Sierra Daily: August 2011

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36 posts from August 2011

Aug 30, 2011

The Dog That Didn't Bark

Watch the full episode. See more PBS NewsHour.

The clip above from the PBS Newshour is as fine an introduction to the debate over Canadian tar sands and the ruinous Keystone XL Pipeline as you could wish for. (Today actress Daryl Hannah and renowned climate scientist James Hansen joined the more than 500 people who have been arrested thus far protesting the proposed pipeline in front of the White House.) It's also valuable for another reason, but you have to watch it first. That's OK, I'll wait.

Alrighty, anything strike you as strange about that interview? It's not what McKibben or Bryce said--it's what PBS's Jeffrey Brown never asked: "But Mr. Bryce, what's the use of cheap, abundant, and reliable fossil fuel if it leads to catastrophic climate change?" Fossil fuel flacks almost never get asked that question in forums where they can be quizzed about their answers. Bryce could have tried the sort of dodge that works so well for many politicians ("Well, I think the science on that is unsettled. . ."), but a smart guy like McKibben would have hit that argument out of the park. And that gets at what I think is the value for Big Coal and Big Oil and Big Tar Sands in promoting climate denialism: By ghettoizing climate change as a "political" issue, they can scare off even journalists who know better from asking tough follow-up questions out of fear of appearing "partisan."

--Paul Rauber

Aug 29, 2011

Forest or Vine

It’s the kind of to-the-point bumper sticker that’ll make even entitled wine snobs stop the Lexus and think. “Don’t Drink Chainsaw Wine” is the message of  Friends of the Gualala River, a scrappy all-volunteer conservation group in rural northwestern Sonoma County, California, that is trying to block two wineries’ plans to replace redwood forest with pinot noir vines.

Despite the down economy, the winery business is remaking Northern California’s coastal ranges. Writes the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat: “Vineyard expansion over the past two decades has more than doubled the bearing acreage for wine grapes in Sonoma County to nearly 57,000, and pushed the regional tally — including Napa, Lake and Mendocino counties — up by about 75 percent, to more than 111,000 acres.”

The 1,900 acres to be cleared for pinot, vineyard supporters, er, whine, is only second-growth redwood: 95 percent of the region’s original redwoods were logged years ago, and the lands in question are former timber company properties. But saying a 75-year-old redwood is worthy of sacrifice may be missing the point that they are well on their way to becoming 300-year-old redwoods. As Chris Poehlmann, head of Friends of the Gualala River, recently told the Los Angeles Times (in an article aptly titled “Redwoods Versus Red Wine”), “These vineyards are biological deserts. It's worse than a clear cut. This is permanent conversion from a natural landscape and it has its consequences.”

-- Reed McManus

Bare New World

Arct0092With the Arctic warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet, its increasingly ice-free shipping lanes are inviting what's being called a "cold rush." The promise of valuable deposits of fossil fuels, iron, diamonds, gold, and uranium-and the coming ability to transport them by sea—has the circumpolar nations jockeying for territory. In 2007 a Russian submarine planted a flag on the seafloor beneath the North Pole, and Canada and Denmark are tussling over tiny Hans Island, which lies midway between Canada and Greenland.

In May, the United States dispatched an unusually high-level delegation of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar to the meeting of the Arctic Council in Nuuk, Greenland—preceded by a show of force a few weeks earlier when two nuclear-powered submarines were sent 150 miles north of Prudhoe Bay, Alaska. Major mines already in operation include an open-pit diamond mine in Canada's Northwest Territories and gold mines in Canada, Greenland, and Siberia.

A huge iron mine (recently acquired by Lakshmi Mittal, the richest man in Britain) on Canada's Baffin Island could begin operations in 2016. "The estimated oil, natural gas, and strategic mineral reserves in the Arctic are staggering and of strategic economic importance," says Barry Zellen, research director of the Arctic Security Project at the Naval Postgraduate School.

Zellen, a self-described "Arctic optimist," sees the Arctic as a future crossroads of the world, full of amicable trade. But the strategic stakes have sharp elbows flying. Canada insists on its sovereignty over the Northwest Passage, a claim the United States ignores. And last year Russia announced it would deploy two brigades of troops to the Arctic to "counter potential threats to its energy and mineral interests in the region."

