Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Environmental Politics paper: Energy

I recently finished one of the longest things I've ever written. It's a 9,000 word plan for America's energy future, with me role-playing as the newly-elected President of the United States. It includes my inauguration speech, my policy ideas, and how I will get those ideas implemented.

The suggested word count was approximately 5,000 words, but despite my blowing that out of the water I still didn't include everything I wanted to talk about. I don't think I discussed renewable electricity enough. I couldn't find laws about energy efficiency standards (the National Appliance Energy Conservation Act). And there's a ton of other stuff that I can't think of now. What's there, though, I think is solid. Download the PDF below.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

The Presidential Forum on Global Warming and America's Energy Future

At 5:30 this evening, several environmental groups hosted the Presidential Forum on Global Warming and America's Energy Future. Three candidates -- Rep. Dennis Kucinich, Sen. Hillary Clinton, and Sen. John Edwards -- showed up to talk about their platform with regards to mitigation of (and to a much lesser extent, adaptation to) global warming. Each candidate had 10 minutes to speak and then had a Q&A sessions with several panelists. It was available on a live webcast, and I'm sure that video will be posted somewhere at some point if you care to watch it.

This post will summarize the key points of each candidate's discussion. It will unfortunately be somewhat brief, as I have a paper to be writing (about America's energy future, funnily enough).

Representative Kucinich took the stage first. After touting his green credentials in terms of his lifestyle (he's a vegan with a Ford Focus and a 1600-square-foot home), he proposed a "Works Green Administration" as a way to get the various parts of the federal government to work together on this and other issues of sustainability. He emphasized that pro-environment and pro-economic policies need not be mutually exclusive; that new jobs would be created by the low-carbon economy; that the costs of global warming hitting us full force would be greater than the costs of its mitigation; that Americans would not have to sacrifice to move to a low-carbon economy. To that end, he proposed a nationwide minimum guaranteed income (along with healthcare), so that (among other things) workers who lose their jobs due to the transition would maintain their standards of living. He also emphasized that we must stand up to the fossil fuels lobbyists. Most interestingly to me, he suggested that he would go over Congress to empower the American people should Congress fail to take action that's strong enough. I liked that he called clean coal, something that other candidate's plans encourage research into, an "oxymoron." Unfortunately, he didn't detail any specifics of his plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in this country; his speech was mostly rhetoric and little substance.

Senator Clinton spoke next. She came on strong, detailing her plan. This includes a cap-and-trade system for carbon emissions, with emissions reduced 80% below 1990 levels by 2050 and with all allowances auctioned off. She plans to reduce imports of foreign oil 2/3 by 2030. She will set a goal of having 25% of our electricity come from renewable sources by 2025. She plans to push energy efficiency as one of the best ways to lower the carbon intensity of our economy (indeed, she would sign an Executive Order on her first day in office demanding all new federal buildings to be carbon-neutral), and wants to create 5 million "green collar jobs." And finally, she proposed the creation of a Strategic Energy Fund, with $50 billion over the next 10 years raised from taxation of fossil fuel industry profits. This money would go towards renewable energy, energy efficiency, clean coal (frowny face from Sam), biofuels, cleaner automotive technology, and other research and deployment programs. Money for this fund would also come from the sale of "Energy Independence Bonds." She also emphasized the importance of international talks for post-Kyoto agreements. Her plan is quite comprehensive, and she encouraged the audience to visit for more details.

Senator Edwards spoke last. He, too, detailed his plan, which despite its relative early stage of complexity (compared to Sen. Clinton's plan), was the first proposed by any presidential candidate in this campaign. He proposes the implementation of a cap-and-trade system beginning in 2010, with carbon emissions reduction targets of 20% by 2020 and 80% by 2050. He would create a "New Energy Economy Fund," underwritten with $3 billion from oil subsidy reductions and $10 billion from the sale of emissions allowances. More generally, he emphasized the importance of energy efficiency over the creation of new generating capacity. He also proposed modernizing the electricity grid to make net metering easier and to improve stability, offering low-interest loans for individuals and families who wish to implement renewable energy technologies and/or energy efficiency into their homes, and restructuring utility regulation to detach utility profits from electricity sales in order to encourage utilities to invest in the energy efficiency of their customers, as California has done. Interestingly, he emphasized that the transition to a low-carbon economy isn't going to be easy -- sacrifices will have to be made. He proposed that some of the money from his Fund would go to people who are hurt (for example, by loss of their jobs) by the transition, but unlike Rep. Kucinich, he would not guarantee that such people's standards of living could be maintained.

For more information on the candidates' platforms, visit

A critique of an article in The Reporter, Stetson's newspaper

I wrote this letter in response to an article about climate change in Stetson's student-published newspaper. Dr. Abbott (my adviser) and Dr. Hallum (my Environmental Politics professor) contributed ideas.

UPDATE: My critique was accepted and published in the "Letters to the Editor" section of the Nov. 30 Reporter -- find it here.
_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

First, let me say that coverage of climate change is a good thing. It's an issue that must be discussed, so that awareness can be raised about it and action can be taken. That said, I found several errors in this piece that need correction.

