Sierra Daily: November 2011

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17 posts from November 2011

Nov 29, 2011

Polar Bear Caption Contest


This striking photograph shows a polar bear apparently trying to hold back a Norwegian icebreaker. This summer, Arctic sea ice hit record lows. As Juliana Hanle wrote in Sierra in September,

With 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.

The more pressing matter at hand, however, is this: The picture cries out for a caption. I'll prime the pump a little, and you can take it away in the comments.

"Back off, steel boy. Turn around and no one will get hurt."

"Over my dead body!"


"Can is not the same as must."

--Paul Rauber

Image via Reddit

Nov 21, 2011

Hating on the Leaf

Nissan-leaf_1Just last night my friends Carlos and Cynthia were going on (and on and on and on) about their brand new Nissan Leaf: its roominess, styling, handling, spiffy acceleration, and penny-per-mile cost of fuel. So imagine my surprise this morning when I tuned in to NPR's Morning Edition and heard that the car was a big failure. Detroit correspondent Sonari Glinton reported about how electric cars are supposed to help lower automakers' average fuel consumption to 55 by 2025, but

The problem is, people aren't buying, whether all-electric or plug-in hybrid. General Motors is struggling to sell 10,000 Chevy Volts this year, and Nissan sold just over 8,000 Leafs. For context, about 13 million cars are expected to be sold in the U.S. in 2011.

I'll leave the Volt to my colleague Reed McManus, but Nissan points out that its numbers for this year compare favorably to the 3,000 Priuses Toyota sold in 1997, the car's first year on the market. (2010 Prius sales: 139,000) And it's not as though Leafs are gathering dust in showrooms: My friends were on a waiting list for a year before they were able to collect theirs.

Glinton goes on to complain that the advertised 100-mile range per charge of the Leaf is dependent on driving habits, speed, and use of heat and AC--something that Nissan readily admits. In a particularly low blow, he says that "it can take up to 16 hours depending on the type of outlet used." Yeah, or as little as 30 minutes--depending on the type of outlet used. And then there's the dreaded "range anxiety": "That feeling in your stomach starts to set, like, 'Oh, no. What if I can't make it?' " To Glinton, this was what was going to kill the electric car all over again: "Once people actually find out about the cars, they like them even less."

So what about that anxiety? Carlos admitted to experiencing it once: He'd had to leave for a doctor's appointment without fully charging the car, and didn't know if he had enough juice to get back. He pulled into a San Francisco parking garage and asked the attendant if there was anywhere he could plug in. "Sure, right over there!" the guy said. Thanks to foresighted planning, San Francisco is installing 80 free electric vehicle charging stations around town by 2012. Happily the city didn't get the memo from NPR that the technology was already a failure.

--Paul Rauber

Nov 17, 2011

Charged Up By the Volt

Chevrolet goes to great lengths to tout the flexibility of its plug-in hybrid Volt, which the carmaker claims can travel about 35 miles on electric power before relying on its small gasoline-powered generator to provide an additional 375 miles of anxiety-free driving. (It has even staked a claim to the phrase “range anxiety.”) So there, Nissan Leaf, the all-electric that can travel only 100 miles before it and its driver must cool their heels while recharging.

But Jay Leno claims near-Leaf-like powers with his Volt. The comedian and late-night television host says he has run up 11,000 miles on his Volt in the last 11 months while using less than half of the full tank of gas (9.3 gallons) he received with the car. “It’s my daily driver,” he told the New York Times. “It really is. I commute in it to work every day. My commute, and all my other daily running around, totals less than 35 miles.”

Leno’s advantage: charging stations at his home, studio, and expansive automobile collection -- where he can always opt for an all-gasoline-powered vehicle for long trips if he wants to keep the Volt-boast going. “You get 40 miles free, as they say,” Mr. Leno said. “Because of the way I drive it, it almost never kicks into gasoline mode.”

-- Reed McManus

Blocking Keystone XL: How Long a Victory?

There's no doubt that Bill McKibben, the Sierra Club, and all the folks who persuaded President Obama to slow down the Keystone XL pipeline juggernaut won a tremendous victory. The question of the day is: How long will it last?

The optimistic view is put forward by Steve Kretzmann and Lorne Stockman over at Oil Change International. Their reading of the tea leaves is that "there is good reason to believe that this delay may kill Keystone XL, at least in its current form." If oil is not flowing from Alberta to Texas by the end of 2013, they argue, the contracts between TransCanada and its customers could well be invalidates. TransCanada competitor Enbridge, which just yesterday bought a 50% share in an existing pipeline from the dirty oil terminal at Cushing, Oklahoma to Texas, could fill some of the gap, but Canadian tar sands would have to compete with the boom in shale oil coming out of the Bakken field in North Dakota. An alternate route for the Alberta oil, west to ports in British Columbia, would have to deal with mountainous terrain as well as some 100 First Nations communities who are implacably opposed to the project. All in all, Kretzmann and Stockman argue, the Keystone XL delay

is a slap in the face for an industry that generally gets its way in North America. . . . Opponents can place barriers in its way and that is a major threat to the industry's growth.