—Juliana Hanle

Photo by Kelly Elliott NOAA/OAR/OER. The USCG Icebreaker HEALY cutting through ice sheets in the Arctic Ocean.

Aug 26, 2011

Not Just A River In Egypt


That's massive Hurricane Irene barrelling toward the Eastern seaboard, as seen by NOAA's GOES-13 satellite at 10:45 a.m. EDT. As folks stocked up on water and food, they could listen to two gripping stories on NPR's Morning Edition: Wade Goodwyn reporting on the collapse of the cattle industry in East Texas due to the terrible drought there, and a companion piece by John Burnett on the drought's devastating toll on wildlife, with rescue centers flooded with dying animals, many of them babies whose mothers lacked the milk to feed them.

At the end of a normal summer, cicadas usually serenade Texas Hill Country. But even the cicadas have been quieted by the Texas drought, and nobody knows when it will end.

Great stories, except that each lacked two crucial words: Climate change. It cannot be said enough: While no single weather event can be linked to global warming, the recent increase in extreme weather events is consistent with what climate models predicted. Yet many news organizations--yes, I'm talking to you, New York Times--remain unwilling to make that link. And here's the result: According to a new Gallup poll, fewer Americans perceive global warming as a threat and believe it is caused even in part by human action than did in 2007-2008.


This is not the time to be going backward. Good luck to all our friends back East.

--Paul Rauber

What's In Your Goo?

Pensacola epa A new report by the public-interest law firm Earthjustice and the online toxicology encyclopedia Toxipedia dives into the still-too-murky world of the safety of chemical dispersants, a year after the Deepwater Horizon accident in the Gulf of Mexico. The Chaos of Clean-Up tries to make sense of the chemical ingredients that were eligible for use at the time of the disaster, despite the fact that the “ingredients and formulas for various dispersants on the market typically are not available and it is not fully known which chemical ingredients among the 57 are found in which dispersant.”

A Heinz 57 recipe this is not: 5 of the chemicals are associated with cancer; 33 with skin irritation; 11 are suspected or potential respiratory toxins or irritants; and 10 are suspected kidney toxins. Eight of the chemicals are suspected or known to be toxic to aquatic organisms and 5 are suspected to have a moderate acute toxicity to fish.

The ocean of unknowns leads the report to call for “more research, greater disclosure of the information that is known, comprehensive toxicity testing, the establishment of safety criteria for dispersants, and careful selection of the least toxic dispersants for application in oil spill response.”

-- Reed McManus

Image: EPA. Clean-up in Pensacola, Florida.

Bicycle-Eating Trees

LW_01This striking image of a bicycle-eating tree on Washington's Vashon Island (it appears in Sierra's September/October issue), struck reader Janet McLane of Dandridge, Tennessee, as poignant:

The picture on the "last word" page in the September issue is so sad. No child would have willing left their bike chained to a tree. What could have taken a child away, never to return?

A little research reveals--that no one seems to know. (That didn't stop cartoonist Berkeley Breathed--of Bloom County fame--from writing a "guaranteed true Christmas story" about it: Red Ranger Came Calling.) A similar mystery surrounds a sycamore near Loch Lomond in Scotland--the "Bicycle Tree." One sentimental explanation is that a young man left his bicycle next to it and then went off to World War I, never to return. The fact that the tree also holds an anchor, however, lends credence to the alternate history that has a nearby blacksmith hanging his wares on the tree, which eventually enveloped them.

--Paul Rauber

Photo by Ethan Welty/Tandem



Aug 25, 2011

Good Green Jobs

As reported today by Business News Daily, the Beyond.com Career Trend Analysis Report, a quarterly analysis of job and career data, highlights five “hot new job titles,” two of which involve doing good for the Earth: “green consultant” and, ahem, “eco-friendly freelance writer.” The former is the broad category that spans “helping organizations evaluate and improve internal environmental processes to aiding in the implementation of green strategies.” The latter is the not-so-posh world of providing “tips and information about green and eco-friendly living.”

