Sierra Daily: September 2011

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31 posts from September 2011

Sep 30, 2011

Make Way For Clean Cars

Quad map large 2

This week the U.S. Department of Energy’ released its "Quadrennial Technology Review," which calls for a shift in federal research dollars “away from clean electricity and biofuels toward electric vehicles and modernizing the power grid,” according to Reuters. DOE’s reasoning? “We find that DOE is underinvested in the transportation sector relative to the stationary sector (energy efficiency, grid, and electric power). Yet, reliance on oil is the greatest immediate threat to U.S. economic and national security, and also contributes to the long-term threat of climate change.” Click on the image above to see how much the transportation sector factors in the U.S. "energy flow."

As explained by the New York Times Green blog, “The report emphasizes the need to replace oil rather than fuels like coal and natural gas, which are supplanted by electricity-generating solar and wind power. (There is very little oil used to generate electricity in the United States.) And in the quest to replace oil, work on electric vehicles should be prioritized over alternative fuels, the study said.”

-- Reed McManus

Image: Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. Total energy input in the U.S. in 2009 was approximately 95 quadrillion british thermal units. Of that, 35.27 quads was petroleum, of which 26.98 quads went into transportation.

A World Without Chocolate


"Charlie felt it worst of all. And although his father and mother often went without their own share of lunch or supper so that they could give it to him, it still wasn't nearly enough for a growing boy. He desperately wanted something more filling and satisfying than cabbage and cabbage soup. The one thing he longed for more than anything else was . . . CHOCOLATE." 

In the not-too-distant future we could all be like Charlie Bucket, in a world where chocolate is as rare as a golden ticket. A report from the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation) warns that "Climate change . . . could transform the cherished chocolate bar into a luxury few can afford." An expected increase in temperatures in West Africa of 2.3 degrees Celsius "will render many of the region’s cocoa-producing areas too hot for the plants that bear the fruit from which chocolate is made." In addition, chocolate plantations in West Africa and Brazil are being ravaged by deadly viruses and fungi as farmers plant in more marginal areas, a trend likely to increase as temperatures increase. The good news of the ICTA report is that, with enough advance warning and planning, West African farmers now dependent on cacao could switch to other, less heat sensitive crops. Cabbage, perhaps?

--Paul Rauber


Sep 28, 2011

Go Give a Tree a Hug. A Really Big Hug.

Hemlock 2 It turns out that plants consume carbon dioxide 25 percent faster than previously thought, according to a new study published in the journal Nature and reported by Reuters. A team led by Lisa Welp-Smith of California’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography found that plants may absorb 16 to 19 times mankind's total CO2 emissions.

Before the crowing begins from climate skeptics like billionaire David Koch and others from the global-warming-is-good-for-you camp (watch the hilariously awful video The Greening of Planet Earth sponsored by the Western Fuels Association in 1992 here and here, Welp-Smith warns that her team’s study does not mean that more carbon is being locked away by plants: "If we are right, and GPP [gross primary production] needs to be revised upward by about 25 percent, it means that our fundamental understanding of how land plants function on the global scale is still a bit fluid," Welp-Smith told Reuters. “It means more CO2 is passing through plants, not that it actually stays there very long." (She was even more direct to Agence France-Press: "The extra CO2 taken up as photosynthesis is most likely returned right back to the atmosphere via respiration.")

The good news, writes David Fogarty of Reuters, is that the study “could help refine efforts to fight global warming just at a time when U.N. talks are struggling to agree on a broader climate pact that will be the focus of a major meeting in December in South Africa.”

-- Reed McManus

Image: U.S. Forest Service

Sep 27, 2011


Earlier this month, the Obama administration shelved plans to strengthen ozone standards in the U.S., instead leaving them at the 75 parts per billion threshold set by the Bush administration in 2008. In Europe, the European Commission’s standard for ozone is an enviable 61 parts per billion  -- the low end of the range proposed by the EPA's independent advisory panel under Bush and rekindled ever so briefly by current EPA administrator Lisa Jackson.

Even so, Europe has some scary health issues on the horizon: A new study of potential climate-induced increases in ozone-related deaths in Europe concludes that Belgium, France, Spain, and Portugal could expect such deaths to increase between 10 and 14 percent over the next 50 years. Since 1961, Belgium, Ireland, The Netherlands, and the United Kingdom have seen the biggest impact on ozone-related deaths due to climate change.

“Ground-level ozone formation is due to rise as temperatures increase with climate change,” said Dr. Hans Orru, one of the report’s authors and an air pollution expert from the University of Tartu in Estonia. “The results of our study have shown the potential effects that climate change can have on ozone levels and how this change will impact upon the health of Europeans."

