Category Archives: Climate Change

DC’s smart meters going heywire?

Chris Turner's smart meter at work. Click to watch video.

For those of us following the climate change debate, we’ve heard for years that before we can build a clean energy economy we need a “smart grid” capable of plugging into an array of big and small power sources — from residential rooftop solar panels to massive wind farms.

But, it turns out even here in Washington, D.C., there are those who see something more sinister in the smart technology.  For some,  the “smart meters” represent a  massive new assault on the airwaves and public health.

It’s not exactly the kind of rabble rousing underway in Tea Party strongholds, where the meters are considered part of a United Nations’ plot to outlaw America’s beloved suburban sprawl  and herd everyone into “smart growth” shoebox apartments and “walkable” neighborhoods. D.C. activists, however, are using some of the same arguments and links to rail against the technology update. That might be part of the reason they aren’t getting much traction with city officials or their own neighbors.

Read more about DC’s meter battle in my story in today’s Washington City Paper.

Is climate change causing more weather extremes?

Earlier this year I had an assignment investigating the links between climate change and weather. In the course of the reporting I talked to a Yale pollster who says last year’s extraordinary weather — dry and drought-like or rainy and flooded  in most places — has done more to convince people that the climate is indeed changing than any number of increasingly urgent reports like this one from the OECD.

For the story, I spoke with climate scientists too, and learned about efforts to better pinpoint when rising global temperatures play a role in a particular extreme of weather. It’s a still evolving area of science. Controversy rages.  Kevin Trenberth, a climate scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, has perhaps most riled his colleagues — not to mention climate change contrarians and non-believers — by suggesting that today global warming should be considered a factor in all weather.  Not all climate scientists agree — one even called it a “crap idea” in a major UK newspaper! But Trenberth hasn’t backed off. He elaborates on the idea in a new article due out this spring.

You can read all about this (and much more!) in my just published cover story in E Magazine. There’s also a sidebar on the impact to harvests and water supplies if the world remains on its current trajectory toward 10+ degrees Fahrenheit of warming.

If you still have time, check out my piece on Italy’s growing woes with the “ecomafia.”

2011: A year for the record books

When it comes to climate, 2011 isn’t just going down in the record books for all the freakishly extreme weather. In certain circles, it’ll also be remembered as the year scientists and other experts broke longstanding scientific taboo and started talking about how those individual weather events could be linked to global climate change.

“Extreme weather and associated societal impacts have increased in recent years. With our changing climate, the nation must be prepared for more extreme weather in the future,” National Weather Service director Jack Hayes said in a video posted on the service’s website along with a new report tallying 2011’s record breaking weather disasters. This year, 12 separate weather events cost the country $1 billion or more each to clean up, a significant increase over pasted years, according to the agency, a branch of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“In my weather career spanning four decades, I’ve never seen a year like 2011,” Hayes went on to say. “Sure, we’ve had years with extreme flooding, extreme hurricanes, extreme winter snowstorms and even extreme tornado outbreaks. But I can’t remember a year like this in which we experienced record-breaking extremes of nearly every conceivable type of weather.”

Meanwhile this year, climate extremes also unfurled across just about every other continent. Drought induced famine in Africa, dramatic floods in Bangkok, and extreme heat, forest fires and other “weather events” left people dead, damaged or displaced from their homes and livelihoods. The “freak weather” even made Time magazine’s list of the top ten U.S. news stories of 2011.

For years, science’s stock refrain has been that an individual weather event could not prove or disprove climate change. Scientists, traditionally, have taken a historian-like long view; While hotter temperatures and more extreme storms and droughts were consistent, generally speaking, with global warming, natural variations and other factors made them reluctant to connect the dots between individual events and a slow moving global trend.

Such reticence, however, has evaporated this year faster than Texas drinking water. A slew of reports on “climate extremes” published in the last few weeks have sounded alarms about the climate-weather connection, even as international negotiators have dithered over what to do to reign in runaway greenhouse gas emissions fueling climate change.

