Blue Marble - March 2007

California's a Model in Global Warming Fight

| Mon Mar. 5, 2007 2:23 PM EST

There seems to be a strange opinion out there in public-land that California, "of all places," has no right to talk about problems with energy and climate. The assumption is that Californians drive a lot of miles between their auditions in Hollywood and their day jobs at the surf shack on the beach.

Maybe it's just left-coast envy. Or, obviously, ignorance. But let's set it right. California has a 30-year history of innovative—hell, just plain conscious—approaches to energy use. Maybe it's because we have to conserve water on a regular basis and are practiced in thinking of resources as finite.

The Washington Post ran an interesting article a few weeks back. They seem to have discovered that California might actually be a model for the rest of the gluttonous country.

Today the state uses less energy per capita than any other state in the country, defying the international image of American energy gluttony. Since 1974, California has held its per capita energy consumption essentially constant, while energy use per person for the United States overall has jumped 50 percent.

California has managed that feat through a mixture of mandates, regulations and high prices. The state has been able to cut greenhouse-gas emissions, keep utility companies happy and maintain economic growth. And in the wake of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report on global warming, California serves as a model for other states seeking a similar path to energy reduction. Now California is pushing further in its effort to cut automobile pollution, spur use of solar energy and cap greenhouse gases.

"California really represents what the rest of the country could do if it paid a bit more attention to energy efficiency," says Greg Kats, managing principal at Capital E, an energy and clean-technology advisory firm. "California is the best argument we have about how to very cost-effectively both reduce energy consumption and cut greenhouse gases. And they've made money doing it." Kats estimates that the average Californian family spends about $800 a year less on energy than it would have without efficiency improvements over the past 20 years.

Today, as an energy consumer, California is more like thrifty Denmark than the rest of the energy-guzzling United States. While the average American burns 12,000 kilowatt-hours a year of electricity, the average Californian burns less than 7,000 -- and that's counting renewable energy sources.

California has managed to cut its contributions to global warming, too. Carbon dioxide emissions per capita in California have fallen by 30 percent since 1975, while U.S. per capita carbon dioxide emissions have remained essentially level.

There also seems to be a pernicious sense of glee outside of California over our excessively high gasoline prices. You know, it's a bummer for Hummers. First off, in my corner of the state, the police department drives Priuses. Again from the WP:

"If the history of energy consumption in the U.S. has taught us anything, it is that cost drives conservation," says Chris Cooper, executive director of the Network for New Energy Choices.

Three of the nation's most profligate users of energy -- Wyoming, Kentucky and Alabama -- have one thing in common: low prices. Their electricity prices range from 5.25 cents a kilowatt hour to 7.06 cents, according to the EIA.

As the article says, what's dirt cheap tends to get treated like dirt.

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Plight of the Ugliest Endangered Animals

| Mon Mar. 5, 2007 1:57 PM EST

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Watch this Slate slideshow and you'll come out hating pandas for everything they represent. While millions of dollars have gone into saving the last three thousand pandas just because they're cute, at least one sorry creature—the aye-aye—is bound for extinction because it's ugly. The aye-aye looks like a balding, emaciated gremlin. So even though it minds its own business in life, foraging for bugs in tree bark with claws bigger than its face, superstitious people in Madagascar go out of their way to kill it on sight. "Aye-aye, aye-aye," indeed, as the maudlin Ranchero song goes,
"Canta y no llores." The world is not fair. Not even environmental philanthropists are.

After pointing out injustice, fortunately, the writer poses solutions. Savvy conservationists can market the most charismatic creatures to raise money for the rest. The World Wildlife Federation already does so with its panda logo. "One lovable animal might stand in for an entire ecosystem—the jaguar, for example, could serve as a spokesmodel for the Amazon rainforest where it lived," Michael Levitin writes. To summarize the argument of biologist David Stokes, conservationists "must understand the ways that aesthetic appeal can be used to motivate the public—and then try to promote the "less attractive" creatures by highlighting their most endearing feature."

To their ideas I'd like to add another. Endangered wildlife t-shirts—the ones painted with blue whales underwater or gray wolves in the snow—went out of fashion by 1990. (I reluctantly retired mine some years later). But can't you picture the aye-aye (or the golden-rumped elephant shrew or the hairy-eared dwarf lemur) becoming an icon emblazoned on ironic t-shirts to raise funds for their conservation? And not just for hipsters. The scrawny, bug-eyed Chihuahua mascot was fast food industry's most effective ad campaign in decades; Americans bought 13 million stuffed ones from Taco Bell and far too many more dashboard bobble-heads. Paris Hilton has one too. And Sam the World's Ugliest Dog ranks among this millennium's most famous canines. Today the t-shirts and mugs made in Sam's memory are sold out. So conservationists who want to draw attention to the less photogenic animals could make use of this trend: in the era of Ugly Betty, a beatific defense of homeliness itself may be garnering popularity.

