Blue Marble - July 2009

US Energy Use Falls

| Mon Jul. 20, 2009 3:54 PM PDT

Americans used more solar, nuclear, biomass, and wind energy, and less coal and petroleum in 2008 than in 2007. Natural gas consumption rose slightly and geothermal remained the same. This according to the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. (The schematic is informative and you can see a bigger image in pdf.)

Estimated 2008 US energy use equaled 99.2 quadrillion British Thermal Units, or 99.2 quads, down from 101.5 quads in 2007. The bare bones of the resuls:

  • Energy use in the industrial and transportation sectors declined by 1.17 and 0.9 quads respectively and can be attributed to the spike in oil prices in summer 2008
  • Commercial and residential use climbed slightly (that could look different in 2009, I'm guessing)
  • Last year saw a significant increase in biomass with the recent push for the development of more biofuels including ethanol
  • Increases in wind energy can be attributed to large investments in wind turbine technologies over the last few years as well as better use of the existing turbines
  • 2008 saw a slight increase in nuclear energy from 8.41 quads in 2007 to 8.45 quads in 2008, mostly because existing plants had less down time


Of the total 99.2 quads consumed in 2008, less than half—only 42.15 quads—ended up as useful energy that does things like move your light your lamps. The rest is known as rejected energy and does useless and counterproductive things like make waste heat from power plants.

Clearly we have a long way to go on the rejected energy front and should move on that as fast as possible.
 

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Hillary's Passage Through India

| Mon Jul. 20, 2009 3:17 PM PDT

"This approaching triumph of India was a muddle...a frustration of reason and form." -- E. M. Forster, A Passage to India.

Not much has changed since Forster wrote the above in 1924, at least from an American perspective. India is still a muddle. With a population now topping a billion, however, it's a far larger and potentially threatening muddle. At least that's what you would think from reading coverage of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's recent trip there.

Coverage focused mainly on India "digging in its heels" (the New York Times) against a mandatory cap on carbon emissions. The Washington Post highlighted Clinton's "clash" with Indian Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh on this issue, which a HuffPo contributor called a "blunt exchange."

A WSJ blog referred to "India's refusal to countenance" limits on GHG emissions, a position that was "angrily aired" during the meeting.

There was no real anger displayed, nor was any of this a surprise. India has consistently rejected any mandated cap on its emissions since before the 1997 Kyoto Protocol.

The coverage needs to be seen in the context of the debate last month in the US House over cap-and-trade provisions.

Republican foes of the bill ranted about how the Waxman-Markey bill played into the hands of our Asian foes.

"The big winners are countries like China and India," warned Steve Scalice (R-LA), "who are champing at the bit to take our jobs."

Michigan Representative Michael Rogers pleaded with his colleagues, "Do not, do not eliminate our middle class and send it to China and India. That is what this bill will do."

That fear-filled message was consistently broadcast by the "Republican Noise Machine," (to use David Brock's evocative phrase for the right wing media) and is pervasive among conservatives.

That attitude helps explain the angry reaction to the administration's acknowledgement, made by Clinton and others, that India is correct in pointing out that the bulk of CO2 in the atmosphere was produced by industrialized nations and that there should be some form of aid in helping other nations develop without polluting as much as we did. "We are hoping," said Clinton in Mumbai, "that a great country like India will not make the same mistakes."

A comment yesterday on the conservative blog, Hot Air, shows how effective Republicans have been at linking any domestic action on climate change with xenophobic fears about job loss to India and China:

BullCrap. I will NOT pay for my own emmissions [sic] let alone another countries. I am so sick of this vile crap.

As a result, a few important aspects of Clinton's visit were ignored or barely mentioned. Climate change was only one topic addressed in meetings between Clinton and Indian government officials. Another, mentioned by Reuters, was "the largest arms deal in the world," in which Lockheed Martin and Boeing may sell 126 fighter jets to India for something over $10 billion.

The other story, on the Bloomberg.com website,  is about an arrangement Clinton was negotiating to allow General Electric and Westinghouse to build a pair of nuclear reactors in India -- with a price tag of around $10 billion.

Also rarely mentioned: India has one of the most ambitious plans for developing solar power, just behind China. Even while the GOP is nearly unanimous in its opposition to government investments in alternative power, the two nations they claim are the main threats to our economic well-being are racing ahead, investing in the technologies -- and the jobs -- of the future.

If Forster were writing today, I think I know what country he would identify as being a muddle.

