Monthly Archives: April 2010

Earth Day Weekend Wrap Up

Now that Earth Day has turned 40, it apparently takes an entire weekend for all the celebrating. Anybody go to the concert on The Mall? We were planning on it but the weather was so lousy we headed to AFI Silver to see “Greenburg” instead. Sure, it’s not a terribly verdant way to wrap up such a big anniversary but this ain’t no banner year for the environment either.  Here are a few links to stories I’ve read over the birthday weekend:

The new Gallup poll released late last week provides fresh insight into just how much public concern has slipped over global warming and other environmental woes.  But no amount of denial can change the growing avalanche of scientific data pointing toward a warming world. For a comprehensive explanation, you can’t beat this piece in The Economist magazine. Sure, it gets a big bogged down and wonky in spots, but it will give you all the information you need next time you find yourself in cocktail party conversation with a skeptic.

Wine Lovers beware: Here’s a story on the new Climate Desk site explaining how global warming is wrecking havoc in vineyards.

Here’s a story on how the world’s remaining old-growth rainforests are being flushed down the toilet.

Rebecca Solnit reviews Bill McKibben’s new book “Eaarth” and mixes in a few climate change extras on TomDispatch.com.

“The party’s over” according to the Washington Post, reporting on the latest International Monetary Fund’s assessment of the state of the world economy. Funny, both the IMF and McKibben are essentially calling for the same thing: a downsizing and rethinking of what’s considered “the good life.”

The Coal industry is on the ropes as even the nation’s power plants vow to “go green,” says the Wall Street Journal. Plant operators are now turning to natural gas, the paper reports. But what about the growing controversy over fracking?

Selling(out) the environmental movement - Utne Reader senior editor Keith Goetzman posts on Washington Post and New York Times stories examining corporate influence inside Big Green groups. Calling it “the 800-pound gorilla in the environmental movement,” Goetzman notes that it’s about time the mainstream press examined questionable deals the nation’s leading environmental groups have cut with corporate polluters, not to mention the very corporate style in which many of these nonprofit groups operate today.

Ever since Johann Hari’s piece, “The Wrong Kind of Green,” ran in The Nation last month, a glaring spotlight is on environmental groups that shill for their corporate donors. Sadly, these unlikely alliances have turned our corporate watchdogs into corporate lapdogs.

I was quoted in Hari’s piece and my book provided some background in that story, which made me quite happy and proud to help get this conversation started; I’m not so happy about the way the climate change denial camp has discovered my research, however. An outfit calling itself Freedom Action has been running a full page ad in the Washington Examiner detailing the astronomical salaries of some of the country’s environmental leaders. WWF-US chief Carter Roberts makes about $510,000 a year; EDF’s Fred Krupp takes home $474,000, and so on. You can find the same info. on page 21 of my book or just pick up the Examiner! The only problem with Freedom Action is it’s trying to derail any attempt at climate action but mixing things up with kooky ideas about birth control meds that end up in the nation’s water supplies.

Social Networking Is Pretty Much the Same Everywhere

at the Cucamama cafe

We biked over to a funky Berlin neighborhood south of the Tiergarten. Not too sure it’s name but it has a very East Village feeling. Lots of record and secondhand shops, cafes including WiFi joins link Cucamama, where I shot this photo of Lauren and Charlie. Berlin is charming. It’s edgy like New York but not so edgy, overcrowded or overpriced.

Berlin by Bike

Bikers at Brandonburg Gate

It’s day-four of my unexpected extended stay in Berlin. I’m one of reportedly millions of stranded travelers waiting for the skies to clear of volcanic ash. While the upper atmosphere may be a mess of sand, glass and whatever else an Icelandic volcano can spew, the weather down here is perfectly lovely. Last week, when I was officially working as part of a journalism tour of green building and architecture in Germany, every day seemed to be colder, rainier and more dreary than the next. As if timed to coincide with our forced vacation, the skies have lighted and spring is in the air – perfect for biking. And I’ve been doing a lot of it. While the subway system – or U Ban – is excellent here, I’ve opted to the peddling life of millions of Berliners.

My new friends, Lauren Browne and Charles Redell, rented bikes at the city’s central train station, the Berlin Hauptbahnhof, Sunday and rode all the way to the airport to rebook our flights. It’s about a 5 mile ride, nearly entirely on bike paths. If it weren’t for my unwieldly suitcase, I would would be tempted ride my rent-a-bike to catch my flight on Thursday (hopefully…) It might sound like one of those harrowing experiences in which you take your life in your hands, dodging and weaving through traffic. But nothing of the sort. I didn’t feel my life threatened once during the trip out there through Berlin’s stately cityscape, peddling along bike paths that aren’t the kind of here now, gone next block afterthought you find in Washington.

