Jaeah Lee


Jaeah reports, writes, codes, and charts at Mother Jones. Her writings have appeared in The Atlantic, the Guardian, WiredChristian Science Monitor, Global Post, Huffington Post, Talking Points Memo, and Grist. She was a 2013-14 Middlebury fellow in environmental journalism. Her work has been named a finalist in the Data Journalism Awards. In a former life, she researched and wrote about China at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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What It'll Take to Make Seattle Carbon Neutral

| Thu Aug. 11, 2011 5:00 AM EDT

Just over a year after Seattle announced plans to go carbon neutral, a government-commissioned study outlines just how the city might reach its goal. The report, penned primarily by the international research group Stockholm Environment Institute and introduced to the City Council in May, lays out a detailed scenario in which Seattle cuts back its greenhouse gas emissions by 90 percent in 2050 (compared to the amount it emitted in 2008).

The plan is likely the most ambitious any US city has seen thus far. While carbon neutrality in its strictest form means emitting net zero carbon emissions, the term has also been used describe city efforts to offset greenhouse gas emissions from specific industries (like utilities or construction), as Phoenix, Austin, and Vancouver are doing. Seattle's goal stands out because it would be first in the US and third in the world (after Copenhagen and Melbourne) to consider nearly zeroing out emissions across the board.

Seattle is particularly well-positioned to meet its goal, the study's authors say, because much of its electricity is already sourced from renewable hydropower rather than fossil fuels. The city could further cut back on emissions by making its buildings (old and new) more energy efficient, public transportation more efficient and widespread, charging higher tolls, reducing landfill, and establishing an alternative fuel-based auto fleet. The city could completely offset its emissions by the same year, the study adds, if it sequestered greenhouse gases through urban forests or invested in emissions reductions projects elsewhere. But even for a city with a relatively small carbon footprint like Seattle, there are many steps to take before achieving carbon neutrality. Here are some highlighted in the report:

  • Make 80 percent of Seattle's transportation system consist of electric vehicles by 2050. (The city has already decided to invest $20 million on electric car charging infrastructure and is revising its electric code to require residential buildings to make room for private charging stations.)
  • Increase tolls, parking fees, and replace traditional auto insurance policies with pay-per-mile ones—assuming that the more you drive, the more likely you'll get into an accident, and thus the more you should pay for insurance.
  • Replace gas-based home heating systems with a more efficient network of electric heat pumps, which extract heat from the outside and underground to warm or cool a household.
  • Create more jobs within the city proper to reduce the need to commute by car and build denser neighborhoods to avoid urban sprawl.
  • Ramp up recycling programs so that by 2050 75 percent of the city's waste averts the landfill, which is a major emitter of methane gas. Currently, the study calculates, 49 percent of Seattle's waste is either recycled or composted.

The study's authors concede that they do not include an analysis of the economic impact such strategies would have, nor do they account for the funding or political challenges that could slow down the city's adoption and implementation of the plan. They also notes that some strategies could lead to a rebound in emissions. If more efficient home energy systems lowered bills, for example, consumers would have more money to spend on businesses, which in turn could elevate commercial energy use.

Still, with broader climate legislation out of reach in Washington and a global climate agreement locked in a political stalemate, efforts like Seattle's set an important example of how cities can significantly reduce their emissions without further ado.

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New Report: CO2 Emissions Cost Way More Than You Think

| Wed Aug. 3, 2011 7:04 PM EDT

Since the Bush years, government agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency, Council on Economic Advisers, and Department of Transportation have been calculating the economic costs of the damage caused by carbon dioxide emissions and the resulting climate change. Depending on who's running the calculation and their methodology (economic modeling based on projected growth, climate behavior, and related physical damages), these estimates currently range from $5.50 and $72 per ton of CO2. A new report, however, says that these estimates are way too low.

In 2010, one ton of CO2 in the atmosphere cost up to $893 in economic damage—more than 12 times the government's highest estimate.

