Sierra Daily: June 2011

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24 posts from June 2011

Jun 30, 2011

Don't Sweat the Small Stuff


(click image to enlarge)

Does eating bananas make you feel guilty? After all, they had to travel thousands of miles to reach your breakfast cereal. But the carbon footprint of a banana is only one-fifth that of a pint of imported beer. How about using plastic bags? It turns out that a paper bag has a carbon footprint two to four times larger than that of its plastic counterpart. These are among the surprising conclusions of Mike Berners-Lee's lively How Bad Are Bananas? (Greystone, 2011), which refreshingly fesses up to the "impossibly complex" fuzziness involved in calculating climate impact. A true life cycle analysis includes not only an item's manufacture and transportation but also everything from the extraction of raw materials to a prorated share of the company CEO's mansion. Berners-Lee makes a stab at precise numbers but is mostly concerned with "trying to get the orders of magnitude clear," as shown above. He also has a lively blog devoted to carbon-footprint issues here.

--Paul Rauber

Graphic by Peter and Maria Hoey

Jun 29, 2011

Stop Moaning and Speak Up


So, when's the last time you called your Representative about how important climate change/clean energy/wilderness protection was to you? Uh huh. And when was the last time you rewarded said Representative for voting the right way with a little campaign cash at election time? Uh huh. Well, that explains a lot. Because here comes Harvard sociology professor Howard Schuman with the graphs to show why grumping about an issue on Facebook just isn't going to cut it. Here (via the Monkey Cage) he looks at surveys of attitudes (for example) toward gun laws. The graph at right shows strong attitudes pro and con requiring gun owners to obtain a license from the police: pretty even in 1978, with a substantial edge for those favoring registration in 2011. You'd think that that would result in legislation requiring registration for gun ownership, wouldn't you? Until you looked at Schuman's next graph:Gunwritemoney  

This time the question was:

Have you ever written a letter [2011: or sent an email] to a public official expressing your views on gun permits or given money to an organization concerned with this issue?

So even though the numbers favoring and opposing registration were fairly even in 1978, and weighted toward registration in 2011, the folks on the other side did the heavy lifting of writing their representatives and giving money to the NRA. Game, set, match.

--Paul Rauber

Jun 27, 2011

Doomed Whale Redeemed

A peculiarly riveting kind of story is that in which humans make amends to individual animals for the sins of their kind. Michael Fishbach's wonderful tale of his encounter with a humpback whale entangled in a fishing net in the Sea of Cortez is the perfect example of the genre: A bit slow to start, full of drama, ultimately redemptive. My kids especially enjoyed the Greek chorus role of the small child off-camera. For those who aren't in the right place at the right time with a sharp knife, visit Earth Island's Great Whale Conservancy here.

 --Paul Rauber

Jun 23, 2011

Before Climate-Change Deniers, Flat Earthers

The anti-scientific, anti-intellectual approach favored by today's myriad climate-change deniers (latest is Rep. Dana Rohrabacher [R-DeNile] attacking Al Gore as "Looney Tunes on the issue of global warming") has a long history in this country. Yesterday the cartographic world was abuzz with the news that one of two known U.S. maps showing the earth as flat had been donated to the Library of Congress. (Click to expand.)

The "Map of a Square and Stationary Earth" was drawn by Prof. Orlando Ferguson of Hot Springs, South Dakota, and first printed in 1893. "Send 25 Cents to the Author, Prof. Orlando Ferguson, for a book explaining this Square and Stationary Earth," says a note at bottom. "It Knocks the Globe Theory Clean Out. It will Teach You How to Foretell Eclipses. It is Worth Its Weight in Gold." That "Globe Theory" would be the prevailing view that, uh, the earth is a globe. It's wonderfully lampooned in this detail cartoon:


Ferguson's rhetorical style is oddly reminiscent of that deployed by Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) in ridiculing the notion that carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases are leading to the warming of the earth's atmosphere:

Carbon dioxide, Mister Speaker, is a natural byproduct of nature. Carbon dioxide is natural. It occurs in Earth. It is a part of the regular lifecycle of Earth. In fact, life on planet Earth can’t even exist without carbon dioxide. So necessary is it to human life, to animal life, to plant life, to the oceans, to the vegetation that’s on the Earth, to the, to the fowl that — that flies in the air, we need to have carbon dioxide as part of the fundamental lifecycle of Earth.

That Bachmann--she knocks the warming theory clean out!

--Paul Rauber





Jun 21, 2011

Experts Agree, Citizens Don't

Network1 Under the disheartening headline “Climate Change: Public Skeptical, Scientists Sure” comes NPR’s reporting on recent studies of Americans’ views of climate change: a Yale University Project on Climate Change poll called “Climate Change in the American Mind,” and a Pew Research Center poll called "Beyond Red vs. Blue,” which found that the public is less likely to believe in climate change than it was five years ago.

Among many enlightening if tear-out-your-hair tidbits, Yale’s Anthony Leiserowitz asked citizens to estimate how climate scientists feel about global warming. "Only 13 percent of Americans got the correct answer,” he says, “which is that in fact about 97 percent of American scientists say that climate change is happening, and about a third of Americans just simply say they don't know."

The Yale poll can be found here and the Pew report here.