1.) The first, most glaring error is the author's attempt to explain global warming. She confuses two different human-caused atmospheric phenomena, the depletion of the ozone layer and the increased concentration of greenhouse gases. If this was an opinion piece, it's understandable -- this is a common mistake. However, if this was a Reporter-commissioned article, more rigorous fact-checking needs to be undertaken.

The ozone layer provides protection from the Sun's ultraviolet (UV) rays. This is a very good thing for life on this planet; UV radiation causes genetic mutation and can lead to skin cancer. The depletion of the ozone layer is caused by human emissions of gases known as chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). Great strides are being made in reducing CFC emissions.

Global warming is a completely different problem. "Greenhouse gases" such as carbon dioxide, water vapor, methane, and nitrous oxide prevent heat from escaping the Earth's atmosphere into space. (CFCs are also powerful greenhouse gases, which can be a source of confusion between the separate problems of ozone depletion and global warming.) Some concentration of these gases is natural in the atmosphere; indeed, without them, our planet's average temperature would be some 61ºF colder. However, human activities are contributing huge amounts of these gases to the atmosphere, which is causing the average surface temperature of the Earth to rise. This is turn will cause a host of changes to the climate, mostly for the worse as far as human societies are concerned. These changes include droughts, floods, and more intense storms, including hurricanes. It will also cause drastic changes in species and ecosystem distribution, the melting of the polar ice caps and land-based ice, and sea level rise (which Sophia's article discussed).

Unfortunately, Sophia seems to have confused these two human-caused atmospheric phenomena. Even more unfortunately, that's only the first (although the most egregious) error in this article.

2.) More alarming is Sophia's attitude towards the effects of global warming. She makes the mistake of considering increased current ice melt to be a natural phenomenon. Sure, the amount of ice at the Poles has varied considerably over the billions of years that make up Earth's history. This has been caused by slight variations in the Earth's orientation and orbit, meteor impacts and volcanic eruptions, and other phenomena. However, what is causing the melting of the ice NOW is increased temperatures due to greenhouse gas emissions from human activities, especially the release of carbon dioxide from the use of fossil fuels (coal, oil, and natural gas) and the release of methane from agricultural activities. This is NOT, as Sophia says, "just nature."

3.) Later, Sophia says that "there isn't anything we can really do about the ice melting and the ocean rising over the next decades." Wrong again. If we sharply curtail our emissions of greenhouse gases (especially carbon dioxide), we CAN avoid much of the sea level rise that would happen if we continued with a carbon-intensive economy. We can also avoid the worst effects many of the other problems global warming will cause. In fact, according to the former Chief Economist of the World Bank, Sir Nicholas Stern, the costs of implementing technological and institutional strategies to mitigate the impacts of global warming will be significantly lower than the costs to society if global warming were to hit us with its full force.

4.) Finally, Sophia's last point is that "we may not see the effects of melting ice, but our children definitely will." While this may (MAY) be true for sea level rise, it will certainly not be true for the other predicted effects of global warming. This process is ALREADY affecting us, and its effects will intensify in the years to come. For example, observations of ice melt in the past year have revealed that this process is happening faster than many scientists had predicted. Although I believe that Sophia had the right idea in at least asking readers to consider the next generation -- we have to leave the Earth in good condition for them -- she should also realize that our choices will affect us as well.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Greenpeace vs. Apple

The confluence of some unexpected free time and an especially-interesting piece of news lead to me writing here again. The topic of this piece is, of course, the controversy stirred up by Greenpeace's targeting of Apple Inc. for the latter's use of what Greenpeace and probably many scientists deign dangerous chemicals.

I pride myself on being well-informed about many environmental issues. Unfortunately, there are so many happening all at once that I find it impossible to stay abreast of all of them while also focusing on school. Maybe someday, God willing, I will get paid to inform myself about these things. (This blog will then undoubtedly be published on a subscription model.) The issue of dangerous chemicals in electronic products is not one that I am familiar with on an objective level -- that is, I have not gone out of my way to understand the issues with these chemicals on a biological or ecological, scientific basis.

That said, I can concisely summarize Greenpeace's and Apple's positions, as well as the history of the feud.

In September 2006, Greenpeace put up a site called "Green My Apple." It was designed after the Apple Inc. website in terms of layout, but the content was focused on how Apple is sorely lacking in the environmentally-friendliness department. (For example: "I love my Mac, I just wish it came in green," or, "I love my iPod, but can we lose the iWaste?") The immediate result of this campaign was a letter posted on the Apple Website called "A Greener Apple". In the letter, Steve Jobs himself described Apple's current greenliness and outlined the company's plan to do more. Greenpeace considered this a victory, hoping that Apple's actions would spur other tech companies to take similar actions.

Greenpeace is now targeting Apple again, claiming that the iPhone is replete with dangerous chemicals. This accusation has evoked, as did the one before it, a sense of defensiveness from Apple and Apple fans (or as they are derogatively labeled, "fanboys"). Why are they targeting Apple, they say. Other companies are just as bad if not worse, they say. If you want to effect the greatest change in terms of mass of these chemicals removed from the market, look at other companies that sell vastly more devices, they say. Greenpeace is just targeting Apple because Apple's a high-profile target and they want to stir the pot, they say. These questions are understandable, but they lack a perspective on the nature of the process of change.

