Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Greenhouse Gas Alliance of Western States

Given the reluctance of the U.S. Federal Government to tackle the problem of global warming, five Western states have taken action on their own to institute regional measures for lowering greenhouse gas emissions. As reported in this San Francisco Chronicle article, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and the governors of Arizona, Washington, New Mexico, and Oregon forged an agreement to lower emissions and set up the framework for buying and selling carbon emission credits. California leads in nationwide efforts to enact legislation to drive down emissions, but the cooperation of other Western states will hopefully lead to progressive measures and similar legislation being passed in their locales. Some of the states have a long way to go:
While Schwarzenegger last year signed legislation banning the state's electric utilities from acquiring new megawatts from power plants that burn coal to produce electricity, both Arizona and New Mexico generate much of their power from coal, which is a heavy greenhouse gas contributor. One power plant in Arizona landed last year on a nonpartisan environmental group's list of the 50 worst carbon dioxide emitters in the country.

Both Arizona and New Mexico are considering proposals for new coal-fired power plants.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Tesla Electric Car Manufacturing Ramps Up

As tangible proof that electric cars don't have to be dowdy, under-powered under-achievers, Tesla Motors prototyped a sleek, fast sports car last year and quickly found 300 trusting individuals willing to plunk down a deposit. With a price tag that rivals a Porsche, but performance that also matches the legendary German prowess (the Tesla accelerates from 0 to 60 mph in around 4 seconds), the company is targeting its next model for a broader market. Tesla is ramping up to manufacture a line of four-door sedans, having reached terms with the State of New Mexico to construct a manufacturing facility that would be partially funded by the state. New Mexico apparently offered more compelling incentives than California (Tesla had also considered locating the plant in Pittsburg, CA).

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Vibrio Food Poisoning and Global Warming

Global warming nudged the temperature in Alaska's oyster beds just high enough to give the bacterium Vibrio parahaemoolyticus the warmth to flourish. As reported in the L.A. Times, seafood in Alaska was typically too cold for the nasty microbe, but by the summer of 2004, the critical 59-degree mark was surpassed in the local waters. Cruise ship passengers fed on local oysters became seriously ill.

"This was probably the best example to date of how global climate change is changing the importation of infectious diseases," said Dr. Joe McLaughlin, acting chief of epidemiology at the Alaska Division of Public Health, who published a study on the outbreak.The spread of human disease has become one of the most worrisome subplots in the story of global warming. Incremental temperature changes have begun to redraw the distribution of bacteria, insects and plants, exposing new populations to diseases that they have never seen before.

Food for thought on the significance of a few degrees of change impacting a region...

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Green Limos Make Statement at Oscars

In a sign of the times, many of the celebrities appearing at the 2007 Oscars have opted to appear in hybrid vehicles provided by Global Green USA. As described in this Reuter's article:
The environmental group began the green limousine campaign five years ago at the Oscars to raise awareness among the tens of millions of viewers worldwide about alternative fuel cars, energy independence and solutions to global warming

Ostentatious displays are finally giving way to more environmentally friendly rides...

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Crocodiles Off of Greenland

Without swift and dramatic changes, a spokesperson for the American Association for the Advancement of Science said, we are heading for world conditions similar to the Epocene epoch, when massive numbers of species became extinct. At the annual 2007 AAAS meeting, president Dr. John Holdren said:
"Climate change is not a problem for our children and our grandchildren - it is a problem for us. It's already causing harm," said Holdren, who serves as director of the Woods Hole Research Center, and is the Teresa and John Heinz Professor of Environmental Policy at Harvard University.

One colleaque that Holdren quoted envisioned "crocodiles off of Greenland and palm trees in Wyoming."

This Environmental News Service release states the case and offers suggestions on what we need to do next.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Cheap Solar Power Soon

One obstacle to the widespread adoption of solar power has been the capital cost difference between typical carbon-based energy sources and solar power. In the 1970's, solar power cost around $100 per watt. Today, it varies between $3 and $4 per watt. According to Anil Sethi of the Swiss firm Flisom, as reported in this article published in the Telegraph in Britain, the cost of solar power will be around $.80 a watt within 5 years. This will bring the cost below the comparable carbon-based fuel costs, which currently stand near $1 per watt.