Late last month, the U.N.’s International Panel on Climate Change issued a special report, its first ever, examining the connections between weather and climate. It concluded that global temperatures and sea levels have almost certainly risen, and increasingly intense droughts and storms are going to exact more and more harrowing tolls on humans, as well as “sectors with closer links to climate,” such as “water, agriculture and food security, forestry, health, and tourism.
The World Meteorological Organization and the International Energy Organization also issued warnings that we are standing at the precipice of irreversible changes. WMO’s provisional status report issued Nov. 29 concluded that 2011 was the 10th warmest year on record and might have been hotter if it hadn’t been for La Nina, a weather event known to cool global temperatures.

“Concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere have reached new highs. They are very rapidly approaching levels consistent with a 2-2.4 degree Centigrade rise in average global temperatures which scientists believe could trigger far reaching and irreversible changes in our Earth, biosphere and oceans,” WMO Secretary-General Michel Jarraud said in a statement that accompanied the report.

Meanwhile, the International Energy Organization issued perhaps the most dire report of all last month when it warned the world was on track for a  6°C  (11°F) temperature increase. “[F]or every $1 of investment in cleaner technology that is avoided in the power sector before 2020, an additional $4.30 would need to be spent after 2020 to compensate for the increased emissions.”

That’s a prospect that David Roberts railed against as “beyond any reasonable doubt, game over,” in a post in Grist earlier this week.
Despite the evidence supporting some serious carpe diem, the news out of Durban suggests we’ll get more of the same procrastination and paralysis  that dominated international climate talks for years.

The U.S. position, which has maintained its opposition to binding emission cuts over the passed few decades no matter if a Democrat or Republican in the White House, is particularly ironic considering the latest report from the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication that suggests that climate extremes are moving the U.S. public to believe in climate change in ways that the science has failed to do.

In perhaps the most interesting poll results since the climategate scandal broke two years ago, propelling climate denialism to new heights, the Yale report, published Dec. 7, found that while the percentage of people who understand global warming is happening has remained unchanged since last May, at 63 percent, slightly more people, 65 percent, told the pollsters that global warming is affecting weather in the United States. Belief that human activity is fueling the warming also edged up 3 points to 50 percent of those polled. Perhaps even more significantly, “A majority of Americans (57%) now disagree with the statement, “With the economy in such bad shape, the US can’t afford to reduce global warming” – an 8 point increase in disagreement since May 2011.”

The Climate Two Step

More caution needed on climate change, scientists say.

If news were like music that sets the tempo of public opinion, the latest spate of climate change headlines is tapping out something like a two-step. One step closer to certainty, then the music reels toward denialism; Inspiring, if brief, performances by grassroots activists, flanked by the chorus line of corporate sponsorships and murky backroom dealings.

Last week the world’s leading scientific authority on global warming, the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, issued a report linking extreme weather to climate change and urged governments around the world to step up their efforts for dealing with “climate extremes.” The same day U.S. Congress  killed plans for a national climate agency.

Months of protesting the Keystone pipeline led to a postponement that could provide bureaucratic deathblow to the project. But it turns out that defeating the pipeline will not keep the Canadian tar sands from flowing to refineries via other routes, including the millions of miles of existing U.S. pipelines that already transport — and sometimes spill — the particularly gooey and toxic fossil fuel.

The Sierra Club‘s longtime leader Carl Pope has finally stepped down amid what the Los Angeles Times said was “discontent that the group founded by 19th century wilderness evangelist John Muir has compromised its core principles.” Pope’s replacement, Michael Brune, declared “done” the $1.3 million sponsorship deal Pope had championed with the makers of Clorox  bleach. Brune vowed to never again risk sullying the venerable institution’s reputation by shilling for another corporate polluter. Having been one of those who criticized the Sierra Club’s Clorox deal, it’s good to see the new leadership heeding concerns about greenwashing. But virtually all of the the country’s other flagship environmental groups are beholden to corporate “sponsors” and “partners” today, as the recent greenwashing scandals involving  World Wildlife Fund and the National Park Foundation and their corporate sponsor, the Coke-a-Cola Co, atest.

Triggering a Climate Movement?

Anti-pipeline protesters Nov. 6. Photo by C MacDonald

Last week, while reporting about environmentalism inside the Occupy Wall Street movement, I had an interesting conversation with Indiana University professor Fabio Rojas about the “trigger” effect. It’s a theory about the momentum that tends to build once protests reach a critical mass of supporters. The movement’s own success sets up a sort of positive feedback loop that “triggers” or “signals to” other – perhaps more cautious or moderate – people that it’s O.K. to express their own frustrations and even take to the streets.

