2009 - %3, November

TreeHugger News: Is Buffett Backing Coal?

| Thu Nov. 5, 2009 7:00 AM EST

 

Editor's Note: A weekly roundup from our friends over at TreeHugger. Enjoy!

Bucking the Trend, Stern & Pachauri Maintain a Global Climate Deal Still Possible in Copenhagen

With the needle of expectation tilting towards no full climate deal being reached in Copenhagen, two of the most prominent voices in the climate change policy world—Lord Nicholas Stern and Dr Rajendra Pachauri—maintain that a global agreement is still possible in six weeks. Even without full US participation...

Is Tackling Climate Change as Important as Fighting Crime?

Some 63 percent of the world thinks so. A survey by HSBC questioned consumers from countries as disparate as the US, Brazil, Malaysia, Germany, and India about the importance of tackling climate change in relation to other pressing social issues—and the results are fascinating. For instance, the majority of people felt that mitigating climate change is as important as fighting crime.

China, US, and Climate: An Interview with Yang Fuqiang, WWF's Director of Global Climate Solutions

For more than two decades, Dr. Yang Fuqiang has been a participant in the energy and climate change discussion in and around China. His career began as a researcher at the National Development and Reform Commission, the Chinese government's main economic planner, and continued for three decades in the realm of energy and the environment. Formerly head of the Energy Foundation's China office, he is now director of global climate solutions at the World Wildlife Foundation. TreeHugger spoke with him recently in Beijing, before he left for the Barcelona round of climate talks.

Is Warren Buffett's Railway Buy a Billion Dollar Bet on Coal?

The initial reaction to news that the Oracle from Omaha was investing billions of dollars in BNSF railway was positive—TreeHugger noted that it could lead to a number of positive developments: potentially more passenger rail lines, a higher profile for railroad transportation in general, and further investment in other rail lines from other finance big guns. But there's a downside to his purchase as well—the rail Buffett bought transports some 1/5th of America's coal. Is Buffett's investment therefore a bet that coal will need to be shipped into the foreseeable future?

The 100-Mile Diet for Electrcity? The Institute for Local Self-Reliance Argues for Decentralization

The Insitute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR) has released a second version of its study titled Energy Self-Reliant States. In it they look at various ways that U.S. states could generate clean electricity locally (rooftop solar PV, onshore wind, offshore wind, etc). Just from the name of the institute, it's pretty obvious that they aren't in favor of centralized solutions to our energy problems, but at least they aren't all ideology: They back up their claims with a lot of data.

US Plastic More Expensive to Make, Will Have Higher Carbon Footprint Under Cap & Trade

In Europe they commonly make commodity plastics from oil-based feedstock: petroleum naptha from the refinery. In the USA, however, plastic is mostly is made from natural gas as raw material. The chemical industry is not pleased with the current cap and trade provision being voted on in Congress. They anticipate C&T will drive utilities to burn more natural gas and less coal to generate power (a good thing by most people's reasoning), which means (per the chemical industry argument) higher operating costs, and ultimately customers getting plastic from European instead of US factories.

'Chinese' Wind Farm in Texas: Green Jobs FAIL?

The buzz around the green blogosphere today is another record-setting Chinese wind farm, with 240 turbines producing 648 megawatts. But this one isn't in Inner Mongolia -- it's in Texas. This $1.5 billion wind farm—a US-China joint venture paid for in part by Chinese banks —will be built not with turbines from usual suspects GE or Vestas, but with Chinese-made machines from a year-old company called A-Power. Needless to say, most of the project's green jobs will be created in China. And don't shoot the messenger, but it's hoping to secure 30 percent, or $450 million, of its financing from, yes, U.S. stimulus funds.

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We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for November 5, 2009

Thu Nov. 5, 2009 6:21 AM EST

U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Samson Barini, assigned to Charlie 422nd Civil Affairs Battalion, tries to communicate with a small Iraqi boy, as they sit in the court yard of the Manara primary school, north of Mosul, Iraq, Oct. 24. (US Army photo via army.mil.)

Need To Read: November 5, 2009

Thu Nov. 5, 2009 6:11 AM EST

Today's must reads have discovered tweetdeck:

Get more stuff like this: Follow me on twitter! David Corn, Mother Jones' DC bureau chief, also tweets, as does MoJo blogger Kate Sheppard. So do my colleagues Daniel Schulman and Rachel Morris and our editors-in-chief, Clara Jeffery and Monika Bauerlein. Follow them, too! (The magazine's main account is @motherjones.)