The key is a a semiconductor compound (CuInGaSe2) embedded in a thin, lightweight polymer substrate that can be manufactured in rolls, unlike today's glass-based solar panels. Quoted in the article, Sethi said:

"It'll even work on a cold, grey, cloudy day in England, which still produces 25pc to 30pc of the optimal light level. That is enough, if you cover half the roof," he said.

"We don't need subsidies, we just need governments to get out of the way and do no harm. They've spent $170bn subsidising nuclear power over the last thirty years," he said.

His ultra-light technology, based on a copper indium compound, can power mobile phones and laptop computers with a sliver of foil.

A number of other solar technologies using other materials are also showing promise of breaking the $1 per watt barrier within a decade and, in a couple of cases, within two or three years. The solar power industry is poised to obviate our long-term reliance on centralized fossil-based power plants and expensive, dangerous nuclear power.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Future Be Damned, Oil Consumption Rises

If the master forecasters behind the largest energy firms in the U.S. have their projections right, consumption of fossil fuels--the major cause of greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere--isn't going to be cut back any time soon. In fact, it's going to be increased. The Department of Energy predicts that the combined consumption of oil, coal, and gas will rise 35 percent by 2030.

In this article posted to Alternet.org, Michael Klare showcases the trends taking place:

Because Americans show no inclination to reduce their consumption of fossil fuels -- but rather are using more and more of them all the time -- one can foresee no future reduction in U.S. emissions of GHGs. According to the DoE, the United States is projected to consume 35 percent more oil, coal, and gas combined in 2030 than in 2004; not surprisingly, the nation's emissions of carbon dioxide are expected to rise by approximately the same percentage over this period. If these projections prove accurate, total U.S. carbon dioxide emissions in 2030 will reach a staggering 8.1 billion metric tons, of which 42 percent will be generated through the consumption of oil (most of it in automobiles, vans, trucks, and buses), 40 percent by the burning of coal (principally to produce electricity), and the remainder by the combustion of natural gas (mainly for home heating and electricity generation). No other activity in the United States will come even close in terms of generating GHG emissions.

The rock-headed stubbornness of our business and political leadership in the U.S. defies belief. Faced with a potential planetary catastrophe of monumental proportions, many continue yammering about short-term economic concerns of the energy market. It's a bit like pontificating on beachfront property values while a gargantuan tsunami is minutes away from demolishing every building on the beach.

A quote from the article nicely sums up this attitude:
Typical of this approach is a talk given by Rex W. Tillerson, the CEO of Exxon Mobil, at a conference organized by Cambridge Energy Research Associates on February 13. As head of the world's largest publicly traded energy firm, Tillerson receives special attention when he talks. That his predecessor Lee Raymond often disparaged the science of global warming lent his comments particular significance. Yes, Tillerson admitted, atmospheric carbon dioxide levels were increasing, and this contributed to the planet's gradual warming. But then, in language characteristic of the industry, he added, "The scale advantages of oil and natural gas across a broad array applications provide economic value unmatched by any alternative." It would therefore be a terrible mistake, he added, to rush into the development of energy alternatives when the consequences of global warming are still not fully understood.

The logic of this mode of thinking is inescapable. The continued production of fossil fuels to sustain our existing economic system is too important to allow the health of the planet to stand in its way. Buy into this mode of thought, and you can say goodbye to any hope of slowing -- let alone reversing -- the buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

Dramatic action on our energy consumption is needed--not tepid half measures--if we want to maintain a habitable world.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Tricky Tradeoffs

Here's a tough issue to consider. Harvesting energy from wind turbines has proven successful and this technology is one of the fastest growing approaches to alternative energy. But, as the popularity grows, local objections to the aesthetics of wind turbines on ridgelines and even the noise generated by the turbines in some spots has prompted negative responses from residents. As reported in this Boston Globe article, people who have moved to small towns to escape the noise and constant thrumming of industry in cities sometimes object to even the relatively quiet swoosh of turbine blades cutting through air.
Residents say that town officials and company representatives repeatedly assured them that the wind farm would be silent. Instead, they say, the windmills have disrupted their mountainside idyll. On days with low cloud cover, when the pulsing, rushing noise is loudest, wind farm neighbors say it can disrupt their sleep and drown out the rushing brook that was once the only sound here.

