get too giddy: China is the world’s top carbon polluter, having passed the U.S. in 2006-2007. And none of the six countries studied was on track to meet reduction targets agreed on after last year's climate summit in Copenhagen.

--Reed McManus

Oct 18, 2010

"I'm ignorant and I approve this message."

Dan Weiss, former political director at the Sierra Club and now director of climate strategy at the Center for American Progress, thinks this clip from UCB Comedy proves that Sierra Club chairman Carl Pope and I were ahead of our time with our 2004 Sierra Club book (sadly no longer available!) Strategic Ignorance: Why the Bush Administration is Recklessly Destroying a Century of Environmental Progress.


Sound like any candidates you know? Weiss may be right: If enough of the ignoramuses get elected, Strategic Ignorance may need a major update.

--Paul Rauber

Going Green…So You Don’t Have To?

Barrels4 Two years ago, Susan Carpenter, writer of the Los Angeles Times’ Realist Idealist column, made herself a guinea pig and her bungalow the laboratory for an experiment that looked "at environmentally promising home improvement projects through the eyes of a budget-minded consumer.” This past weekend she wrote up her conclusions, with an eye toward what worked (for her) economically and practically. “The idealist in me finds value in every improvement, but the realist can't deny that some have been far better in terms of payback — if not financially, at least morally. The systems that easily fold in to my busy life are the ones I've enjoyed most,” Carpenter writes.

Among Carpenter's top picks: a gray water system, solar power, and rain barrels. Those efficiencies that cause her to have “second thoughts” include a waterwall, edible landscaping, a composting toilet, and backyard chickens.

--Reed McManus

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