-- Reed McManus

Wangari Maathai: A Remembrance

Prof Maathai with seedling 
When Wangari Maathai heard that I was going to be in Cairo representing the Sierra Club at the 1994 U.N. Conference on Population and Development, she encouraged me to travel south to Kenya to visit the Green Belt Movement since I was “going to be in the neighborhood.” I had no idea at the time just how life changing that single trip would be.

Not only did Wangari put me up in her guest room, she served as my personal tour guide, taking me to plant trees in a Green Belt Movement community, then to Lake Nukuru to see the flamingos and a couple of enormous black rhinos (a recent gift to Kenya from South Africa). On the winding, rough roads through the Rift Valley, she shared her vision for a green and prosperous Kenya.

Wangari’s work with the Green Belt Movement resonated with me because it didn’t seem so remote from the work of the Sierra Club. Only while we were protecting old trees, they were planting new ones. But in planting those trees and arranging for women to receive a very small payment for caring for them, Wangari gave communities hope that they could improve their lives. In doing so she built a following. She built a movement. She developed a political constituency that scared the hell out of the country’s authoritarian rulers.

When Wangari and her legions of followers opposed government cronyism, land grabbing, and forest destruction, the response was swift and violent. She was beaten and jailed many times. She came close to losing her life on many occasions for leading women into parks or forests to protect them from the government and private developers. During one tragic episode I received an urgent phone call from Wangari’s daughter Wanjira who was living in Atlanta at the time and studying at Emory University. Wanjira explained the police, unable to break down her mother’s front door, had physically extracted Wangari though a window, leaving her with cuts, bruises and an injured back, and then dumped her in a cold, bare jail cell with no mattress.

I took Michael Fisher, the Sierra Club’s Executive Director at the time, to meet with Kenyan Ambassador to the United States Dennis Afande to express our indignation. The ambassador responded that his government's problem with Wangari Maathai was not her tree planting, but that her tree planting had become political. You can imagine our response.

Wangari often said that “you cannot protect the environment unless your empower people, you inform them, and you help them understand that these resources are their own, that they must protect them.” This message resonated around the world; it is why she was so loved.

--Stephen Mills worked for the Sierra Club’s International Programs for 22 years. In May this year he was selected by Wangari Maathai to be the Green Belt Movement’s lead representative in the United States.

--Photo courtesy of the Green Belt Movement

Sep 26, 2011

Cool Sounds

Ice-cover-x.j2 Some people may never even try to comprehend the concept of a changing climate -- hello, nearly every GOP presidential candidate! -- but musician and performance artist Paul D. Miller, aka DJ Spooky, is there for anyone willing to open his or her ears. LiveScience provides a compelling review of DJ Spooky's  recent performance of Terra Nova: Sinfonia Antarctica, a multimedia portrait of global warming, at the New York Academy of Sciences.

"It's not about information, this is actually about emotion,” the artist told his audience. “Everyone is coming from a radically different perspective, and so art is about perspective." Added the program’s moderator, New York Times journalist and blogger Andrew Revkin: "The only connection to these places is through the imagination, so why not have the most imaginative people on Earth be a part of pulling that information back to the rest of us, too?”

Listen to some enticing snippets from DJ Spooky’s Antarctica works here, and check out his accompanying book, The Book of Ice (Mark Batty Publisher, 2011), here.

-- Reed McManus

Image: Mark Batty Publisher

In California, the Shark-Fin Ban Awaits the Governor's Signature

IStock_000015135121XSmall A long list of celebrities and animal-protection organizations have called on California's governor to sign a law that recently passed in the state assembly that would prohibit the sale, purchase, or possession of shark fins. Governor Jerry Brown has until Oct. 8 to approve or veto the measure.

Co-sponsored by the Monterey Bay Aquarium and the Asian Pacific American Ocean Harmony Alliance, AB 376 made waves in the Chinese-American community. Shark-fin soup, a high-priced delicacy, is often reserved for weddings and other special occasions. Despite the dish's hallowed tradition, many Chinese-Americans supported the bill in an effort to protect shark populations.

"Finning" is the practice of slicing off sharks’ fins and tails, then tossing the rest of the animal back into the ocean to bleed to death. Sharks serve a vital role as one of the ocean’s apex predators, their populations are declining dramatically. To boot, they reproduce slowly, so they won't be easy to replace. Advocates of the legislation assert that California is one of the biggest shark-fin marketsoutside of Asia. Their aim is to cut off that demand and protect sharks from being overfished.

The Asian Pacific American Ocean Harmony Alliance collected more than 27,000 signatures on its online petition to support the ban. According to the Alliance, “Thousands of years of Asian philosophy emphasizes the importance of harmony between nature and humanity . . . Although shark-fin soup has been a popular traditional Chinese entree for years because of its association with prestige and privilege, the APA community must help reduce the consumption of shark fin in order to protect the ocean ecosystem that keeps our environment in balance.”