The DB “Call a Bike” service we used, is sort of like Zip Car for bikes or a higher-tech, touristy version of the District’s new bike share program. Each bike comes with a electronic locking system. We simply left our bikes outside the hotel overnight. I was almost surprised to find them still there in the morning. Now, on the third day of the rental, I found myself checking again to make sure the big red and white tank of bicycle is still there. It is! Another great feature is that once your done renting the bike,  you just drop it off outside a subway station and call a telephone number to report where you left it. It’s 9 Euro a day or 36 Euro a week, which is on par with the cost of sightseeing by subway and a whole lot cheaper than bus tours or taxis. Besides it’s a wonderful way to see the city, soak up a little local color and get some exercise.

The romance of biking

Everyone seems to bike here. While you do see a few people in those tight little numbers that so many Washington bikers don even for the most mundane commute to the office, I’ve also seen the old and the very young. One portly old gentleman in a tweedy suit and cap crossing a throughoutfare. An younger guy with his dog on a leash – talk about multitasking! Biking and walking the dog – Cool. Another lady had a sort of a tricycle with a wagonback. Inside her two dashhounds. Every now and then, she’d reach back and give one of them a pat on the head. (Charlie has a photo of this lady in one of his blog posts.)

According to the German government: “About 80 per cent of people in Germany own a bicycle which makes a total of around 73 million bikes which are being used more and more frequently.” That compares to about 27 percent of the U.S. population over the age of 16  – about 57 million people – according to a 2002 survey , cited by Bicyclinginfo.org.The subway trains have separate cars reserved for people with bikes. The bike paths are beautifully integrated into the cityscape. Sometimes you ride in a specifically designated bike lane on the street, sometimes the lane moves up onto the spacious sidewalks. I haven’t seen any mishaps with pedestrians. Everyone seems to have enough room. Though there is so much bicycle traffic that it is important to ride like you drive, remembering others are behind you or may be turning from side streets. There are even special traffic lights for bikes! It’s not a perfect system. You still have scofflaws, for instance. I did seen a few daredevils running the lights.

Berlin’s neighborhoods are full of little cafes and shops of all types. Perhaps another byproduct of a culture – unlike ours – that doesn’t revolve around the car. If you are on your feet or on your bike, you are probably more likely to do your shopping on your street or one nearby, anyway, rather than trekking out to Costco or a Wal-Mart superstore. I wonder if there are any studies or statistics on that? Anybody know?

(By the way, the green building tour that brought me to Germany was quite interesting; We visited, among other things, loads of “passive homes” – houses, coop-style buildings and schools that take extraordinarily little energy to heat, cool and light.  I’m getting around to telling you about that, but the drama – and fun – of being a volcano refugee has distracted me. I’ll get back to that soon, though, promise.)

Workaday Monday – in Berlin

It’s another Monday morning, computers are turned on, buzzing and the click, click of fingertips to keyboards. It’s almost like any other Monday morning – checking email, the news headlines and settling down to write – all except I’m doing it in a hotel lobby in Berlin. My co-workers: a group of environmental journalists from the U.S. and Canada. We were traveling around Germany last week touring green schools, office and apartment buildings when the volcano on Iceland began to erupt.

I was supposed to fly out Saturday morning and get back to D.C. in plenty of time to throw myself into another crazy workweek. But by Friday night, most of our flights were canceled and we had no idea where we’d sleep the next night or what we’d do as the ash cloud wafted through the atmosphere far above Europe. Of course, we’re all grown adults, journalists no less and fully equipped to survive such inconveniences. And, with the help of our hosts in the German government and the think tank, Ecologic Institute, we were quickly installed in a funky little hotel on the edge of Berlin’s Tiergarten, the city’s version of Central Park and a wonderful place that is right now full of gently unfurling buds and the first flowers of springtime.

It’s such a pleasure to experience springtime. And, here in Berlin, where they have had a hard winter, it’s easy to get caught up in the joyousness of the growing grass, chirping birds and happy Berliners who took full advantage of the mild weather and ample sunshine this weekend.  They were picnicking in the park, walking and biking all over town.

It’s a beautiful city – particularly this time of year. I would like to say that I handled this unexpected change of plans with the utmost grace but there was a lot of hand-wringing and wrinkled brows before we arrived at our new digs and had rebooked our flights. Three of us rented bikes yesterday and biked – YES WE BIKED! – out to the airport, a marvelous ride which I’ll likely tell you more about later.  I’m finally scheduled to go on Thursday now – which was seemingly like a lifetime-long delay only a day or two ago. That was before adjusting my expectations to the forces of nature. While we all knew we’d survive, it is something of a mindbend to be told that there is no certainly when or if you will be able to get home. We’ve all become accustomed to crossing at will the Atlantic (Pacific, Sea of Japan, whatever) that it is quite disconcerting to learn nature really doesn’t care that we have work to do, deadlines to meet and places to be.

Now that I’ve stopped worrying, I realize it’s really not much different from a regular day in the District. In fact, since it’s only just before 6 am at home, I’m really getting an early start to a productive workday! Everyone is quietly getting things done here in the lobby of the Motel One. I’ve decided to embrace the uncertainty. Tonight, in fact, we may venture to a special restaurant, Unsicht-Bar, where a wait staff of blind people serve you dinner entirely in the dark. Somehow, it seems like just the right meal for the moment.

