Blue Marble - August 2009

Lincoln's Cottage, Green Lessons

| Mon Aug. 31, 2009 7:05 PM EDT

We used to know how to live well with less energy. Take Lincoln's Cottage at the Soldiers' Home, where the president retreated from the heat of Washington DC—literally and figuratively—for three summers of the Civil War, and where he wrote the second draft of the Emancipation Proclamation. From June to November, 1862 through 1864, this cottage kept Lincoln cool.

How? First off, reports Saqib Rahim for Earth News, prior to air-conditioning, people actually thought about where they built their homes to capitalize on natural features like breezes. That meant taking into consideration trees, hillsides, sun, and shade.

The Cottage at the Soldiers' Home has been recently renovated as a National Trust historic landmark and the decision was made to maintain its 19-century cooling technologies. These read like a list of once-common sense that suddenly evaporated with the advent of air conditioning. The builders relied on smarts not watts. Some of their techniques included:

  • Orienting the building so a powerful crossbreeze blows when the front door and rear windows are opened
  • Installing tall windows with two sections, a top half to expel warm air and a bottom half to introduce it
  • Attaching shutters to block the sun or let light in when necessary
  • Decorating with lace curtains to minimize bugs not breezes

These are smart passive technologies we should consider as requirements in modern building design. Let's start with shutters—no, not those useless anachronisms flanking modern windows that do nothing except need paint. Real shutters, the kind that open and close, are a great way to moderate sunlight and reduce heat. Let's pair them with hinges again.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation, which restored Lincoln's neglected cottage and opened it to the public last year, is seeking a LEED label (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) from the US Green Building Council. They believe old innovations deserve recognition too.  >

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Playboy's Green Gala

| Mon Aug. 31, 2009 5:27 PM EDT

This September, the Playboy Mansion will host a bash to benefit the environment—making it the latest unlikely bedfellow of the green movement.

The swanky cocktail gala, co-hosted by the Entrepreneurs Organization, promises celebrity sightings (it's sponsors include Billy Zane and Matthew Modine), casino games and, of course, scantily clad bunnies. At $600 a head, proceeds will benefit the Intergovernmental Renewable Energy Organization, a UN-backed IGO dedicated to developing green technology.

But is this a shining example of eco do-goodery, or yet another case of Tinseltown greenwashing? As Dave Gilson wrote in Mother Jones last year, "(Hollywood is) turning the traditional messages of the environmental movement on their heads, replacing existential anxiety with a relentlessly feel-good, prime-time-ready version of saving the planet." 

Notes the event's invitation: "We we will open our doors to celebrities and others that share our desire to celebrate life and promote a better world."

If only it were that easy.

When Pintos Explode in a Good Way

| Mon Aug. 31, 2009 12:49 PM EDT

When is an exploding Pinto a good thing? When that Pinto explodes from zero to 60 in 3.5 seconds, powered exclusively by electric batteries. Last week, NPR ran a great piece on the National Electric Drag Racing Association, a group of hot rod enthusiasts who are replacing V8s with electric motors in old muscle cars and kicking ass on the racetrack.  "I tore it all down, took the front end down, took the engine," said Mike Willmon, owner of the 1978 Pinto. "The infamous exploding gas tank is gone. Now the batteries take up the back trunk area where the gas tank used to be."
 
To the extent that their hobby catches on, people like Willmon will be vital low-carbon emissaries to the NASCAR crowd. Sure, Tesla's $100,000 roadster has shown that electric cars can be fun, but taking that message to Joe Sixpack means proving that clean-tech can be done in your garage and can smoke the fossil fuel competition. Clouds of burning rubber, Willmon told NPR, "is the only emissions this car makes."

Eco-News Roundup: Monday, August 31

| Mon Aug. 31, 2009 6:00 AM EDT

What's new and Blue Marble-ish so far this week:

Latest bizarre GOP health care claim: That a reformed health care system might discriminate against Republicans. Huh?

No love from NOLA: Was Obama all talk about the Katrina recovery?

Helluva show: The only thing missing from the health care townhall meetings was sharks with laser beams attached to their heads. 

Bottled water bullies: What the bottled water indsutry in Scotland plans to do in case "the media turns hostile to our cause."

Move over, pavement: And make way for...solar panels?

Oil Likely to Spew Off Australia for Weeks

| Fri Aug. 28, 2009 8:03 PM EDT

The Thai energy company PTTEP cannot stop a major oil leak spewing from its wellhead in the Timor Sea off the northwest Australian coast—despite an emergency response lasting a week and despite dropping nearly 5,000 gallons of chemical dispersant on the slick, reports the The Sydney Morning Herald.

 

The West Atlas drilling unit is owned by Norway's SeaDrill Ltd but operated by PTTEP Australasia. Clean-up managers are the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA), reports WA Today.

 

BTW, studies in seabirds show that dispersants can be as lethal as oil to affected wildlife.

 

The spill in the West Atlas drilling unit began August 21st and now stretches across at least 110 miles of ocean, though PTTEP admits to only 8 miles. Reuters reports an air exclusion zone has been set up and ships have been advised to stay more than 20 nautical miles away from the rig, which is too dangerous to board.