"It changes your whole feeling about being in the woods," said Tammie Fletcher, whose mountainside house boasts floor-to-ceiling views of the ridge where the windmills now stand.

We're clearly at a crossroads where dramatic action is needed to curtail the gases that precipitate global warming. Do individual concerns over solitude and silence take precedence? After all, building a 28-turbine wind farm in a rural area probably doesn't feel that much different to the residents than routing a four-lane freeway directly past their homes and businesses. Is it conscionable to steamroll the rights of the individual in favor of a collective initiative that theoretically could affect the lives of every living creature on the planet? It's certainly closer in magnitude to an annoyance when compared to the potentially catastrophic risk of living next to a nuclear power plant, which contains enough fissile material to contaminate an entire state in the event of a meltdown.

Even benign technology, however, when forced upon an individual or upon a community bears serious consideration. This crossroads will be the apex of many debates as we (the collective "we" of humankind) grapple with the monumental transitions that will be necessary to ensure survival in coming years.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Small Temperature Changes, Big Impact

A few degrees of temperature change don't matter very much, right? Why the big concern over global warming? This Boston Globe article illustrates some of the subtle and not-so-subtle effects of temperature variations across New England.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Techno-Fixes Don't Work

The announcement by Richard Branson that he would award a $25-millon prize to the inventor of an effective carbon-sequestration technology solution to combat global warming looks--at first glance--like a terrific way to inspire innovation and tackle the climate change issue head on. At second glance, as Kelpie Wilson describes it in a Truthout article, Virgin, the Dynamo, and the Prize, it's just one more way to circumvent the root causes of the problem, as well as another example of a misguided reliance on technology to get us out of difficult jams.

From this article:

The truth is that we already have all the technology that we need to save ourselves. Most of the world does not drive cars, use air conditioning or fly in airplanes, let alone spaceships. Provide an African village with a few solar panels and they can have lights at night, and a refrigerator to store medicines. Add a satellite dish and a computer, and they have the world's knowledge and culture at their fingertips. If the environment around them is healthy, it can provide everything else they need for a good life - water, food, clothing, shelter, musical instruments and the enjoyment of nature.

The new, post-carbon civilization will require that we be open to radically new ways of living. At the same time that the industrialized world helps African villagers upgrade their lifestyles to include electric lights and computers, it needs to downgrade its own lifestyles to eliminate wasteful consumption and feel the Earth again.

But what will motivate the rich populations of the industrial world to do this? Conventional wisdom says that they will never give up their wasteful luxuries. They will embrace every techno-fix imaginable before making even the smallest sacrifices, because they feel that they have already won the prize. The prize, in fact, is their monopoly over fossil fuels and the concern is that someone - greens, Arabs, Venezuelans or Russians - will take it away. It's no accident that Daniel Yergin's definitive history of the oil industry is called The Prize.

The techno-fix solution has appeal, because it deludes us into thinking we are clever enough to control the mechanisms that make life on earth possible. A more humble approach would admit that we break more things on earth than we fix and arrogance is at the heart of our most threatening problems.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Changing the Patterns of Energy Use

Representative Bart Gordon, chairman of the House Science and Technology Committee, is convinced that government must play a role in changing the way that energy is produced and consumed. Accordingly, he is re-introducing a measure, H.R. 364, to create a research agency to move beyond traditional energy sources and develop technologies to address 21st century challenges.