Now for the pessimists, like Brad Plumer at Wonkblog. With Enbridge buying into the Seaway Pipeline, he contends, the price of oil from the Midwest is already rising, which will only encourage production in Canada. In addition, he says, "there are all sorts of ways" for Canadian oil to get out. A pipeline could be built to eastern Canada. Enbridge's Alberta Clipper line to Wisconsin could be expanded, and the proposed "Wrangler" pipeline could ship the oil to Oklahoma--all without State Department approval. The stuff could even be shipped by rail or barge. Plumer concludes:

So while blocking a pipeline here or there can hamper oil production, it’s certainly not a long-term solution for those who worry about the global-warming effects of carbon-intensive oil sands in Alberta and elsewhere. The only sustainable way to get those emissions under control is with a price or cap on carbon — either a tax or cap-and-trade system — and by reducing demand for oil. (And if Canada doesn’t want to cap carbon, the U.S. could tax crude imports at the border.) Without a carbon price, oil will always find a way, as long as people want to use it.

But delay is delay. More time for opposition to organize, more time for the price of solar and wind to come down, more time for the climate deniers to be beaten back. The war's far from over, but we won the battle.

--Paul Rauber

Nov 15, 2011

Waste Not, Recycle Not

250px-Recycle001_svgToday is America Recycles Day, with thousands of nationwide events organized by the Keep America Beautiful campaign. But some folks aren’t impressed, such as Lloyd Alter of Treehugger, who writes: “It is my favorite holiday of the year, more comedic than April Fools Day and scarier than Hallowe'en. It is the day when Nestlé Water, Anheuser Busch, Alcoa and Pepsi get together with their friends at the American Chemistry Council to pat you on the head for picking up their shit. They have spent fifty years teaching you how to throw stuff away; now they want to teach you to sort it all into neat little piles for them.”

Alter and others rightly point out that American communities should be aiming for “zero waste,” not “more recycling.” And they have been doing so for years, so it’s easy for them to, ahem, recycle a few old stories to educate us about how to really make a dent in our consumptive lifestyles. Try “Recycling is Bullshit; Make Nov. 15 Zero Waste Day, not America Recycles Day” (also from Treehugger) and “There Are At Least 10 R's, And Recycling Is The Least Of Them” from Planet Green.

-- Reed McManus


BBC Dumbs Down "Frozen Planet" For U.S. Audience

HuntersThe British Broadcasting Corporation is out with the followup to its fabulous Planet Earth series, this one entitled Frozen Planet, a seven-part series about Earth's polar regions. Only U.S. viewers will only see six parts, because the seventh one deals with climate change and the Beeb thought it wouldn't sell well in the climate-denialist U.S.A. A corporation spokeswoman told the UK Telegraph that Discovery, which airs the BBC shows in the United States, only had slots for six episodes, so the conclusion--featuring one-time climate skeptic David Attenborough--will be relegated to an "optional extra."

On Thin Ice (Programme Seven) features David Attenborough in vision as it is his authored show. It would be impossible to do a presenter-less version. Only those countries that accept David as a presenter. . . could be expected to take episode seven as it stands.

 In other news: The International Energy Agency, in its 2011 World Energy Outlook, warns that delaying serious action on climate change for as little as five years could put us on track to temperature increases of 11 degrees F.--in which case lovely video images of polar bears and penguins will be all we'll have to look at.

--Paul Rauber

--Photo: BBC

A Law That Could Close the Curtains on Circuses

Circus elephantIn the animated intro to the Ringling Bros. website, a bullet train zooms through lush hillsides, powdery peaks, and a squeaky clean city. When it finally stops, the excited animals all jump out. They seem to be yelping, “Give us air!” The train looks tiny next to them. How did the tiger, the elephant, the unicorn-like horse, the woman in the silver swimsuit, and the other tiger all fit in there? It must have been a cramped ride!

As it turns out, Congress is wondering if the cagey conditions on that Adobe Flash train are similar those on the real Ringling caravan. On Nov. 2, Virginia representative Jim Moran introduced the Traveling Exotic Animal Protection Act (TEAPA), which would prohibit animals from performing if they had been traveling in a mobile housing facility 15 days prior to the performance. Essentially, it would restrict the use of animals in circuses.

The bill has Ringling Bros. infuriated. The company says the proposed law is “baseless” and would “destroy the jobs of more than 750 full-time employees that work for the circus.”

“For the most part,” says Ringling's website, “our animals spend more than half of the day eating, sleeping and socializing with other animals.” Sounds like a retirement home — can't you just see Mr. Elephant and Ms. Alpaca immersed in a game of mahjong?