I wonder if that’s not at least part of what helped bring out so many people to yesterday’s protest against the proposed Keystone pipeline. Busloads of folks from around the country turned up to encircle the White House. There were more than enough to make it around the presidential compound. Chief organizer Bill McKibben sent out an email to supporters last night saying 12,000 people participated in what organizers sometimes jokingly referred to as a big “hug” meant give President Obama the support he needs to scuttle the deal. Of course, White House “headlock,”also seemed an apt metaphor given the number of people waving signs expressing their disappointment with the president.

The pipeline would cut southward across the country transporting tar sands oil from Canada to refineries in Texas. Supporters have essentially cast the battle as another jobs v. environment fight, though the Washington Post had a story Saturday exposing some pretty fuzzy math in Keystone’s assertions that 20,000 jobs would result. Critics oppose the pipeline for a number of local and global reasons. They say building it would lock the country into decades of continued fossil fuel dominance and destroy any chance at reigning in global warming before its too late, while oil spills from the pipeline could contaminate ecologically sensitive areas, chiefly the Ogallala Aquifer, which supplies water for drinking and crop irrigation across several Midwestern states.

Obama under pressure on pipeline. Photo by C. MacDonald

Riding around on my bike amid the smiling, chanting, occasionally singing and dancing crowd, the collective mood was joyous. This is what momentum-building apparently looks like compared to the general feeling emanating from the precursor: Last summer’s two weeks of civil disobedience at the same spot. Those rolling protests raised the profile of the pipeline fight and upped the pressure on the Obama Administration, but turnout was a disappointment. After initially trumpetting the news that more than 2,000 people had pledged to come to Washington and get arrested in front of the White House, organizers were left backtracking. In the end, more than 1,200 people were arrested.

About two weeks after the last tar sands protester made bail in Washington, however, Occupy Wall Street began. It’s conceivable that the tar sands protests acted as a “trigger” for the Occupy movement, though the anti-Wall Street activists have said their main inspirations are the Arab Spring and protests in Madrid.

Now, with thousands of people hunkered down in public squares and plazas around the globe, perhaps it seemed more reasonable than radical to take to the streets to defeat the pipeline that McKibben has referred to as “game over” for the environment. The trigger effect as more of a boomerang?

We may soon find out what it means for the pipeline decision but what about the prospects of triggering a wider climate justice movement? On that question, one thing bodes well for the protesters: Most in yesterday’s crowd are environmentalists from the get-go. True, some, particularly the contingent from Nebraska, may be acting primarily to protect their drinking water. And, there was definitely crossover from Occupy DC and other encampments around the country that are more concerned with the state of the economy, corporate greed and growing income inequality. Still, the vast majority of people, like the organizers themselves, were demanding action on climate change as much as protesting an oil pipeline. Shaping them into a formidable climate movement seems more doable than trying to redirect the anti-corporate sentiments of the Occupy movement into the related but less immediate issue of climate justice.

On Climate, Are we the 99% or more like the 1%?

Street protest in DC on Oct. 8

There’s such an upwelling of environmentalism flowing into the Occupy movement right now. My new piece on the Alternet.org site assesses what the Wall Street protests could mean to climate activism and other fights. Occupy Wall Street has not only inspired people around the world to protest against corporate corruption and income equality; It’s prompted reexamination of what “just” and “equitable” would look like when it comes to emissions cuts or the Keystone pipeline fight. Plenty of people are debating these subjects right now. I’ll just say that a sustainable economy predicated on a healthy planet seems like the kind of justice we need about now.

Climate Change: Are we also the 99%

The GreenAccord conference took place last week.

I got back late last night from the GreenAccord environmental conference in Italy, an annual gathering that brings together journalists from around the globe with some of the foremost experts on climate change and the many interconnected environmental problems threatening human – and planetary – health.
The conference has always emphasized environmental justice, a focus made even richer by the large contingent of reporters from developing countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America, where some of the worst impacts of climate change are expected and have, indeed, begun. This year, however, the political dimensions of the climate debate were in even starker relief.  Several speakers suggested that the world’s elites are insulating themselves from the worst aspects of global warming. There were shades of the Occupy movement with its assertions that the world’s wealthiest 1 percent are ruining the world for the rest of us.