In Energy Research for All, Alec Dubro of TomPaine.com wrote:
Many of today’s IT chiefs, as well as probably most consumers, choose to believe that the modern computer industry was created by the genius of the marketplace. At this point, much of the development is private sector, but the entire information industry rests on a network of publicly financed and directed research.

And so it must be with energy development. The private sector by definition pays for research with a direct, and ideally rapid, return on investment. Moreover, such research is proprietary, hidden from public view. Then, there is the question about the seriousness of research conducted by the energy companies. If the management of Exxon-Mobil has a choice between pursuing a known technology that brought them $40 billion in profits last year and unknown technologies that may never pay off, it’s not too hard to see where their sympathies and attentions lie.

Taxpayer-funded research, on the other hand, can be broader and less focused, looking well beyond the next quarterlies. ARPA-E, if it materializes, would benefit existing and startup industries, as well as continuing research. And it can meet public standards rather than profit-motivated goals.

Will our energy development proceed in an entirely profit-motivated direction or in a way that meets the goals and standards of the public? This bill could help in the creation of technologies that address public concerns.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

5,000 Years Ago

Every now and then a story comes along that effectively illuminates the long, uncertain history of humankind. Here's such a story, triggered by retreating glaciers, that hints at climate catastrophes thousands of years ago and the fate of one man unexpectedly trapped in ice in the prime of his life.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Do Something

Instead of sitting back passively, reading blogs and news items about the perils of global warming, consider taking positive and immediate climate action and participating in Step It Up 2007! It's now 63 days until April 14, 2007, the official National Day of Climate Action, and Step It Up Now! hopes to expand the 599 events planned in 46 states across the country even further.

What are they trying to accomplish? From their Web site:
This is our organizing hub for a National Day of Climate Action--April 14th, 2007. On this one spring day, there will be hundreds and hundreds of rallies all across the country. We hope to have gatherings in every state, and in many of America's most iconic places: on the levees in New Orleans, on top of the melting glaciers on Mt. Rainier, even underwater on the endangered coral reefs off Key West.

One of the supporters of this initiative, noted environmental author Bill McKibben sums up the sentiments behind the action in this way:

Every group will be saying the same thing: Step it up, Congress! Enact immediate cuts in carbon emissions, and pledge an 80% reduction by 2050. No half measures, no easy compromises-the time has come to take the real actions that can stabilize our climate.

As people gather, we'll link pictures of the protests together electronically via the web-before the weekend is out, we'll have the largest protest the country has ever seen, not in numbers but in extent. From every corner of the nation we'll start to shake things up.

We can sit back and wait for the predictions to come true. Or, we can turn back the forces that drive global warming through concentrated, committed, grassroots action. Which side of the equation would you like to be on?

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Friday, February 09, 2007

The Greening of Garbage Trucks

Those big, belching trucks that collect your garbage while getting around 4 mpg may soon be replaced by hybrids that produce energy while braking, gain extra energy from stored hydraulic power while creeping around city streets, and shut off automatically when stopped. This same technology, being prototyped and tested in several cities, also makes sense for delivery vans, shuttle buses, and postal vehicles.

As reported by Frank Greve in a McClatchy Newspapers article, Hybrids could turn big U.S. truck fleets green, hybrid hydraulic vehicles capture up to 75 percent of braking energy, compared to the 25 percent that is typical of hybrid electric vehicles.

Right now, however, the purchase incentives are stalled by a crucial component that must be provided by the EPA:

Hybrid trucks seemed to get a major boost from Washington under the Energy Policy Act of 2005, which offers tax credits of up to $12,000 per hybrid truck to compensate for their higher price. The incentive was to start in January 2006, but hybrid makers and potential customers still can't count on it.

That's because the size of the tax credit, which the Internal Revenue Service oversees, depends on how much fuel a hybrid truck saves, and the EPA hasn't come out with a system to measure the fuel savings.