The Coming GOP Civil War

| Thu Nov. 5, 2009 1:52 AM EST

So what's next on the agenda for the Republican Party after this week's elections?  The New York Times reports:

Despite Mr. Hoffman’s loss [in NY-23], many conservatives promised to press on with opposition to centrist Republican candidates. That vow intensified concerns among party leaders that the opportunities they see coming out of Tuesday’s results could be dimmed by intramural battles over whether to reach for the political center or do more to motivate the base on the party’s right.

....The debate has been fueled by a somewhat inchoate populist anger that has taken hold among grass-roots conservatives, encouraged in part by political leaders like Sarah Palin, the party’s vice-presidential nominee last year, and commentators like Glenn Beck of Fox News. In that sense, the divisions within the party extend beyond the traditional strains between the shrinking ranks of Republican moderates and the social and economic conservatives who have dominated the party in recent years.

And the Washington Post:

As the party turns toward the 2010 midterm elections, pitched battles between moderates and conservatives — and between the Washington establishment and the conservative grass roots — are underway from Florida to Illinois to California. Conservative activists, emboldened after forcing out the moderate Republican nominee in a New York congressional race, said they will fan out nationwide and challenge Republican candidates whom they deem too moderate or insufficiently principled.

Well, good luck with that.  Culture war purity battles may be adrenaline rushes for the Palin/Beck wing of the party, but they sure aren't for independents, no matter how soured they are on the economy or how disappointed they are in the Democratic Party.  They may be able to muster some short-term mileage out of all this, but it's a long-term disaster.

What Kind of Patient Are You?

| Thu Nov. 5, 2009 1:40 AM EST

A British physician provides a taxonomy of annoying patients:

GPs used to talk about "heartsink" patients (who make your heart plummet the moment you spot them on your morning list) and a psychiatrist called Groves even split them into four groups (manipulative help-rejecters, self-destructive deniers, entitled demanders, dependent clingers). But there are heartsink doctors too, and when a consultation goes tits up, there are issues on both sides.

I'm pretty sure I'm not #1, and I know I'm not #3 or #4.  So either I'm a self-destructive denier or else I'm not an annoying patient at all.  Possibly a bit of both.

Reporting on Strikes

| Wed Nov. 4, 2009 8:42 PM EST

Atrios blogs about the transit workers strike in Philadelphia:

A big problem is that in these situations there often isn't much solid information about just what are the real issues for the union. News stories focus on wages, and while everyone thinks 50 grand (with some seniority) is a lot for a bus driver, not many of those people are applying for those awesome bus driver jobs. This article provides a bit more of the union's perspective. Aside from wages and health care, concerns about pension underfunding and other issues exist.

If I'm reading this right, Atrios is suggesting that the media is at fault here: unions (and mangement) have lots of serious issues at stake when strikes are imminent, but reporters just lazily throw out a few lines about wage demands and move on.  The result is that the rest of us remain fuzzy about what's really going on.

But I think something else is going on here.  I noticed this a few years ago during the supermarket strike here in Southern California, and I noticed it again a couple of weeks ago reading about the postal workers strike in Great Britain: neither labor nor management is willing to publicly explain exactly what the current contract provides, exactly what the current dispute is over, and exactly what offers each side has laid on the table.  It's frustrating as hell.  It might also be excellent bargaining strategy (though I wonder about that), but in any case I don't think the vagueness in press reports is usually the fault of the press.  Their reports are vague either because both sides are hurling accusations at each other but aren't willing to provide concrete evidence for them, or because neither side will say anything much at all.  Much like a political campaign.

I'm happy to be wrong about this if anyone with more experience can school me on how this stuff really plays out.  But it seems to be a pretty common problem, and it's a little hard to believe that every single reporter who's ever covered a strike is just a bored hack too lazy to spend ten minutes getting the facts straight.

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Bloggingheads.tv: Corn and Pinkerton Spin the NY-23 Election

Wed Nov. 4, 2009 8:09 PM EST

David Corn and James Pinkerton battled it out in another one of their classic Bloggingheads.tv sessions. Items on the menu: the ongoing purge of GOP moderates, Obama's Afghanistan gamble, and Tuesday's elections in NY-23, Virginia, and New Jersey.

Gone With the Wind

| Wed Nov. 4, 2009 6:25 PM EST

After the election last November I noted that "for the first time since Reconstruction, the South will be almost completely shut out of national power....This is the first time this will be true in well over a century."

Over at the Economist, an exile from Dixie puts a little more meat on those bones.  During the 90s and early oughts, he notes, Washington was almost completely controlled by Southerners: Clinton, Gore, Gingrich, Armey, Lott, Bush, Frist, and DeLay.  "It was southerners in every position of power for an unusually long time."