—April Rabkin

Age-Old Tradition Felled by Climate Change

| Sat Mar. 3, 2007 2:42 PM EST

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Today's New York Times reports that sugar makers in Vermont—maple syrup farmers, that is—can no longer rely on generations-old traditions to tell them when to tap the trees. Maple season has moved up at least a month and become shorter, sugar makers say. The U.S. used to make 80 percent of the world's maple syrup and Canada, 20. Their roles have now reversed as the maples thrive in the northernmost reaches of their traditional range.

Maple trees not only produce the sweet, delicious sap; they also provide the most exquisite of fall foliage.

What the Bush Administration is Doing About It (Climate Change)

| Sat Mar. 3, 2007 2:41 PM EST

Short answer: Nothing. Actually, that's not fair: Less than nothing. The Department of Energy predicts that, if nothing were done to restrict greenhouse gas emissions, the U.S. would produce just under 9 billion tons of carbon dioxide a year by 2020. The Administration claims that if nothing were done, emissions in that year would be closer to 10 billion tons. With Bush's all-voluntary restrictions, emissions will be exactly what the DOE says they would be, anyway. Addressing Bush's plan, David Doniger of the Natural Resources Defense Council told the New York Times, "If you set the hurdle one inch above the ground, you can't fail to clear it." But the better metaphor is digging a one inch trench then setting the hurdle an inch above the ground.

The estimates come from the draft of the United States Climate Action Report, a final version of which was promised for the summer of 2005. Explaining the delay, officials blamed "the recent departures of several senior staff members running the administration's climate research program." (Don't you wonder why they'd quit?) The officials also said "no replacements had been named." Survival of the species on the line and the Bush administration is too busy firing nonpartisan U.S. attorneys to staff the climate research program.

Diminished Sense of Moral Outrage Key to Maintaining View That World Is Fair and Just

| Fri Mar. 2, 2007 8:38 PM EST

Researchers from New York University's Department of Psychology report findings in the journal Psychological Science, that people who see the world as essentially fair maintain this perception through a diminished sense of moral outrage.

Psychologists have long studied system-justification theory, which posits that people adopt belief systems that justify existing political, economic, and social situations or inequities in order to make themselves feel better about the status quo. Moreover, in order to maintain their perceptions of the world as just, people resist changes that would increase the overall amount of fairness and equality in the system. Instead, they often engage in cognitive adjustments that preserve a distorted image of reality in which existing institutions are seen as more equitable and just than they are.

Who needs cocktails when you can create blindfolded bliss in your own brain? The researchers constructed a two-part experiment designed to unlock the secrets of pathological optimism.

In the first part of the study--an experiment involving a series of questions and scenarios--the researchers found that the more people endorsed anti-egalitarian beliefs, the less guilt and moral outrage they felt. The reduction in moral outrage (but not guilt) led them to show decreased support for helping the disadvantaged and redistributing resources.

The second part of the experiment was a kind of control. Half the subjects were presented with Horatio Alger, rags-to-riches stories, implicitly endorsing system-justification beliefs. The other half got stories describing the plight of innocent victims, underscoring the unfairness of the system.

The results showed that subjects exposed to the rags-to-riches stories reported less negative affect and less moral outrage than subjects exposed to the innocent-victim essays. As with the first study, moral outrage mediated the effect of system justification on support for redistribution, but general negative affect did not.

Okay, in real speak, it seems that people who can escape reality are good at pretending bad news is the victims' fault. So, can big pharma come up with a cure for Republicanism? Let's dose those tudes with reality.

Washington Post Op-ed on Climate Change As Brought To You By Mad Max

| Fri Mar. 2, 2007 7:38 PM EST

Washington Post columnist David Ignatius' op-ed piece in today's paper discusses a report, "Impacts of Climate Change," composed by futurist Peter Schwartz's consulting group, Global Business Network, for a U.S. government intelligence agency he does not identify. From the GBN:

Climate change is a real and growing problem for the United States and for the world. As urgency around the issue continues to grow, so too does the scientific consensus that changes to Earth's climate will enormously affect the planet's future and the futures of all who inhabit it. Anthropogenic climate change is now widely considered to have the potential not just to cause perturbations in the weather, but also to create major discontinuities in many complex natural and human systems, including ecosystems, economies, human settlements, and even political institutions.