Fuel savings could be enormous once this hurdle is overcome.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Glimmerings of Hope for U.S. Climate Change Action

Serious action to contend with climate change has been seriously lacking in the U.S. for the last six years, squelched by the jackbooted dominance of the Bush administration and a compliant, Republican majority Congress. The first stirrings of action are appearing in the Congressional chambers, as David Roberts describes in this TomPaine.com article,
Going for Broke on Climate Change, but the pace and magnitude of this movement may not be as dramatic as befits the planetary challenge.

As Roberts says:
All the buzz has, for the first time in decades, awakened greens to the possibility of fundamental change. But they should remember that the interests of the planet and the interests of the new congressional leadership are not entirely in alignment. Right now, the overriding political objective for Pelosi and Reid is to position the party favorably for the 2008 elections. That means Getting Things Done, passing a bill to show that they, unlike their Republican predecessors, take global warming seriously.

But a climate-change bill that can pass through today's Congress—much less avoid a Bush veto—will inevitably be feeble. Worse, it could lock the U.S. into a slow, bureaucratic response and dampen public pressure to act.

The most promising bill, the Global Warming Pollution Reduction Act, introduced by Vermont's redoubtable Senator, Bernie Sanders, also has the most teeth. This bill proposes measures to reduce global warming pollutants by 80 percent by 2050.

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Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Tackling Global Climate Change

The American Solar Energy Society has issued a new report, Tackling Global Climate Change in the U.S.: Potential U.S. Carbon Emissions Reductions from Renewable Energy and Energy Efficency by 2030, that provides a comprehensive picture of the current energy problems and prospective solutions. Good light reading for a winter evening...

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Biofuels or Food Crops: Chile Decides

As a reminder that alternative energy solutions don't always present clear-cut scenarios, the government of Chile is struggling to decide whether or not to boost biofuels production nationally, a path that some environmentalists say would divert croplands better devoted to providing food to the nation. In this Inter Press Service News Agency article, Home-Grown Biofuels - Big Time?, Daniel Estrada lays out the issues, pro and con, and in the process frames many of the crucial issues surrounding the biofuels debate.

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Monday, February 05, 2007

Worst Polluters Eschew Warming Pact

A rallying cry from French President Jacques Chirac to create a new organization for dealing with global warming threats drew 45 nations across the planet, as detailed in this Boston Globe article. Unfortunately, the worst polluters (the United States, China, and India) refused to sign on.

The call from Chirac comes in the face of the depressingly negative threat scenarios contained in the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. As discussed in the article:

The world's scientists and other international leaders also said now that the science is so well documented, action is clearly the next step.

"It is time now to hear from the world's policy makers," Tim Wirth, president of the United Nations Foundation, said Friday. "The so-called and long-overstated 'debate' about global warming is now over."

Once more for emphasis: action is clearly the next step.

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Sunday, February 04, 2007

Disinformation for Dollars

In a move that clearly indicates the utter desperation of the global warming deniers, the American Enterprise Institute (a thinktank financed largely by ExxonMobil) is offering $10,000 a shot to scientists and economists who write articles that cast doubt on the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The most recent report from this organization detailed harsher consequences if global warming is not reversed.

Science correspondent Ian Sample in a Guardian Unlimited article described the situation in these terms:

The AEI has received more than $1.6m from ExxonMobil and more than 20 of its staff have worked as consultants to the Bush administration. Lee Raymond, a former head of ExxonMobil, is the vice-chairman of AEI's board of trustees.

The letters, sent to scientists in Britain, the US and elsewhere, attack the UN's panel as "resistant to reasonable criticism and dissent and prone to summary conclusions that are poorly supported by the analytical work" and ask for essays that "thoughtfully explore the limitations of climate model outputs".

When all else fails, the oil industry knows the value of deep pockets and how to use them.