Other Chinese-American politicians objected to the legislation as discriminatory, since it doesn’t ban other products such as shark steaks or shark-skin boots, bags, or belts. State senator Leland Yee of San Francisco released a statement saying that though he is “very concerned with the plight of many shark species and the illegal shark finning trade,” the “law to ban all shark fins from consumption — regardless of species or how they were fished or harvested — is the wrong approach and an unfair attack on Asian culture and cuisine.” The assemblyman’s objections failed to convince his fellow legislators. Now only one signature remains.

Hawaii, Oregon, and Washington have already passed a similar law. If the governor signs AB 376 into law, sharks might be closer to saying, “No soup for you.”

--Carolyn Cotney

Farewell Wangari Maathai


Wangari Maathai, founder of Kenya's Green Belt Movement, winner of the 2004 Nobel Prize and 1991 Goldman Prize, died of cancer on Sunday in Nairobi. Her work began in the 1970s when she organized poor women to plant trees in her native land. Forty million trees later, she was an internationally recognized leader in poverty alleviation, environmentalism, and women's rights. In 2004, Maathai received news of her Nobel award as she was driving toward Nairobi in the company of Sierra correspondent Mia MacDonald. Here is MacDonald's interview with her, from the March/April 2005 magazine.

On a wintry Norwegian afternoon last December, Wangari Maathai stood at a bright blue podium in Oslo City Hall to accept the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize, the first environmentalist and first African woman to be so honored.

"We are called to assist the earth," she said, "to heal her wounds and in the process heal our own — indeed, to embrace the whole creation in all its diversity, beauty, and wonder." When she received her Nobel medal, the crowd rose in applause, and celebratory ululations from Kenyan women reverberated throughout the vast space.

Only three years earlier, Maathai had been under arrest for protesting the human-rights and environmental abuses of Kenya's former strongman president, Daniel arap Moi. Since 1977, she had organized a network of rural women into the Green Belt Movement, which planted 30 million trees while also sowing seeds of democracy. She was beaten, harassed, and jailed for her efforts — until December 2002, when she was voted into parliament in Kenya's first free elections in a generation, and soon after appointed deputy minister for the environment.

Maathai got news of her Nobel award one morning as her van bounced along rough roads past pineapple plantations outside Nairobi, just as she was settling in for an interview with — me. The Norwegian ambassador was initially unable to get through on her cell because Maathai was, in her typically hands-on fashion, setting up the public-address system for an upcoming meeting.

When he called back and relayed the astonishing news, Maathai put her hand in the air, exclaimed, "Oh, wow," and got teary as she hung up the phone. She soon regained her equanimity and, once she arrived in Nyeri, her parliamentary district in central Kenya, planted a tree, knees on the ground, hands in the red soil.

Sierra: Why did you focus your initial efforts on trees?

Wangari Maathai: In the mid-1970s, I was an officer in the National Council of Women of Kenya, and I found myself talking to rural women about the problems they were facing. One of the issues was not enough energy — energy from firewood. Another was a lack of clean drinking water.

We all know where water comes from, from forested mountains. Another problem was malnutrition — a lot of farmers had switched from producing food for household consumption to producing cash crops like coffee and tea to sell in the international market. Listening to the women talk, I came to understand the linkage between environmental degradation and the needs of communities.

"Why not plant the trees?" I thought. It seemed reasonable and doable. Anybody can dig a hole and put a tree inside and water it and nurture it. Something wonderful happens when you plant a seed. Trees provide a source of fuel. They provide material for building and fencing, fruits, fodder, shade, and aesthetic beauty. Trees also offered women a small income; the Green Belt Movement paid them for each seedling they successfully raised.

Sierra: How did tree-planting lead to pro-democracy action?

Maathai:As people talked to us, we would ask, "Where do you think these problems come from?" Almost all would blame the government. So we created a movement that was not only about taking action to protect the environment, but also about citizens' responsibility to demand a better government.

The government didn't like this. The Green Belt Movement became a target, not because we were planting trees but because we were explaining how trees disappear and why it is important for citizens to stand up for their environment and their rights.

Sierra: The Nobel Committee gave you the Peace Prize for your contribution to sustainable development, democracy, and peace. Have you always seen the connections?

Maathai: If a clean and healthy environment is a right, you cannot gain this right unless you have a democratic government that respects and acknowledges rights. If we do not have citizens who acknowledge these rights, and also assume their responsibilities, we're not going to have a clean and good environment. If people struggle over resources, you're going to have conflicts, not peace.

Sierra: For decades you were a leading member of the opposition, but now you're a deputy government minister. What has that been like?