(Warning: college content ahead!)

In my Environmental Politics class, we learned about the political process; that is, the process by which things get changed. The first step is agenda-setting. When an issue isn't even on the radar, nothing's going to change. That's what Greenpeace is doing now. Apple has some of the most recognized devices on the planet at this point. (Would anyone you know not recognize an iPod if they saw one? It's getting to be that way with the iPhone too; when was the last time news networks covered the launch of any electronic device like they did that of the iPhone?) By targeting a high-profile target (i.e., Apple), Greenpeace does "stir the pot." The cynical way to look at this would be to think that Greenpeace is just doing this to get more members, to get more contributions. The way I look at it is its role in the policy cycle. Greenpeace is raising awareness of the issue. If it feels like Apple is the sacrificial lamb, then so be it -- it's all in the name of ridding our products of these dangerous chemicals. This fits with Greenpeace's response to Apple's letter -- they were excited and hoped for the rest of the tech industry to follow suit.

It's late now; I hope that made sense.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

A critique of some amateur anti-environmentalists

So, I was perusing Gizmodo as I often do (it's my favorite technology-oriented site, with MacRumors coming in a close second), and I read a story featured there about how Australia may ban plasma TVs, owing to their massive power consumption. Interesting, I thought, I'll tag this in and move on. I then decided to look at the comments, hoping for some "Simpsons" references ("I see you've played knifey-spooney before"). I found a seething pool of anti-environmentalist rage.

Since I am out of class for the week (love Fall Break) and am devoting myself to doing nothing related to school for at least the rest of the night, I decided to take this time and thoroughly critique every single comment on that thread that I possibly could. I will not cite (screen) names, but you can find them if you really want to. Be warned; this is a giant post!

this is probably the stupidest way to save energy yet. how much money did they waste coming up with that legislation?
I don't see how any serious attempt to reduce our carbon footprints can be considered "stupid." This seems like a good way to bring about innovation in the marketplace -- TVs aren't going to become more energy-efficient on their own.

are they to ban hair driers as well? there are TONS of things in a house that use more electricity than a LCD or plasma
A few things wrong here. First, along with this energy efficiency policy they are probably mandating minimum efficiencies for a host of household appliances. I would not be surprised if hair driers were included. Second, there are things that use more energy. I would guess that refrigerators and clothes dryers are among them; however, I also assume that these appliances have minimum efficiency requirements as well. I don't see why TVs should be able to consume power as inefficiently as manufacturers want while other appliances must be designed with efficiency in mind.Third, it's not LCD and plasma TVs that are being banned, it's inefficient LCD and plasma TVs. I assume that they're mandating a maximum level energy consumption in both standby mode and full operation. If manufacturers reach this target, I assume that the Aussies would gladly allow such TVs for sale.

So who does Australia think it is to tell everyone they can't have plasmas and LCDs because they are too power hungry? This is gonna be a boon to the black market just like the temperance years in the US.
First sentence: Australia thinks that it's being a responsible world citizen by mandating minimum energy efficiency requirements so as to reduce the carbon emissions caused by its citizens' lifestyles. (Alternative reply suggested in the comment immediately below the above: "I'm not sure about this, but I think Australia thinks it can tell Australians what they can and can't own because they are the government of Australia. I'm just going out on a limb here, but that's my sense of things.") Second sentence: Maybe for a small subset of the population, but I don't think that average Joe Aussie is going to go anywhere other than a major electronics retailer to get his next TV.

In general, I will say that companies want to produce efficient equipment, as long as it is cheap to them to produce. Remember, dear comrade, companies are in business to increase value to shareholders. Now go wrap yourself in your Marxist blanket and take a nap. Or go buy some carbon offsets to help your conscience. Better yet, look up Chaucer and the Pardoner selling papal pardons. Sounds like Gore, DiCaprio to me. All the carbon from humans probably pales to the output of a volcano.
Well, this comment was totally disjointed. Let's go sentence by sentence.

1. & 2.) That's exactly right! And it explains perfectly why standard-setting (such as exhibited by Australia) is necessary. We must reduce carbon emissions, but performing the necessary innovation is costly. To a company in the absence of regulation, there is essentially no benefit to designing new, more efficient technology; in fact, it costs a lot of money! It doesn't make business sense to do it -- unless their current technology won't sell because it's prohibited by regulation.

4. & 5.) Carbon offsets, if done right, are not like papal indulgences at all. The practice of issuing indulgences (in my Protestant-raised opinion) was corrupt and pointless, because it didn't actually mean anything. However, if a tree is planted, that tree will necessarily absorb CO2 from the air as it grows. Now, there are some issues, such as making sure the tree is planted in the first place and making sure that it doesn't die soon after planting, but if done right carbon offsetting can actually have an effect.

6.) Sort of does. I don't get it.

7.) Thoroughly obliterated elsewhere. Not going to waste my time.