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Saturday, February 03, 2007

A Vision of Hell

Mark Lyman, author of the upcoming Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet, paints a grim picture of life on earth at the end of the century if we don't curb greenhouse gas emissions. In a commentary in The Independent, Lyman's tone is less than cheery as he describes hell on earth:

An eco-alarmist fantasy? Unfortunately not - having spent the past three years combing the scientific literature for clues to how life will change as the planet heats up, I know that life on a 6C-warmer globe would be almost unimaginably hellish. A clue to just how unpleasant things can get is contained within a narrow layer of strata recently exposed at a rock quarry in China, dating from the end of the Permian period, 251 million years ago. For reasons that are still not properly understood, temperatures rose by 6C over just a few thousand years, dramatically changing the climate and wiping out up to 95 per cent of species alive at the time. The end-Permian mass extinction was the worst ever: the closest that this planet has ever come to becoming just another lifeless rock orbiting the sun. Only one large land animal survived the bottleneck: the pig-like Lystrosaurus, which for millions of years after the disaster had the globe pretty much to itself.

Clues as to how the world looks in a long-term extreme greenhouse state also come from the Cretaceous period, 144 to 65 million years ago, when there was no ice on either pole and much of Europe and North America was flooded by the higher seas. Tropical crocodiles swam in the Canadian high Arctic, whilst breadfruit trees grew in Greenland. The oceans were incredibly hot: in the tropical Atlantic they may have reached 42C, whilst at the North Pole itself, the oceans were as warm as the Mediterranean is today. The tropics and sub-tropics were so hot that no forests grew, and desert belts probably extended into the heart of modern-day Europe.

Why does he base this scenario on six degrees?

In the latest report from the IPCC, if greenhouse gas emissions continue unchecked till the end of the century, global warming will raise the average temperature of the planet an additional 6.4 degrees C. It doesn't sound like much until you take a sober look back in time at past temperature indicators.

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Friday, February 02, 2007

Human Behavior and Global Warming

As the planet warming forecasts escalate and the developed nations start paying attention, the depth of the problem is evident, but the necessary solutions are still unpalatable to the governments, industries, and those who support unfettered capitalism as the economic system of choice.

As Jean-Marcel Bouguereau, Editor in Chief of Nouvel Observateur, points out (in an opinion piece reposted at Truthout.org):
Suddenly, people are sounding the alarm everywhere. Not without some hypocrisy. Even George Bush mentions, thanks to new technologies, a "post-Kyoto strategy" - while he's refused to sign that protocol. And in Davos, the heads of companies have just salved their collective conscience by increasing the numbers of debates and roundtables on climate change. But only 20 percent of them consider protection of the environment to be a priority. These company bosses know that the break with growth that the Rome Club advocated as far back as 1972 is a death sentence for a capitalism that can't allow itself a drastic reduction in production and material consumption. It's a whole different economy that must be put into effect, based on other values.

Three big obstacles to curbing global warming that typically play bit parts to the energy use issue need to be faced if we're going to make serious progress:

1. An economic system built around the notion of unlimited growth (the creed of the cancer cell)

2. Growing population pressures around the world and the resulting implications on resources and energy use

3. The increasing appetite for meat consumption across the world (this piece, Hard to Swallow, touches on the impacts)

Energy use is important, but it's not the whole story, and I'll explore some of the related issues in future entries.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

In Love with the Lusty Wind

Kelpie Wilson is one of my favorite environmental writers, always in the thick of the issues, deeply informed, and not afraid to mix it up a little or confront the opposition directly to get a point across. Her interview style is equally illuminating. In this Truthout interview with wind energy expert Randall Tinkerman, the conversation meanders naturally from the differences in European and American wind power approaches to the viability of some of the latest technologies. Tinkerman has strong opinions on futuristic technologies:
Globally, we need to fill the existing areas of strong resources with the technology that is available or on the drawing boards today. That still requires a large commitment to be accomplished. When we have windpower meeting 20 percent of global use, we can begin to explore some of the more exotic technologies at the fringes of our expertise.

As an example, many people support micro-turbines on buildings as part of our energy future. From an architectural standpoint, that may be cool, and from a showcasing of renewables standpoint, that may be effective. However, given that the cost of energy from the turbines is so much higher, (people like to build where the winds are weakest, not strongest) why not just have city-dwellers invest in the cost-effective modern rural turbines, and ship the power back home?

Lots of good information packed into this interview, providing a revealing snapshot of wind power today.