Our Favorite Environmental Fugitive Nabbed in Mexico!

| Mon Jul. 20, 2009 11:30 AM PDT

As this blog was among the first to note, the EPA has a Most Wanted list. Posted in December, it includes rap sheets and mug shots for 21 environmental criminals, among them  Robert Wainwright, an Indianan convicted of child molesting and weapons violations whose personal hygiene seems as if it should be an environmental crime of its own. Accused by the EPA of dumping steel mill slag into a wetland, he was featured on this site in March. Behold the power of the press: On Friday, the EPA announced that federal and Mexican agents nabbed him in Zamora, Mexico. It's hard to say whether a Mother Jones reader turned him in (the tipoff was anonymous), but publicity from the list seems to be paying off. Since it debuted, the EPA has also caught two other fugitives.

Anyone seen this fellow? He's accused of discharging unnamed pollutants into San Diego harbor. Body hair, perhaps?

 

Eco-News Roundup: Monday, July 20

| Mon Jul. 20, 2009 4:00 AM PDT

A Monday mix of noteworthy posts from around the site:

Here's a question for a Monday morning: How dope are you? Find out with our drug-war quiz

Those meowing manipulators: Kevin Drum on the recent finding that we unknowingly cater to our cats' every whim. (This, of course, falls squarely under the heading of no-duh for anyone who has spent any time around felines.)

This just in from the supermarket checkout aisle: The tabloids are reporting that a) George W. Bush is suicidally depressed because of his tarnished legacy and b) Laura is worried he has Alzheimer's. Just sayin'.

How soon is now: Climate change deniers are all, "It's cool. We can just wait till global warming actually causes problems to pay to fix it." Well, look no further than Pakistan for evidence of said problems. Like, now.

He's baaaack: Remember Libertarian hedge funder Cliff Asness? He's popped up again, this time to rehash some tired old points about health care. MoJo assistant editor Nick Baumann offers a response.

The Case for a Water Tax

| Fri Jul. 17, 2009 5:23 PM PDT | Scheduled to publish Fri Jul. 17, 2009 5:00 PM PDT

Despite the summertime fun that ensues when a burst pipe transforms a neighborhood street into a water park, the problem has gotten a bit out of hand. Last year alone, America experienced 240,000 water main breaks, resulting in the loss of billions of gallons of water. And it's only going to get worse. In the next 20 years, the EPA predicts a shortfall of more than $500 billion in needed drinking and wastewater infrastructure investments. We're headed towards a future of sputtering faucets and overflowing sewage plants.

This week, Congressman Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) proposed an interesting solution: funding the repair of America's water works with a tax on products that burden it. He'd extract funds from cosmetics, toothpaste, and pharmaceuticals--they're often difficult to remove in wastewater plants and can harm the environment--and bottled beverages, which have a carbon and water footprint that goes far beyond the liquids that they contain.

The tax might be a tough sell in Congress (see the gas tax), but it begins to lay the groundwork for a more logical approach to regulating water. Scientists now have the tools to calculate the water footprints of a wide range of businesses and products. I explore how crunching those numbers could help solve the water crisis in our current issue.

 

Happy Birthday, Happy Meal (Not!)

| Fri Jul. 17, 2009 2:12 PM PDT

The McDonald's Happy Meal turned 30 today. As a lover of food that is horrible for me, I am willing to admit that the Happy Meal proves that delicious ≠ good. In fact, since the Happy Meal was introduced and started luring children like a creepy stranger promising toys, childhood obesity has quadrupled to 17 percent.

David Knowles highlights the unhappy stain that the golden arches have left on our health and environment in the past three decades. An excerpt:

Hugely successful, every one of McDonald’s competitors followed the chain’s PR brainstorm, linking food with cheap toys, and it didn’t take long for corporations to see the inherent marketing opportunity. Before long, all that disposable plastic crap inside the bag alongside the high-fat, high carbohydrate meals was hawking Hollywood movies, tv shows, and the like.

And the plastic! Think of the number of discarded crappy toys that end up as trash in our oceans. Every few months, it seems, I’ll find a good half-dozen of the things collected in some drawer or other of my kids’ rooms, and we don’t even eat fast food (barring the occasional road trip). The ubiquity of figurines from the latest animated film is an undeniable fact. Kids play with them for an afternoon, maybe a week later, and then they’re trash.

Yes, I know full well that kids love “Happy Meals” and the Pavlovian promise of a free toy. But these meals should be viewed as nothing less than plague on our society, making kids fatter and the oceans more polluted. Their predatory marketing strategy has kids (and their parent’s wallets) right in their greedy sights. So, happy birthday, “Happy Meal”. Here’s hoping against hope that you’ll be discontinued before you hit 31.