Problem is, most of them die before they even reach senior status. The last two decades have seen a slew of premature circus-elephant deaths. Often, the cause of death is unknown, but biologists and zookeepers think obesity and stress could be to blame. Rep. Moran believes the animals need more out-of-cage time, and that their human caregivers should play nicer. His bill cites evidence of “extreme physical coercion techniques, including the restriction of food, the use of elephant hooks, electric shocks, metal bars, whips, and other forms of physical abuse.” (An elephant hook, also known as an “ankus” or a “goad,” is metal prod that trainers use to stick elephants and hook them behind the ears, where their hide is thin as paper.)

The bill also takes human safety into account, stating that “the use of collapsible, temporary facilities in traveling circuses increases the risk of escaping exotic and non-domesticated animals seriously harming workers and the public.”

Rep. Moran was flanked by activists from Animal Defenders International, actress Jorjia Fox of 24, and Bob Barker, who's been vegetarian since 1979 and is a multimillion-dollar contributor to animal causes. Barker sees the bill as an overdue and significant step toward animal rights: “Elephants living in chains and being beaten, lions and tigers in small cages on trucks being whipped to perform tricks, it’s the Dark Ages. This bill helps bring us out of the Dark Ages.”

--Jake Abrahamson

Nov 14, 2011

What A Drag It Isn’t Growing Old

Ag-articleInlineGood news, Mick Jagger! (And just in the nick of time, as we head into the Rolling Stones’ 50th anniversary year!) According to a study by the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research in Rostock, Germany, individual carbon footprints diminish with age. So if you're an aging enviro, there's no need to stress out and go running for the shelter of your mother's little helper.

Writes the New York Times Green blog: “On the whole, emissions steadily increase from age 10 to around 60 and then abruptly begin to decline. In other words, most Americans hit their carbon-producing peak — about 14.9 metric tons per person — just before retirement. By the time they hit 80, however, their emissions have dropped to about 13.1 metric tons.”

The news is more than “Did you know?” cocktail-party fodder: It turns out that most climate projections take into account population growth but not age distribution. “Given shifts in longevity in the United States and across the globe, age could be a critical factor in such predictions,” adds the Times. “The average life expectancy in the United States is expected to increase from 78.3 years today to 83.1 in 2050, for example, and the worldwide population of those 65 and over is expected to rise from 8 percent now to 13 percent by 2030.”

Rockin' elders are still trumped by hipsters, though. Your average 25-year-old generates just below 10 metric tons of carbon emissions.

-- Reed McManus

Image: Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research in Rostock (MPIDR), Emilio Zagheni

Nov 11, 2011

Sorry, This One is Pretty Bleak

The latest Red List of endangered species from the International Union for Conservation of Nature is not pretty. A quarter of all mammals known (5,499) are at risk of extinction, and the western black rhino has officially been declared extinct. Depressing numbers abound: Of the 62,000 species the IUCN evaluated, nearly 20,000 of them are threatened. The number of threatened reptiles has jumped from 594 to 772 -- and only a third of the existing reptile species have been studied. (The IUCN is trying to fill in those gaps, turning the Red List into a definitive and perhaps more hopeful  "Barometer of Life" that measures the state of the world's biodiversity.) Nature poked around and did find a silver lining: “IUCN says that its numbers show that conservation programs can work, highlighting the success of some conservation efforts for Przewalski’s Horse, moved from critically endangered to endangered, and a subspecies of white rhinos, for example, that is now thriving in the wild.” 

For a photo gallery of what we’re missing, go here. For a video, go here.

-- Reed McManus

Another Setback for "Clean Coal"

Sad ponyThe enduring promise of "clean coal"--previously compared in this space to a Magic Pony--also has a lot in common with the White Queen's promise of jam to Alice in Through the Looking Glass: "The rule is--jam to-morrow, but never jam today." Clean coal, to coal boosters, is always just around the corner--except that now it's just around the next corner, or maybe the one after that. As reported in the New York Times, the leading U.S. effort to capture CO2 from coal-burning power plants, FutureGen, "has hit a stumbling block." Due to financial difficulties,  Midwestern power company Ameren, which was to provide FutureGen with its test facility, is backing out of the project. The federal government is financing the effort with $1 billion in stimulus money, but it has to be spent before 2015--now a very daunting effort. Perhaps the private sector will come to rescue? Dream on, says the Times:"[E]xperts on coal-fired emissions say that without government help, it is unlikely that the private sector will risk the money necessary for a first-of-a-kind engineering project."

In other news, California has installed 1 gigawatt of solar power--more than all but five countries in the world--and the cost of producing solar power continues to plummet. It may be "clean coal tomorrow," but it's already solar today.

--Paul Rauber

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