--Reed McManus

Flame Retardants That Don't Retard Flame

"Why can't I wear those flame-retardant nightgowns?" my six-year old asked the other night. "They're so pretty!" The answer, my child, is that your parents are more concerned about your little endocrine system than in whatever scant protection a flame-retardant nightgown might provide in case of a fire. And here comes a study to back us up! A peer-reviewed study being presented today at the 10th International Symposium on Fire Safety Science at the University of Maryland finds that the high levels of flame retardant chemicals in child furniture and other products neither prevented nor retarded fires.

 "The evaluation of the fire safety benefits . . .is simple," says lead author, Dr. Vyto Babruskas. "There are no benefits."

There are plenty of hazards, though, according to the authors: "reduced IQ in children, reduced fertility, endocrine and thyroid disruption, changes in male hormone levels, adverse birth outcomes, and impaired development."

The study hasn't been posted yet, but you can find more at the Green Science Policy Institute. Also, the "On the One Hand, On the Other Hand" department in the new Sierra treads similar ground with a look at the flame retardants added to polystyrene insulation: "[F]ire experts say the chemicals don't actually stop the insulation from burning." See bottom of page here.

--Paul Rauber 


Jun 20, 2011

Experts Agree! Climate Scientists Rock!

Today, the Supreme Court unanimously rejected a lawsuit brought by six states, New York City and several land trusts that asked the court to treat carbon-dioxide emissions from power plants as a “public nuisance.” No need to be entirely glum about the result, though. While it is too bad that the Supremes aren’t willing to force electric utilities to clean up their acts without waiting for federal regulators, they did affirm that the matter must be addressed by, get this, the experts. Not to judges or legislators, no matter how well-meaning (or not) they may be. Thanks to the folks at Think Progress, here is that part of the court’s decision:

“It is altogether fitting that Congress designated an expert agency, here, EPA, as best suited to serve as primary regulator of greenhouse gas emissions. The expert agency is surely better equipped to do the job than individual district judges issuing ad hoc, case-by-case injunctions. Federal judges lack the scientific, economic, and technological resources an agency can utilize in coping with issues of this order.”

--Reed McManus

Busy as Bees


Wild honeybee colonies are reeling from the same "colony collapse disorder" that is decimating commercial hives. Suspicion is coming to rest on a class of pesticides known as neonicotinoids--but, as David Darlington reports in the new issue of Sierra, even though the EPA has found the pesticides to be "highly toxic" to bees, the agency is painfully slow in doing anything about it.

In big agricultural states like California, growers often rent European bees to pollinate their crops. A new study in the journal Rangelands by 2007 MacArthur Foundation "genius" winner Claire Kremen finds, however, that more than a third of the pollination "services" in the state come not from rent-a-bees but from wild colonies, mostly living in natural habitats adjacent to fields. "We would never invest all of our retirement savings in just one stock," says Kremen, but this is essentially what farmers do when they rely solely on European honeybees for pollination." (More here.) Kremen puts the ecosystem value of native bees at up to $2.4 billion for California alone. Noting that many of these hardworking wild bees live in cattle rangelands, Kremen draws the obvious moral from Oklahoma: "The farmer and the cowman should be friends."

--Paul Rauber

--image Konrad Wothe/Picture Press/Photolibrary

Jun 16, 2011

Agog Over Google

Tuesday’s news that Google is investing $280 million in solar-power-system company SolarCity to help homeowners put solar panels on their rooftops has garnered plenty of press. According to AP, Google's change “is expected to pay for 10,000 rooftop systems that will be installed over the next 18 months.”

The rooftop deal is the latest installment of the search engine giant’s plan to help develop renewable energy that is cheaper than electricity from coal-fired power plants, outlined by Google CEO and co-founder Larry Page in 2007. Google’s earlier solar investments include $168 million for a solar thermal power plant in California’s Mojave Desert and $5 million for a solar photovoltaic plant near Berlin. The company’s wind investments include $100 million in Oregon, $55 million in California’s Tehachapi Pass, and $38.8 in North Dakota.

An internet company has a gargantuan energy appetite, so it’s easy -- necessary, perhaps -- to be skeptical of even the most impressive deeds. According to the Montreal Gazette, “If the Internet was a country, it would be the planet’s fifth-biggest consumer of power, ahead of India and Germany. The Internet’s power needs now rival those of the aviation industry and are expected to nearly double by 2020.” In 2009, Google debated the energy requirements of individual online searches, while a  recent Greenpeace analysis of the energy demands of corporate data centers netted the company a C for its “infrastructure siting,” a B for its “mitigation strategy, and a scorching F for its "transparency."

Want to learn more? Google it.

--Reed McManus

What a Dollar Will Get You

The new issue of Lapham's Quarterly, the iconoclastic "magazine of history and ideas" put out by former Harper's editor Lewis Lapham, is devoted to the ever-popular subject of Food. From Seamus Heaney's account of Beowulf's feasting at Hrothgar to a cranky jeremiad against "Pastoral Romance" by Brent Cunningham, there are morsels for just about everyone. Plus infographics! Consider here how many and what kind of calories you can buy for a dollar:

Explains a lot about U.S. agriculture. Moral: If you're looking for the cheapest possible calories, buy a Coke.

--Paul Rauber

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