Kum-ba-frickin'-ya. I suspect that 20 years from now we're going to be making a lot of jokes about the global warming wackos. Assuming we don't fully go off the deep end and embrace the socialist aspects of the movement, in which case free speech will have been abolished, so we won't be able to joke about anything except capitalists.

I assume that in 20 years we're going to be kicking ourselves for not having acted sooner. And while some environmentalists are also socialists, the things it stands for do not preclude working with capitalism to find a good solution. I happen to think that capitalism isn't going away, and we'd better work the system to bring about change rather than hoping for some socialist revolution.

This is precisely why the Green Freaks need to be stopped. Today they are telling what kind of TV you may own, tomorrow they will be turning off the power to your house during the hours of 4:00 to 7:00 P.M. because those are prime power usage hours. They'll turn off your sewer during the day so you can't flush the brown trout because it wastes water. Mark my words, you better stop them before it's too late.
Classic "slippery slope" argument, usually logically tenuous. I am also reminded of Garrett Hardin's 1968 essay "The Tragedy of the Commons," wherein he points out that the removal of rights can be a good thing. For example, when society removed the rights of people to rob banks, that was a positive. So it is with this issue. While people are less free in the sense that they can no longer buy TVs that contribute to global warming on an unconscionable level, the world can become a better place because of it.

Yeah, let's all jump on compact flourescent bulbs, who cares about the mercury. We will worry about that later. Wait, wait - I know, that will give us another item to attack folks. "Because of our gluttonous need to read at night, our push to use all these CFBs have create mercury." I hear all the eco-babble and reminds me of the eco group in the Clancy novel Rainbow Six novel. I think most of the Green/eco dialog is aimed at slowing the world down to agrarian times. How would I get my gizmos then??
It's been well established that although CFLs do contain some mercury, the total amount of mercury added to the environment per bulb is reduced from incandescents because the higher energy efficiency of CFLs means that less coal is burned powering them. (Coal-fired power plants are some of the largest mercury emitters today.) One source, the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, found that the amount of mercury that is prevented from being emitted at coal-fired power plants outweighs the amount of mercury in the bulb by as much as a factor of 10. As for the rest of this comment, I would assume that he's just not very familiar with the moderate, mainstream players in the environmental movement, who suggest that we can have much of our cake and eat it too when it comes to our technologically advanced lifestyle.

With China moving away from Communism I guess AU is trying take top honers.
Regulation does not equal Communism. ("I want to rob banks, dammit!" Absurd.)

Want to save a polar bear? Less than half of a dozen drown, while more than 50 (possibly up to 100) are shot and killed every year. The best solution is to not shoot polar bears. But there's no money in not shooting bears.
The author of this comment makes a salient point in the rest of his/her post, namely that many environmental initiatives are nothing more than a slight improvement furnished in order to win over people who want to "make a statement" with their environmentalist choices or who want to continue what is essentially an unsustainable lifestyle free of guilt. However, the above point is misguided. Polar bears don't drown very often because only rarely is there a situation they can't swim their way out of. However, habitat loss will lead to the inevitable decline of the species, with greater loss than humans cause directly via hunting. (Other than that, omg-ponies, good post. It reminds me of why government regulation is so necessary -- because even though businesses seem to be greening of their own volition, it's very shallow and won't bring about any substantive improvement.

Well, that was a fun exercise. I hope you found it as fun and thought-provoking as I did.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Rep. Dingell introduces carbon tax bill... And I respond

On September 27, Representative John Dingell (D-MI), chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, introduced a bill that would create a "carbon tax." Specifically, it would add a fee of $50 per ton of carbon emissions from fossil fuels -- coal (including lignite and peat), petroleum and petroleum products, and natural gas. In addition to this fee, the bill would add 50 cents to the cost of every gallon of gasoline and other liquid petroleum-based fuels. However, diesel would be exempt from this 50 cent surcharge, because "the fuel economy benefits of diesel surpass even its emissions benefits; it provides about a thirty percent increase in fuel economy and a twenty percent emissions reduction." Note that petroleum-free biofuels would also be exempt from this.

The revenue raised by the gas tax would go to the highway trust fund, with 40% of that going towards mass transit. The Earned Income Tax Credit would be expanded to help poor families cope with increased prices. And finally, the revenue from the carbon fee would go towards several government programs:

  • Medicare and Social Security
  • Universal Healthcare (upon passage)
  • State Children’s Health Insurance Program
  • Conservation
  • Renewable Energy Research and Development
  • Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program
First, I should mention that Representative Dingell's proposal for a carbon tax is IN ADDITION to a cap-and-trade system for carbon regulation. After some thought, I think that this is a good idea. While the cap-and-trade system would encourage research, development, and deployment, a carbon tax would have immediate effects in terms of purchaser choices. The two systems working concurrently is a good idea.

I am delighted to read about the mortgage interest deduction phase-out for large homes. This is a great idea, because it gets at one of the overarching problems that contributes to our increasing carbon emissions -- the growth of exurbia and its concomitant increase in commute times etc. This original proposal could be an effective way to deal with this serious problem.