Well, it does figure: A recent Brooking Institution report noted that there are currently 2.7 million “clean economy” jobs in the U.S., neatly edging out the number of “fossil fuel” jobs (2.4 million). Of course, they’re all dwarfed by the 4.78 million jobs in the information technology field. Which is one reason that, if you are somewhat skeptical about those green-freelance riches, you may want to pay closer attention to the three emerging job titles in the technology sector: Apple Store “genius” (aka retail tech advisor), Silverlight developer (for the ever-burgeoning world of multimedia and streaming video), and iPhone developer.

-- Reed McManus

Let's Cut Entitlements!

The joint House/Senate "Super Committee" is about to get down to work, looking for $1.2 trillion in budget cuts by Thanksgiving. Some parties are urging the participants to target the so-called "entitlement" programs: Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. But Grandpa and Grandma aren't the only entitled ones out there, and the just-released 2011 Green Scissors report has lots of helpful suggestions ($380 billion worth, in fact) of environmentally harmful subsidies they say we could well do without. Here's their fossil fuel section:


Like the man said, $29 billion here, $6 billion there, pretty soon you're talking about real money. Nor is this just the usual enviro wishlist; in addition to Friends of the Earth and Public Citizen, Green Scissors includes the deficit hawks at Taxpayers for Common Sense and free marketeers from The Heartland Institute. (Inclusion of the latter gives our friends at Climate Progress heartburn.) Aside from ending the fossil fuel subsidies, Green Scissors also proposes to snip subsidies for the nuclear industry and--ouch!--renewable energy loan guarantees. If that's what it took to finally get rid of subsidies to the oil industry, though . . . At least we wouldn't have to shake down Grandma for the cash.

--Paul Rauber



Aug 24, 2011

Wasted Efficiency


No, it isn't a young John Muir. The guy at right is William Stanley Jevons, a 19th century English economist and formulator of Jevons' Paradox, which holds that when technology makes the use of a resource more efficient, use of that resource tends to increase rather than decrease. At the time, the argument was over the rate of coal burning. Nearly 150 years later, it still is.

Below is a chart from the Pew Center on Global Climate Change (via the invaluable Brad Plumer) showing how energy is used in American homes. Most notably, a huge chunk goes to air conditioning (an expense that is increasing as climate change makes extreme temperatures more routine). But air conditioners are becoming vastly more efficient--as are lights, refrigerators, etc. Homeenergyuse1 
Sounds great, right? But here's the rub: Chart #2 shows home-energy use over time. Energy intensity is declining--that energy efficiency at work, reducing the per-square-foot cost. But thanks to the increasing gigantism of new U.S. homes, the size of the average house is increasing (nearly 20% since 1980), and energy use is increasing even more.

Here's Pew:

GHG [greenhouse gas] emissions from buildings have increased as building size has increased. In the residential sector, the number of homes and the size of these homes have been increasing over time. As homes grow larger, more energy is generally needed for heating, cooling, and lighting. Over time, homes also have added more appliances and consumer electronics.

Efficiency is still key, but it's only half the battle. We don't necessarily have to go as far as the couple below, but something's gotta give.


--Paul Rauber

Aug 22, 2011

Keep on Truckin'...Just Use Less Gas

Ford truck
Today, automakers Ford and Toyota announced that they would work together to develop hybrid powertrains for trucks and SUVs. It’s a big deal – not just because the manufacturers are taking newly minted fuel-economy rules seriously – but because they are taking seriously the idea that all their vehicles can be fuel-efficient. While some eco-minded vehicle buyers need little incentive to opt for a high-mpg hybrid Toyota Prius or Ford Fusion, there are plenty of truck buyers who require the kind of horsepower and towing ability that haven’t been available with a cargo bed attached. As for the necessity of mall-hopping SUVs, this writer reserves judgment. In any case, Ford itself saw SUV sales spike 31 percent from July of last year to July of this year, so the big beasts will be sticking around, and they need all the mpg help they can get.

-- Reed McManus

Image: Ford. Construction dudes need hybrids, too.

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