Resource economist William Rees argued that we’re already seeing the beginnings of “eco apartheid” as wealthy individuals, corporations and entire governments scramble to secure the best remaining cropland, water rights, mineral and fossil fuel deposits and other dwindling resources, while blocking climate responses that threaten their wealth. Robert Engelman, the new executive director at of the environmental think tank, Worldwatch Institute, expressed similar views. Meanwhile Brazilian philosopher Euclides Mance, of the World Social Forum, advocated dumping our corporate-dominated economy for one based on solidarity. He discussed experiments underway in Brazil and elsewhere to replace currency with a system of credits that would essentially allow people to barter for goods and services.

As soon as I shake off the jet lag, I must start writing an article that will discuss some of these ideas in more detail. Stay tuned!

While I was away, my story on the economy of food trucks posted to The Atlantic magazine’s “Cities” website. While off subject for those focused solely on environmental issues, it’s an interesting tale of how, even in a sputtering economy, agile entrepreneurs can find a path forward. Perhaps there is a more universal take-away there? You can find the story here.

Maryland student’s tribute to the Chesapeake wins Solar Decathlon

U of Md's WaterShed home at the Solar Decathlon

WaterShed is the 2011 Solar Decathlon winner

WaterShed, the lushly landscaped energy self-sufficient home built by a team from University of Maryland won first place in this year’s Solar Decathlon, which wrapped yesterday on the National Mall. The nearly 900-square-foot home, complete with rain garden, beat out 18 other entries from universities around the U.S., Belgium, Canada, China and New Zealand.

As the name suggests, the Solar Decathlon is all about building the best dwelling that can be fully powered by the sun, but this year several teams tackled two other issues of increasing concern to commercial builders of “green” homes: air quality and water conservation. In fact, both Team Maryland and the team from Purdue University, which took second place, showcased their original inventions in the air quality arena.
Read the rest of this entry

A Call for a “Deep Green” Uprising

After news yesterday drew attention again to the failed strategy and sad co-opting of many mainstream green groups, it begs the question: Is a Deep Green Resistance the way to galvanize mass action on climate change? A growing number of activists – Bill McKibben, Tim DeChristopher, Mike Roselle and others – say it will take a civil rights-like movement to wake people up to the society disrupting challenges climate change will bring (and many experts say has already begun.)

While they represent very different places on the political spectrum, they’ve all given up on a broad consensus and aim instead for inspiring a small but effective minority of people willing to put themselves on the line. But that’s about all they seem to agree on. The DGR — which according to its website will have both public and underground branches —  is already under friendly fire from Roselle and other activists who raise some interesting questions about how to start a green revolution without losing mainstream appeal.

Never one to mince words, Roselle’s take on the new resistance: “Deep Green Doo Doo.”

He elaborated in a Facebook post yesterday: “Not that some new thinking is not required, but I’m always sicious of people providing answers to problems which are themselves questions. They have not identified any issues that were not being discussed back in the 1960’s. I’m not a pacifist, but this sort of preaching to the choir is very damaging to the chances, however slim, of building a real movement. We can be the Muslim Brotherhood, or we can be the crowd at Tafir Square? Do we want peaceful transition, or a civil war? Its really up to us.”

Wasting Food = Huge Hidden Water Costs

There’s nothing newsy about the imbalances in world food supplies that has fueled things like the obesity epidemic in the United States and other developed countries where food is cheap and abundant, while parts of the developing world face chronic hunger, malnutrition, famine, and high mortality rates. Humanitarians and policy wonks have wrung their hands over these issues for years over. Now researchers are looking at the problem from another pressing angle: All the rotten produce, meat and moldy grains means the huge quantities of water required to grown them was also wasted.

The U.K. newspaper The Guardian reports on new research by the British government’s Waste and Resources Action Programme (Wrap) and the environmental group  WWF that examines the average UK household’s water and carbon footprint. Conclusion: “we throw away, on average, twice as much water per year in the form of uneaten food as we use for washing and drinking.” The Guardian goes on to say: “What is worse, increasing amounts of our food comes from countries where water is scarce, meaning the food we discard has a huge hidden impact on the depletion of valuable water resources across the world.

Read the entire article here.

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