In 2006, things started to go wrong. Nancy Pelosi (California) and Harry Reid (Nevada) took over the top jobs in Congress. Then Barack Obama (Illinois) was elected president, and declined to balance his ticket regionally by picking a southerner.

But the Republican leadership shifted too. The party ran two non-southerners for president and vice-president in John McCain and Sarah Palin. The RNC is now run by a black Marylander, Michael Steele. The House minority leader, John Boehner, hails from Ohio. The whip's job has gone to Eric Cantor who, though Virginian, is an atypical southern Republican in being Jewish. Only Mitch McConnell (Kentucky), the Senate majority leader, is the stereotypical white Protestant southerner. His whip and assistant, John Kyl, comes from Arizona.

"I want my country back," has become a conservative-populist rallying cry. They have not truly lost their country, but have seen a wild swing of power north and towards the coasts. It won't last, either. But it's a painful reality right now for a region that once revelled in separatism, then dominated the country as a whole for an oddly long stretch.

Despite the oceans of ink spent analyzing the electoral shift in 2006 and 2008, I continue to think this transformation has been underappreciated.  The Old South has punched above its weight in American politics ever since 1787, and during the few times their influence has temporarily waned (Reconstruction, the 60s) it drove them crazy with fear and persecution mongering.  So it's not really surprising that it's happening again.

It's hard to say what's next.  Republicans are the party of the South these days, and sure, the GOP will regain power eventually.  But will they be able to do it if they remain a party dominated by the culture of Dixie?  Demographics suggest pretty strongly that they can't, which means that eventually the South will have to come to grips with the fact that they no longer hold the whip hand in American politics and probably never will again.  This means acknowledging that they're just another region, one with influence that waxes and wanes but basically corresponds to their population.  I wonder how long it will take for them to do that?

Is There a Tri-Partisan Path Forward for a Climate Bill?

| Wed Nov. 4, 2009 6:21 PM EST

With the climate bill stalled in the Environment and Public Works Committee, a bipartisan group of senators on Wednesday announced that they're working on an alternative path to passing legislation.

Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.), Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said they are meeting with fellow senators and with administration officials to work out a proposal on climate and energy legislation that they will hand over to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. The proposal will incorporate the components of legislation being crafted within the various committees of jurisdiction, along with work with senators outside those committees.

Kerry emphasized that this process won't replace the work being doneby the Environment and Public Works Committee, where chair Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) is currently trying to work around a Republican boycott of the markup. "We'll take the best of what Sen. Boxer produces and we will build on it," said Kerry. "Our effort is to try to reach out to broaden the base of support beyond the six committees of jurisdiction."

I don't think this announcement is as big a deal as some have suggested. It has always been the case that Reid would have the ultimate authority to combine and tweak a final bill with the goal of garnering 60 votes. And in the weeks since Kerry and Graham coauthored their editorial calling for climate action, it has become clear that there is a separate track of negotiations occurring outside of Boxer's committee, designed to appease senators who want a greater role for nuclear, coal, and domestic oil.

US Uses Less Water Now Than 35 Years Ago

| Wed Nov. 4, 2009 6:02 PM EST

This news is particularly relevant heading into Copenhagen...for those who think conservation of any kind is impossible or unattainable or out of keeping with American goals.

The US Geological Survey released a study today showing that Americans used less water in 2005 than 35 years ago—despite a 30 percent population increase. Most of the decline is attributable to alternative cooling methods at power plants and to more efficient irrigation systems.

(The AAAS reminds us that some commercial farmers in the US have doubled the crops they grow with a given amount of irrigation water by using sub-surface drip irrigation.)

In 2005, 297 million Americans used 410 billion gallons of water per day. That's 5 percent less than in 1980, the year of peak water use, when there were 227 million Americans. Or ~1,400 gallons of water per day per American in 2005, compared with ~2,000 gallons per person per day in 1980. Not bad. And a reminder that trends can be managed, not just suffered.

The quick stats on water use in the US today:

  • Nearly half of water cools thermoelectric power plants (more reason to conserve energy).
  • Irrigation appropriates 31 percent (more reason to eat consciously).
  • The public uses 11 percent.
  • The remaining 9 percent supplies industry, livestock, aquaculture, mining, and rural household use.

We need to remember however that a changing climate requires changes in water planning. In a blog posted last year, I cited a study in Science predicting water supplies will decrease substantially in parts of North America as the globe warms (as well as in parts of Europe, the Middle East, Africa).

Wonder about your own water footprint? Read Josh Harkinson's fine MoJo piece.

Drip, drip, drip. It's all finite. Let's act accordingly.

CORRECTION: Now made in the water use per American per day. Thanks to readers.