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Stealth Starbucks: Coffee Chain's New Stores Disguise Brand Name

| Fri Jul. 17, 2009 2:05 PM PDT

Think of it as the Red Scare in reverse: Worrying whether the hipster at the cafe is secretly a communist is about to be replaced with worrying whether the hipster cafe is secretly a Starbucks. Yesterday, the chain revealed that it's dropping its name from a location in Seattle's trendy Capitol Hill neighborhood and replacing it with "15th Avenue Coffee and Tea." That's right, the people's coffee provider is going underground.

At least two other local stores will follow suit, Kiera notes on the Riff, as the chain tests out marketing coffee with neighborhood-specific names rather than a slutty mermaid, who is getting blown towards the rocky shore of the recession by competition from the Golden Arches.

That Starbucks is making the name switch in Seattle's Capitol Hill rather than a truck stop in Alabama is telling. It suggests that the chain may be most concerned with countering the hipster and anti-corporate backlash, which has kept the store out of trendy neighborhoods in some cities. San Francisco, for example, has blocked Starbucks and even American Apparel stores over concerns about neighborhood character.

The new stores will also sell alcohol, and Starbucks may want to draw a firm line between "wet" and "dry" outlets. Yet sometimes that line is already blurred. In 2004, I interviewed John Winter Smith, a man on Sisyphean mission to visit every Starbucks in the world, who told me that a store in Plano, Texas served him cocktails from a secret mini bar. "They had a couple of bottles in a back room and were mixing up stuff," he said. Now that's what I call neighborhood character.

One Small Schlep for Man, One Giant Heap for Mankind

| Fri Jul. 17, 2009 11:15 AM PDT

Monday marks the 40th anniversary of the first walk on the moon. But before getting all nostalgic about Neil Armstrong and his small step, let's examine one dark side of the moon landing: lunar litter. As I was geeking out and reading the official Apollo radio transcripts, I was intrigued to find that six minutes before stepping onto the moon for the first time, Armstrong took a "jettison bag" and dropped it onto the surface. The bag, NASA explains, contained "empty food bags and other things [the astronuauts] no longer need and don't want to have to use fuel to take back to orbit"—including bodily waste collected inside their space suits. In other words, garbage. The big white trash bag was even documented by the very first photo Armstrong took on his moonwalk:

 

Funny how that shot never makes it into the Apollo 11 retrospectives. It's unclear what happened to the historic trash bag—was it incinerated when the astronauts took off again, or has it remained sitting beneath the left-behind section of the lander, frozen in time? Perhaps we'll get the answer from the NASA orbiter that's currently taking detailed photos of Tranquility Base, trying to check on the condition of artifacts such as the American flag planted there. I wonder if the resolution will be good enough to spot the first sack of lunar litter, still awaiting pick-up, 40 years later.

Eco-News Roundup: Friday, July 17

| Fri Jul. 17, 2009 4:00 AM PDT

Here's today's mix of science, environment, and health stories (ok, mostly health today) from our other blogs. And if you haven't read Josh Harkinson's piece about pot farms in our national parks, well, it's a trip. (Sorry, couldn't resist.)

Doctors without orders: The CIA is hiring doctors. Shudder.

Dream a little dream: Brad Delong's flights of health-care-reform fancy.

Climate change policy for the rest of us: How do you convince an ordinary schmoe that higher energy prices are worth paying?

Rationing rationale: Guess what? Health care is already rationed. Now, says Peter Singer, let's make it fair.

AMA, oh my: The American Medical Association endorses a pretty good health care reform plan. What a nice surprise.

Climate Security Wins a Round

| Thu Jul. 16, 2009 8:59 PM PDT

I would never have believed it, but... just hours after the National Research Council requested that hundreds of classified images of the Arctic be released for scientific study of climate changeas I reported yesterdayVoila!—the Interior Department did just that.

Seven hundred images of sea ice from half a dozen sites around the Arctic, plus 500 images from 22 sites in the US can now be viewed online.

Oh, and they're seriously gorgeous. If you have enough bandwidth to open them.

Reuters reports the Arctic images have a resolution of 1 meter, a vast improvement on available pictures with resolutions of 15 to 30 meters.

The higher definition pictures reveal small features with big impacts on warming—like dark melt pools on top of the ice that absorb light and heat. These images will vastly improve the accuracy of forecast modelling.

Scientists were expecting the request for the Arctic images to be declassified to take months—at least.

But apparently someone in Washington digs science and actually understands something about climate security and the perils of thin ice.