The increase in funds for low-income families to help them deal with these price increases is also a great idea, although care must be taken to make sure that this is done wisely.

However, I would like to see the revenue from the tax go more specifically to Energy Conservation and Renewable Energy Research & Development, rather than being split between all the programs listed there.

Rep. Dingell's proposal (summary)


Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Using Sewage In Power Plants

The Washington Post reports that, once implemented, an innovative new system will use sewage instead of precious groundwater in the operations of several power plants in Maryland.

The system will pipe in treated sewage from processing plants and use it as the basis of the power generation process, whereby water is heated to steam and used to spin turbines to produce electricity. It will also be used in cooling towers, to return the heated water to a functional temperature.

This design provides several benefits. First, it avoids effluent discharge into bodies of water. A bad thing for obvious reasons, the graphic to the right mentions this. Second, the system avoids the use of groundwater in plant operations, which would otherwise be copious. Third, the "closed-loop" system avoids so-called "thermal pollution," which often occurs when river or lake water is used to cool plant water and then is discharged back into a natural body of water. The subsequent temperature change alters the ecosystem in question.

Florida is in a drought situation right now, with our aquifers extremely low. Something like this could be a huge boon if a traditional power plant were to be built here in the future (although of course alternative sources of energy would be ideal). Or maybe existing plants could be fitted with this system... Very cool stuff!

System Would Use Effluent to Produce Power (Washington via Grist)

[Image from here; "SOURCE: Charles County Governement | GRAPHIC: The Washington Post - August 19, 2007"]

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

FPL Plans Orange Peel-to-Ethanol Plant

Florida Power & Light (FPL) has just announced plans to develop the world's first cellulosic ethanol plant that uses waste from the citrus industry as the raw material for the renewable fuel additive. Ethanol and biofuels in general can be considered almost "carbon-neutral," since the CO2 that is released when they are burned in a car engine is CO2 that they had previously absorbed from our atmosphere. Cellulosic ethanol has several advantages over regular ethanol, which commonly comes from corn or sugarcane:

First, instead of having to devote food (and land on which food could be grown) to producing fuel, the cellulosic ethanol process can use waste material from food production. Instead of consuming something valuable (food product) in its production, cellulosic ethanol consumes something essentially worthless (waste).
Second, non-food crops that are much less energy-intensive to grow than corn or sugarcane can be used to make cellulosic ethanol. One such crop that has high hopes is switchgrass.

Third, since pretty much any part from any plant can be used (as long as it contains the polysaccharide cellulose), this means that areas of the world without the climate or the means to grow corn or sugarcane can take part in the renewable fuels game too. (Read: Florida!)

Of course, there are some doubts as to how effective ethanol (even cellulosic ethanol) would be in solving our energy woes. For example, the Wikipedia article on switchgrass (linked to above) notes that there are conflicting reports on whether switchgrass would have a negative, neutral, or positive carbon balance. Additionally, there are other ways to reduce the carbon emissions from our cars. Making higher fleet-wide fuel-efficiency standards and even simply driving less could have a more significant impact on our emissions than ethanol could ever hope to provide.

Saturday, May 5, 2007

In the April 28 edition of Sierra Club Radio, the weekly podcast put out by the Sierra Club, Orli Cotel interviewed Orri Vigfusson, a 2007 winner of the prestigious Goldman Prize (essentially the Nobel Prize for environmentalism). Vigfusson is an Icelandic businessman and angler who came up with a plan to prevent the loss of Atlantic salmon stocks. In a scheme similar to the soil conservation push of the U.S.'s Dust Bowl era (albeit privately organized instead of governmentally), Vigfusson's organization pays fishermen cash or give them new jobs in exchange for their not fishing -- essentially buying the right to fish.

Something that stuck out at me in the interview was Vigfusson's response to Cotel's question about working with legislators to effect change (at first a flat "Uh, no," which definitely caught my attention). Vigfusson believes that "the fisheries should actually be governed by commercial conservation agreements whereby we do deals among the stakeholders." This system, he says, encourages companies and individuals to abide by the set rules -- if they don't, they receive economic sanctions. With legislation, especially international agreements, Vigfusson points out that countries and companies are less inclined to obey the spirit of the law.

Since climate change is always sort of in the back of my mind nowadays, my mind wandered in that direction. Vigfusson's philosophy about commercial agreements being the most effective solutions to the fisheries problem does not work as well when applied to carbon emissions.

First, his organization compensates fishing companies for their forbearance. It would be next to impossible to compensate companies for their shifts to lower-carbon technologies. This isn't really related to the idea of commercial agreements, but it's an important point nonetheless.

Second, fishing companies have a stake in keeping the fisheries healthy. If the industry overfishes fish stocks, that means less profit in years to come and maybe even the collapse of the fishery. If a company emits thousands of tons of carbon dioxide, there is not only no immediate impact, but there is no tangible impact for the company in the future in the way that the loss of a fishery would have for a fishing company.

Third, it's easy to monitor the amount of fish a company takes in. They have to sell it at some point, right? Commercial outfits already have a stake in knowing how much their competitors sell, so this self-policing makes a lot of sense. Well, monitoring carbon emissions is a little bit more difficult.