In other words, folks, global warming is not going to annoy just polar bears. Read on, from the WP:

What Schwartz discovers with his stress-testing makes climate change even scarier: The world already is precarious; the networks that maintain political and social order already are fragile, especially in urban areas; the dividing line between civilized life and anarchy is frighteningly easy to breach, as the daily news from Iraq reminds us. We look at the behaviors of butterflies and migratory birds as harbingers of climate change. But what about early effects on human beings? "The steady escalation of climate pressure will stretch the resiliency of natural and human systems," writes Schwartz. "In short, climate change pushes systems everywhere toward their tipping point."

Think you'll escape it? Think you'll coast through it? That's what the residents of New Orleans thought before their own private 9/11 on August 29th, 2005. Again from the GBN:

If a climate change-induced system disruption reduces of the ability of the government to deliver political goods (Katrina being an obvious example), it also reduces political legitimacy and halts economic activity, thus driving local populations to rely upon primary loyalties (families, neighborhoods, religious organizations, gangs, etc.) for daily survival. This dynamic in the political system is often (and will increasingly be) played out in urban settings—physical spaces that require intensive external flows of goods and services to survive, and that are also highly (and increasingly) interconnected and networked via transport and telecommunications infrastructure. Collapsing civil order within urban settings will offer extreme economic rewards in the form of smuggling and black markets; indeed, these may be the only functioning markets, making virtually everyone in these spaces a "bad actor." Those unwilling or unable to profit from the chaos will radiate outward through refugee flows, exporting social conflicts to adjacent locales. Finally, because of the sheer complexity of megacities, they will be very difficult to reorder once destabilized, and may continue in chaos until they depopulate themselves.

Enter the Road Warrior.

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Corporate Responsible Bragging: IKEA is Even Greener than It Seems

| Fri Mar. 2, 2007 1:52 PM EST

Is IKEA just another big box store trying to get good press with environmental initiatives, a.k.a. PR campaigns? No, according to a Grist interview with IKEA's sustainability director, Thomas Bergmark. Actually, the company might not even be tooting its horn enough. Grist's David Roberts sought out Bergmark after the company announced its "bag the plastic bag" campaign last week. (IKEA will charge shoppers a nickel for the bags that were once free and 59 cents for a reusable, classic blue shopping bag. Benefits go to the non-profit American Forests).

If the campaign seems just cosmetic, the interview reveals deeper green business practices that IKEA doesn't advertise. The company will increase energy efficiency across the board by 15 percent by 2009 and will also increase use of renewable energy in all stores. On the production side, IKEA requires all suppliers to abide by a code of social and environmental conduct.

"We're definitely not the company that wants to ring the big bell and do a lot of heavy marketing," Bergmark said. Well, why not? Why IKEA doesn't market its environmental responsibility beyond this flimsy bag campaign is a mystery. Do shoppers really not care or understand sustainability enough for such marketing to boost sales?

— Rose Miller

Bush Obstructs EPA, OSHA, CDC Regulations

| Thu Mar. 1, 2007 5:27 PM EST

President Bush has gotten the message that the Democratic Congress isn't going to stand for further environmental deregulation or politically motivated weird science. Is he negotiating, as he promised to do in his feel-good press conference the day after the election? No, he's issued an executive order shifting control of such social welfare mainstays as the EPA, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to the White House-controlled Office of Management and Budget.

The executive order requires that "each agency must have a regulatory policy office run by a political appointee." As the New York Times puts it, "The White House will thus have a gatekeeper in each agency to analyze the costs and the benefits of new rules and to make sure the agencies carry out the president's priorities."

The president's priorities apparently include avoiding regulations that might slow global warming or improve public health. The order requires agencies to prove that the market will not and cannot handle any problems they might try to resolve with legislation. If the order's deregulatory bias isn't already evident enough, its implementation will likely fall to Susan Dudley, Administrator of the OMB's Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. Dudley is a notorious deregulation zealot. Prior to joining the administration, she led the oil industry-funded Mercatus Center, where she opposed regulations to address such no-brainer problems as smog and arsenic in the water supply.

Just how much damage can Bush do in his remaining 690 days?