Maathai: Initially, I was not very keen on getting into parliament. But eventually I felt that after so many years, [it was time] to try and change it from the inside. Sometimes things in government move so slowly — but I believe it is important for those of us who work from the outside to get into the inside and see how we can help. Also, I am one of very few women to have had this opportunity.

Sierra: You've seen tough times over the years, but you never gave up. How did you keep going?

Maathai:I knew we did not have to live like this. As long as there was a way we could break the cycle of poverty and disempowerment, I found the energy to continue. Also, I was deeply encouraged by our successful campaign: When you planted a tree, it grew.

Sierra: What does the Nobel Peace Prize mean to you?

Maathai: It is a wonderful recognition. Honestly, I am still pinching myself. It is an honor like no other and a perfect crown at the end of a long struggle. The prize also recognized that women in many countries struggle, but nobody knows about it; many people ignore you and consider you a nuisance.

Sierra: What message does the prize send?

Maathai: That bottom-up development produces results, and that the solutions to African problems will most likely be found among Africans. The Nobel Peace Prize is also a recognition of all the work done at the grassroots level. So this comes with a lot of messages to me, the people of Africa, the women of Africa, the women of the world, pro-democracy movements, and advocates for peace. This prize has recognized all of our work in a collective way, even though it came to me.

Sierra: What is next for you?

Maathai:I hope that I will be able to do more, including within the government, which has found my approaches a bit difficult to absorb and adopt. I am used to having only a few shillings in my pocket, but a good amount of the [$1.3 million] prize money will be spent establishing the Wangari Maathai Foundation so that groups here in Kenya and abroad have an opportunity to do what I have done. We still have a lot of work to do. We know that the little we are doing is making positive change. If we can multiply that several million times, we can improve the world.

--Paul Rauber

--Photo by Green Belt Movement

Sep 23, 2011

Green Interns Make Rep. Pompeo See Red

Students might want to think twice before applying for an internship — you never know who might pass a law to fire you. As if interns aren't under enough pressure these days, Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kansas) can't believe taxpayers fund five full-time grad students for a 20-week-long internship at the EPA. The students, known as "Environmental Justice Eco-Ambassadors," make — hold your breath — $300 per week.

Clearly a deep affront for the congressman (who happens to cost taxpayers $174,000 per year), Pompeo took the house floor Thursday to propose the EPA Student Nondiscrimination Act, which would cut the EPA Student Diversity Internship Program. The internship supports grassroots community programs that help solve environmental-justice issues.

Pompeo is known for being the politico-spawn of polluters Charles and David Koch, who own a billion-dollar energy conglomerate. The brothers' wealth exceeds that of 48 countries' GDP — and their company is Pompeo's number-one campaign contributor.

As if to confirm his worst nightmare, the incredulous congressman said, "I'd heard of ambassadors, and I'm familiar with the environment, but I had never heard of an eco-ambassador."

Until the big, bad EPA alerted him, that is. In his words, the EPA "has done so much damage to our economy, so much damage to Kansas's 4th congressional district, and our farmers, and our manufacturers, and and our families."

Caught in a political tug-of-war, the EPA is actually under fire from liberals for not having sufficiently healed the problems of environmental injustice; the internship is one way the agency does address that concern.

Ironically, Pompeo bashed the EPA on the same day it came up with a $150,000 environmental-education grant for Iowa, Missouri, Nebraska, and Kansas. That's right, Kansas. The same state the agency is allegedly pilfering.

Pompeo did acknowledge that in the grand scheme of things, $6,000 isn't a lot of money but seems to think it's the principle that's offensive. Requirements for the internship favor liberals, Pompeo argues, because qualified applicants must be strongly interested in environmental  and social justice.

Pompeo, by the way, is the same congressman whose office tweeted a link to a racist blog that calls Obama an "evil Muslim communist." Apparently, a staff member "inadvertently" posted the link.

Looks like Pompeo could use a few interns of his own.

--Avni Nijhawan

We Heart Oil & Gas

With a hat tip to the treasure trove that is the New York Times Green Blog, a new report attempts to calculate how much the U.S. subsidized its oil, gas, and nuclear industries during their first 15 years (for oil and gas, starting from 1918; for nuclear, starting from 1947). The point being -- hint, hint --  that the numbers could show how emerging renewable-energy technologies are being treated compared to the old standbys. (The report’s authors are Nancy Pfund,  managing partner of a fund that backs renewable energy ventures, and Ben Healey, an environmentalist studying business administration and engineering management at Yale.)

The authors’ findings:  “Nuclear subsidies came to more than 1 percent of the federal budget in their first 15 years, and ... oil and gas subsidies made up one-half of 1 percent of the total budget in their first 15 years.” As for all those really cool solar panels and wind turbines? “Renewables have constituted only about a tenth of a percent,’’ according to the report.

-- Reed McManus

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