I thought these were interesting distinctions. Feel free to discuss in the comments.

Monday, April 9, 2007

Global Warming and Hurricanes

Here are the sources cited on the climate change and hurricane fact sheet handed out by Stetson's chapter of Roots & Shoots on April 10-11, 2007. They are listed in the order they appeared.

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Supreme Court: EPA Can Regulate CO2 Emissions

In a 5-4 ruling, the Supreme Court decided that the EPA does indeed have the power to regulate CO2 emissions under the Clean Air Act. For years, industry lobbyists and the Bush Administration (but I repeat myself) have worked to keep CO2 from being regulated; however, the time has come for them to acknowledge that it really is a pollutant. It's important to note that while the Court decided that the EPA could regulate CO2 emissions, it left the question of whether it should up to that body. While this decision will hopefully force the EPA to actually take climate science into account when determining whether it will regulate CO2, I have a feeling we're not going to see any progress on this front until the entire EPA is replaced from the ground up with people who are actually committed to doing their jobs -- that is, enforcing environmental laws -- and not capitulating to the Big Three automakers and Big Energy.

I can't wait for 2008.

The NRDC (see first link, below) notes that this will have implications for California, which has had a lawsuit brought against it by auto manufacturers who think that a recently-passed law requiring a reduction in global warming pollutants is unjust. This lawsuit will probably end up being thrown out, with this ruling from the Supreme Court. And once automakers have to adapt to California, the rest of the country will see similar changes within a few years.

Some related links (if limited on time, start with the first and work your way down):

Economics of Eco-friendly Food

I originally wrote this for my American Environmental Issues class at Stetson University. It refers to a text I got for the class but have been quite enamored of, Sustainable Planet.

NB: The "opinion" tag marks this as something that I haven't really researched. In this case, I just read an essay and wrote a response offhand. Comments with references to related material are welcome.

In his essay “Be A Local Hero” in Sustainable Planet, Mark Ritchie makes a case for eco-friendly food. He describes the principles behind the movement, the reasons for its recent growth in popularity, and gives several examples of communities that have use local food production to fuel new kinds of economies. Towards the end, however, Ritchie discusses the roadblocks that governments have put in place that prevent this movement of “sustainable local food systems” from reaching its full potential (105). For example, NAFTA and the WTO “have put highly restrictive conditions on the use of consumer labeling to promote locally oriented sustainable food systems” (106). Similarly, the USDA “is attempting to redefine the term ‘organic’ so factory farms can easily meet weak standards” (107). What this means, Ritchie laments, is that “[c]onsumers cannot easily distinguish or discriminate between the product of careful stewards of the land and those who are destroying the planet” (107).

This, I believe, reveals the real motive behind so-called “free market” economics. Funnily enough for someone with such liberal tendencies as myself, I believe that the market really can induce changes in the way our food impacts the environment. This is because consumers who are aware of where their food comes from and what its production involves will choose (I believe) to make more environmentally friendly choices. However, the people in charge of the WTO and USDA apparently have a different idea of the power of the market. By making it nearly impossible for consumers to know what’s what, they remove this “power of the market” from the system. They apparently believe not in market forces (which, markets having traditionally been where goods were bought and sold, I interpret to mean “consumer-level”) but rather industry forces (at the level of production). Industry will respond to consumer demand, of course, but it will take an excruciatingly long time in the absence of consumer education and ability to distinguish between environmentally friendly and harmful products.

If eco-friendly food is to have any chance of making a name for itself in the face of the might of industrial agriculture, the 2007 Farm Bill is going to have to include some serious changes to the backwards policy Ritchie mentions, including an informative-labeling policy and removal of subsidies for factory food.

For more green food information, visit The Ethicurean.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Ban on Plastic Bags in San Francisco?

San Francisco is considering enacting a ban on plastic bags in grocery stores. That's right, the "urban tumbleweed" may be nearing its end. Instead, stores would have to offer other options, which besides the obvious paper bags include reusable canvas bags or sturdier, longer-lasting plastic bags.

This isn't the first time this city has considered taking measures against the bags. In 2005, officials almost implemented a 17-cent tax on them before retailers agreed to voluntarily reduce annual bag usage by 10 million. Unsurprisingly, there's some disagreement as to how well this promise has been followed through with. An article in Waste News (oh how I love the database access I get through Stetson) says that although the California Grocers' Association quoted a reduction of 7.6 million bags, the city's third-party consulting company failed to find any basis for this claim. Ross Mirkarimi, the county supervisor who proposed the ban, says that the retailers "did a very lackluster job."

The NPR article quotes the president of the California Grocers as saying that the law, if passed, could "unintentionally lead to the use of paper bags only, which … would increase waste." I for one don't really understand how that would work. For one, paper bags are very much more biodegradable than plastic bags. Second, paper bags are made from the classic example of a renewable resource -- paper! Third, most paper bags aren't made with fresh-cut trees but rather recycled paper. These last two reasons make paper much more appealing to me personally, since plastic bags are a petroleum-derived product.