After running an independent analysis, Economics for Equity and Environment (E3), the network of economists that published the report (PDF), found that in 2010, one ton of CO2 in the atmosphere did up to $893 in economic damage—more than 12 times the government's highest estimate. By 2050, the group says, these costs could rise up to $1,550 per ton of CO2 emitted. (A ton of CO2 is approximately what you release into the atmosphere by driving a car for two-and-a-half months.) While the government agencies acknowledge that their estimates are "imperfect and incomplete," E3 says they also omit "many of the biggest risks associated with climate change" and downplay "the impact of our current emissions on future generations."

Langhorne Slim Hits the Alt-Country Road

| Fri Jul. 22, 2011 8:30 PM EDT
Langhorne Slim (front) and The War Eagles.

Years ago, Sean Scolnick would have told you he's the bastard child of Hasil Adkins, the Appalachian country-and-blues legend known for birthing rockabilly songs like "No More Hotdogs" and "Chicken Walk." He wasn't far off, since, like Adkins, Scolnick spends most of his time on the road, often solo. And with a boyish frame usually found under a vest and a tilted porkpie hat, he's a natural fit against a backcountry landscape.

But Scolnick, better known as Langhorne Slim, hails from the suburbs of northeast Pennsylvania, where he didn't get out much, he says, and was once kicked out of school. That might explain his sidewalk-scuffed style, which transcends the traditional blues genre. Some time after moving to New York for college, Scolnick hit the road and his nomadic career has saved him for most of his adult life from having to to pay rent. Reviewers have compared the 30-year-old singer-songwriter to Bob Dylan and The Avett Brothers (with whom he has toured), and his last album, 2009's Be Set Free, was produced by Chris Funk of The Decemberists.

Scolnick distinguishes himself, meanwhile, with heartbreaking lyrics sung over punk-rock country blues with a dash of Kurt Cobainesque angst. "I’m not sure that there’s any other kind, but the songs I write are love songs," he says. I caught up with Mr. Slim in advance of his July 22 show at The Independent in San Francisco. (Click here for his full tour schedule.) The singer, battling a cold, put up with my questions about hunky bachelorhood, vegetarianism on the road, and why he named his act after his hometown. 

Mother Jones: You grew up in Langhorne, a big Philly suburb, as well as New York City. How'd you get into folk and blues?

Langhorne Slim: I love all kind of music and I think there's a bit of a lot of different styles in my own music. Early blues and folk are to me as raw and real as it gets. I'm most drawn to the roots of various musical styles whether it be blues, rock 'n' roll, jazz, or whatever. For me it's at the beginnings of these forms that they are at their most primitive, honest state.

How I (Almost) Became an Air Guitar Fan

| Mon Jul. 4, 2011 5:30 AM EDT
Contestants and crowd mingle at the US Air Guitar regional championships in San Francisco.

Going to an air guitar show is like going to a three-drink-minimum comedy club. You're never sure how you ended up there. You walk into a room where "Jessie's Girl" is playing, sparsely crowded with Saturday-night patrons borrowed from sports bars, heavy metal shows, comic conventions. Things are running an hour late, and you have to wonder why you're waiting around to watch a bunch of people get on stage and pretend to play the guitar. The merchandise is also pretend: They're selling "air vinyls" at $5 a pop. Air vinyls? "There's nothing on it," explains the woman behind the table. "You can take it home and smash it if you want." (None have sold thus far.)

You consider leaving before the show starts. It's still early. You could probably still make the next screening of the new X-Men movie, and by next weekend you'll already have filed away the experience as just another one of those weird encounters. But ultimately you can't justify leaving, because you just paid $20 to get in. So you go to the bar.

RJD2's Four-Handed Vinyl Orchestra

| Mon Jun. 20, 2011 5:50 AM EDT
RJD2 spins at 103 Harriet in San Francisco.

Somewhere between late Friday and early Saturday, an atrium overflowing with dedicated RJD2 fans waited out the last stretch of a long anticipation. They had driven in from out of town, endured brisk winds standing in line behind velvet ropes, and hurdled testy bouncers outside San Francisco's 103 Harriet nightclub. Once inside, there was more waiting but much sensory stimuli to be occupied with, from the three fiery opening acts and accompanying laser-and-strobe-light shows, to the dance parties in adjacent rooms, three wet bars, and girls twirling around in glow-in-the-dark hula hoops. It seemed only fitting when a guy asked me if I had any cocaine.

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