Auf Wiedersehen!

Global Warming – One Freeze Frame at a Time

CCTV cameras on Tate Britain wharf via Flickr.

Researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles, have come up with a new use for all those security cameras that have proliferated across the globe in recent years: They’re using public, Internet-connected webcams to monitor the effects of global warming across the globe.

It turns out that the local street views, so to speak, provide a better picture than satellite imagery that’s also used for this purpose. I learned about it this morning, via Mother Jones, which linked from the Conservation Maven site. And, here’s the paper, if you’d rather read the long version. Unfortunately the site is password protected, so be prepared to shell out some cash.

According to the abstract:

“Public cameras had an equivalent or higher ability to detect spring compared with satellite-based data for corresponding locations, with fewer numbers of poor quality days, shorter continuous bad data days, and significantly lower errors of spring estimates. Manual image segmentation into deciduous, evergreen, and understory vegetation allowed detection of spring and fall onset for multiple vegetation types.”

What insights the researchers are gleaning from the cams isn’t mentioned in the abstract. Perhaps it’s too early for them to provide a clear picture of the webcam images they are analyzing. Once they do start comparing images of local cams around the globe, the new approach could make the impacts of global warming much more real to people locally by showing them the changes in their own communities.

But one has to wonder if we really need more evidence that global warming is real, as much as a game plan for addressing it. The climate change deniers have had quite a run lately, but if you believe Yale’s Six Americas study, a sizable number of people are convinced that climate change is real. According to the Yale researchers, 18 percent would chacterize themselves as “alarmed,” while another 33 percent are “concerned” about climate change. That’s more than half the country but the political solutions we’ve been offered so far are all about political action as opposed to actual action.

The climate bill gaining steam in the Senate right now would reduce carbon emissions by just 17 percent over 2005 levels by 2020. That’s way below what climate scientists say in necessary if we are going reign in runaway climate changes before its too late. It’s going to be too late, very soon – within the next couple of years. Yet, people keep talking about what’s politically feasible, rather than what’s necessary. Sens. John Kerry, (D-Mass.,) Joseph I. Lieberman, (I-Conn.,) and Lindsey Graham, (R, S.C.,) who have teamed with the country’s leading Big Green environmentalists to push this woefully inadequate climate legislation this year,  may be able to negotiate a deal that both sides can claim as a victory. But nature doesn’t cut backroom deals.

What will it take to shift our thinking so that “political reality” includes keeping the climate from slipping beyond what’s “liveable” – not just for some cuddly endangered species, but for us humans? Some say the country needs a new civil rights movement to demand environmental sustainability. What do you think?

Stepping Back to Move Forward on Global Warming?

The big news yesterday was that Obama kept his campaign promise and moved forward with plans to drill for oil in off the country’s coasts. This news was largely met with celebratory tones and running commentary on the great compromiser skills of the U.S. president. What received less play were two stories about the climate change debate.  The Associated Press reports here that the scientists embroiled in the “climategate” email scandal have been cleared of any wrongdoing by a British parliamentary panel. Meanwhile, The Huffington Post covered a new Greenpeace report that followed the money – nearly $50 million since 1997 – paid by Koch Industries to finance a campaign of climate change denial.

Having a hard time seeing the forest for the trees?

What do these developments mean for the climate change debate?

OK, so, we learn investigators found no evidence that UK climate scientists have “cooked the books” to make global warming look worse than it is; news that underscores that climate change is not just real, it’s going to get very bad unless we do something and the time for action is quickly slipping by. On the same day this report comes out, we get a peak inside the “climate denial machine” and its a view into a well-oiled, well-financed campaign paid by corporate interests that stand to lose a lot if our politician were ever to act to reign in runaway global warming. But Koch, Exxon and other denial financiers apparently aren’t in any immediate danger. (See story news item one.)

BAD GAS – The Tales from the Pump at a Notorious DC Gas Station

Photo by Darrow Montgomery, Washington City Paper

Read my latest cover story for the Washington City Paper that chronicles the almost unbelievable goings-on at one DC gas station. Researching this story was a real eye opener on how the gas selling business works these days – all in all, a pretty “oily” business. At the particular station I profiled, there had been shootings – including a homicide – muggings, purse snatching, aggressive pan handling, multiple rat sightings, and a general disregard for such things as giving out receipts and posting the prices. The owner seems to make a pretty good living from the stations he owns but doesn’t appear overly concerned about providing good service to customers. But that seems to be the way this industry works;  Skeeviness cascades downward from corporate headquarters all the way to the pumps at neighborhood stations. Small operators are being driven out of business in DC and all over the country, as Chevron and other Big Oil companies put street level sales in the hands of regional distributors called “jobbers,” who operate on even lower margins than the traditional ma’ and pa’ outfits.  Just don’t expect the squeeze on the profitability of local stations to trickle down to customers.

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