However, if plastic bags still seem to find their way into your home, there are a few things you can do about them. Most obviously, return them to where you got them -- most stores offer plastic bag recycling services. If you're more into the "reuse" part of the three R's, there are some interesting ways you can put them to use. Check the last link for a huge list of ideas.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Texas coal giant bought out by green-minded investors

Environmentalists don't know what to protest anymore

The New York Times reports that TXU, the Texas coal power generation company that has been the subject of so much controversy of late due to their plan to build 11 new coal-fired power plants in Texas, has come under new management. The plant was the subject of a number of creative protests organized by environmentalists (who opposed the company's plans because the role coal power plays in global warming, air pollution, and other problems of environmental degradation) and local citizens who don't want a coal plant in their backyard.

The new owners plan to turn the company into a leader in the clean(er) energy sector; appropriately, the president of Environmental Defense (a group that organized and inspired all kinds of protest against the company's plans) was brought in to advise on the deal. Some notable moves in that direction were eliminating 8 of the proposed plants, joining the US Climate Action partnership in calling for a nationwide cap on CO2 emissions, pledging to reduce their own emissions to 1990s levels by 2020, and promising to stop building new plants outside of Texas. The National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) reports that the the new owners have even more initiatives up their sleeves. Among them:

  • To "explore" different clean(er) coal technologies, such as integrated combined cycle gasification and various modes of carbon capture.
  • To start a campaign to bring about a "demand-side" reduction of need for power in Texas.
  • To invest in sustainable power generation -- wind and solar, for example.
  • To increase efficiency of TXU power plants.
All this comes as welcome news to many environmentalists. However, there are some caveats. The first question out of your mouth while reading this should have been "How do we know these aren't just empty promises?" Well, Environmental Defense notes that the deal contains provisions linking executive compensation to performance on these environmental issues, so barring any loopholes that's hopefully guaranteed. There are other points of contention with the good news, though. For example, TXU's new image may or may not influence other companies to adopt similar strategies. Also, the NYT article cites the Dallas mayor as being somewhat critical of the idea; she points out that one of the remaining proposed plants is still opposed by locals. However, despite these criticisms, it must be said that this move is at least a step in the right direction.

A Buyout Deal That Has Many Shades of Green (NYT)
Victory in Texas: Energy Giant Scraps Plans for 8 Coal Plants (Environmental Defense)
Record TXU Buyout Includes Unprecedented Global Warming, Emissions Plan (NRDC)

(NB: The tag "re-" indicates that this isn't exactly my original work. Of course I'm looking at a lot of sources to get this information, and it's in my own words as far as I can tell, but it's all already out there if you look hard enough. I'm just compiling and summarizing, not expanding.)

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

"Reverse Graffiti"

What, you mean you've never heard of "reverse graffiti"? I don't blame you; it's the kind of urban art form that those of us who rarely frequent major cities never get to see. Luckily, the fine folks at Inhabitat brought it to my attention, and I have to say, it's pretty clever.

On those lovely days in early spring when the conifers of the world decide to pollinate all up in our windpipes and windshields, have you ever had some little punk scrawl some kind of a "Wash me!" message on your rear windshield? (My younger brother, bless his soul, is fond of one that laments, "I wish my wife were this dirty.") This is the same idea, taken to a slightly higher plane of expression. The artists involved go to places like roadway tunnels that accumulate a lot of grime from the emissions of our carbon-fueled existence, and selectively clean them so that what remains is a work of art. As you can imagine, it presents a little bit of a quandary for the authorities. Do they arrest the artist for making graffiti, or do they commend him/her for cleaning up the city? This gray area is well-detailed by the above article as well as one it links to, at the "Podnosh Blog," about what implications this has for the "broken windows" theory of policing.

"That's interesting," you say, "But how is this related to the environment? I see the connection with air quality, but is that all?" I'll get there shortly.

Some, such as "Moose," practice art for what appears to be art's sake. However, a Brazilian artist named Alexandre Orion made his environmental message more graphic when he (is there a better word for this?) "tagged" a tunnel in Sao Paolo with hundreds of skulls -- which I (and others) have taken to represent what the automobiles that deposited his artistic medium are doing to the environment and other human beings.

I think there are pros and cons to Orion's approach.

On the plus side, it shows through metaphor what is a very real process that is going on right now, and that has been going on since the Industrial Revolution and especially since World War II. Emissions from power generation, manufacturing, and (as highlighted by Orion) automobiles make a measurable impact on rates of respiratory diseases such as asthma and deaths from these diseases. They are also the major source of the greenhouse gases that are warming our planet, which will lead to even more deaths. "Reverse graffiti" must also be celebrated for its ingenuity, as presented in the articles.

However, I believe that there are downsides to sensationalization of any news story. (Although a topic for another forum, the following problem and others are why I fundamentally disagree with 24-hour TV news in all its manifestations.) When the media report on global warming, it's often associated with images of gloom and doom -- statistics forecasting major deaths, warnings of climate thresholds, and other horror stories. What's often lacking is an optimistic vision, a plan of action we can take to improve air quality and avoid the worst effects of global warming. I ardently believe that we can turn things around, if we start now. But when the media report only the negative side of the story (because doom sells), it turns people off; people get sick of watching news stories on how they're destroying the planet and so eventually they stop listening. That's just terrible for everything on this planet in the long run, because people need to know about this issue. But they need to be informed about it in a balanced way, which includes something about how they can bring about a better future.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Name Change

The poet and naturalist Henry David Thoreau once wondered, "What's the use of a house if you haven't got a tolerable planet to put it on?" It's a very good question, one whose implications run deeper than residential planning. Just as a house would be useless without a "tolerable planet," so would the human race. What are we without the world around us, without the ecosystems that support us and provide us a point of contact with one of the most unique phenomena in the universe -- the diversity and interconnectedness of life on Earth?

Hopefully, with this blog, I'll be able to examine some of the things we're doing to make our planet intolerable, as well as point out things we can do and are doing to help the environment around us.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Simon's Hoodwinking the Nation

I wrote this piece for my American Environmental Issues class. We read Hoodwinking the Nation through the first chapter, and that's ALL I've read, so some misinterpretation on my part is quite possible. At some later point, I may read the book and do a proper review.

In Julian Simon’s Hoodwinking the Nation, the author argues that the media, politicians, and scientists portray environmental problems in the U.S. and the world as worse than they are, or even invent problems that aren’t really there. This is a bad thing, Simon argues, because it will lead to a distrust of the media – the “boy who cried wolf” phenomenon. It’s obvious from the beginning that Simon’s intention is the discredit the environmental movement. He even compares the environmental movement to the Communist Party, since they were both formed to bring about social change. (For a book that shows how the public’s fears are taken advantage of, that’s a pretty low blow.) Incidentally, the foreword to this book was written by someone from the American Enterprise Institute, a think tank supported largely by industry contributions. I’m not saying that Simon advocates what he does because he’s paid to do so; it’s simply interesting to note the kinds of people who want Simon’s ideas to be known.

I have some serious problems with even the short passage of Hoodwinking that we were assigned – through the first chapter. (There are a number of problems with his interpretation of the science or data, as well as minor logical issues, which I will not address in this journal. This will only cover my problems with his main thesis.) Early in the first chapter, he states, “In the 19th century the earth could sustain only one billion people” (7). He goes on to imply that the increase in human intellect leads to an increase in resources, which can support an ever-larger number of people. Simon doesn’t seem to realize that if the nonrenewable resources of the earth are totally used up, no amount of intellect can get them back. Although he doesn’t make this explicitly clear, Simon believes that the human intellect will be able to solve all of the problems we’re faced with today by developing new technology. In that vein, it’s interesting to note that the American Enterprise Institute (of the book’s foreword) is funded in large part by the auto industry, a sector which for some time has been loath to use technology to improve fuel efficiency despite increasing evidence of global warming and an admitted “addiction” to oil. Maybe they have a secret plan to develop a car that runs on intellect alone?

Simon goes on to show some things that have improved with increased human intellect and economic development. Again, there are several major problems with his argument. First, he doesn’t acknowledge that just because things have improved so far, there may be a limit after which our exploitation of the environment will have consequences. Simon cites almost no scientific literature to support his accusations, and when he does, he practices very selective quotation, only citing studies that say what he wants to hear. In one instance of his irresponsibility towards the science, he points out that in the paper industry, new forests are planted to replace the old ones lost, and new forests are created entirely. Here he misses the point that virgin old-growth forest is a completely different, healthier ecosystem than a former clear-cut young nursery. The second problem with his argument that our relationship with the environment is better than ever has to do with the time scale he’s looking at. Sure, things have gotten better since, say, mid-century – with the passage of the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts – but humanity is still having a huge impact on the environment which, in large part, could be avoided with the adoption of new technology.

Although Simon advocates technology as the solution to all our environmental woes, it seems to me that he’s talking about a different kind of technology – technology that would help us cope with the destruction of the ecosystems around us, rather than technology that could help save what ecosystems are left. When I read what Simon has to say, I remember something from Star Wars. I might be making it up, but I’ll continue nonetheless. Do you remember that planet that was basically one giant city? Sure, it’s got a thriving economy and a healthy population – the people of that planet developed technology that allowed them to live like that – but is that really the kind of world we want to condemn our descendants to? Do we want future generations to live in a world where the only nature is the 10 acres of grass and benches that is the municipal park? I certainly wouldn’t want to live in such a world, and I believe we need to do everything we can to prevent that outcome.

Post One

Statement of Intent:

I don't really intend to report on every environmental issue that comes up in my newsfeeds. I'm a full time student, so I don't have the time that sort of up-to-the-minute reporting requires. I also don't have the writing skills; it usually takes me a few tries before I get something that I want the world to see (not that I think many will see this blog, but still). Some of my posts will be short, opinionated responses to current events. Others will be longer pieces, some of which I've turned in as "journals" for my American Environmental Issues class here at Stetson University in sunny DeLand, FL. The content will vary, as will the amount of time in between posts. I'm a student first and foremost, so I'll post when it's convenient and doesn't interfere with my schoolwork.

That said, I hope you enjoy what I have to say, or at least find it interesting or provoking.