 

Capping the leak is expected to take weeks. PTTEP is towing a new rig from Singapore to drill a relief well nearby, hoping to stem the flow. The new rig left Singapore on Thursday and is expected to arrive after about 16 days, with an additional four weeks needed to drill the second well. Outcome of the drilling, obviously, unknown.

 

The Australian company Woodside Petroleum, headquartered in Perth, has offered the use of a closer drill rig and an emergency  team to speed the response. So far no answer from PTTEP.

 

There's a lot at risk out there in a region considered an oceanic superhighway linking the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Affected wildlife, according to WWF Australia, includes flatback sea turtles, an Australian species of special concern, plus other sea turtles, sea snakes, seabirds, pygmy blue whales, and many other cetaceans.

 

Depending on winds, the slick could be pushed to atolls like Scott and Ashmore Reef, areas of global significance for their unique wildlife.

 

WWF Australia is calling for changes to preparations for such disasters, pointing out it took three days for the first dispersant to be sprayed, although the region is considered a critical area for biodiversity.

 

U.S. Chamber of Commerce Proposes "Scopes Monkey Trial" to Debunk Climate Change

| Fri Aug. 28, 2009 1:39 PM EDT

Stephen Colbert could not have done better. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the leading opponent of regulating carbon emissions, says it wants a public hearing on the scientific evidence for man-made climate change. A Chamber official told the LA Times that the hearing would be "the Scopes monkey trial of the 21st Century."

The Chamber either forgot that the creationists won that fight--though in the long run, the famous 1925 trial over the teaching of evolution, portrayed in Inherit the Wind, humiliated them--or it's attempting the boldest metaphor in the history of climate spin: creationists = climatologists.

Setting aside the fact that the nation's largest business lobby has supported plenty of dumb ideas, let's assume that this isn't really about science. Because there's no way that a half-competent judge is going to rule that 95 percent of climatologists are wrong. Remember the Supreme Court case? The one that said the EPA has the authority to regulate carbon?

No, what this is really about is false populism. Though it's evoking Scopes, the Chamber is actually calling for a "public hearing," a gathering that would surely be more akin to the recent healthcare town halls that were stacked with anti-government nutjobs. What fearmongering and demagaugery did for health care, it could do for climate change!

Or not. My bet is that 90 percent of the Bubbas who'd show up would also be creationists, the people discredited in the first Monkey Trial. Good luck with that, fellas!

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Eco-News Roundup: Friday, August 28

| Fri Aug. 28, 2009 6:00 AM EDT

Happy Friday. Here's a sampling of what's happening in the realms of environment, health, and science, here at motherjones.com and in the rest of the wide world:

No chains during birth: New York's Gov. David Paterson has signed a bill banning the shackling of incarcerated pregnant women during labor and recovery.

Remembering Cash for Clunkers: The program was wildly popular, provided a modest but noticeable amount of economic stimulus, and helps reduce US oil consumption. Not bad for $3 billion.

SODIS skeptics: There's a simple way to disinfect water in areas where lots of kids get sick and die from bad water. So why is it so hard to get people to do it?

Stimulus for stoves: The US government will spend $300 in stimulus money to reward consumers who choose energy-efficient appliances.

Africa, sans animals: Could poaching and encroaching kill of Africa's great herds for good?

Will Salazar Save Alaskan Watershed?

| Thu Aug. 27, 2009 8:35 PM EDT

The battle over the fate of the Bristol Bay watershed in southwestern Alaska—one of the most abundant sources of salmon in the world, a boon to local native towns, and home to some of the largest untapped gold mines in the country—staggers on. In its waning days, the Bush administration submitted a plan to open up a million acres of the region to mining projects and oil and gas leasing. But in the latest development, a cadre of sportsmen and conservation groups are petitioning the Obama administration to ban those operations. They recently sent a letter to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar expressing fear that the projects could damage the local fishing industry and leech the harmful, toxic kind of waste generated by industrial mines into the surrounding ecosystems. "We look forward to working with the BLM as we move quickly to reverse the wrong-headed decisions that were made in the closing months of the last administration and implement a common sense plan for fish and wildlife in Bristol Bay," the letter says, the AP reported.

This tussle over the fate of Bristol Bay isn't new. Indeed, one of the most incisive and vivid accounts of a similar struggle over the Pebble Mine, near the BLM's proposed mining area, appeared here in 2006, in a piece titled "The Midas Touch" by Kenneth Miller. Miller traveled to isolated Igiugig, Alaska to see the forces and characters at play (like fisherman, lodge owner, and former pro hockey player Brian Kraft) in this saga. He described their problem like this:

Kraft’s attachment to this stretch of clear, swift water goes deeper than the bottom line. “This river is a powerful living thing,” he tells me, a note of awe softening his usually blunt delivery. “It’s alive, and it’s carrying life. It’s in my blood.” It is also, he says, under mortal threat. At the north end of Iliamna Lake, a company called Northern Dynasty Mines aims to unearth what may be the largest gold deposit—and the second-largest copper deposit—in North America. The proposed Pebble Mine complex would cover some 14 square miles. It would require the construction of a deepwater shipping port in Cook Inlet, 95 miles to the east, and an industrial road—skirting Lake Clark National Park and Preserve and traversing countless salmon-spawning streams—to reach the new harbor. At the site’s heart would be an open pit measuring two miles long, a mile and a half wide, and 1,700 feet deep. Over its 30- to 40-year lifetime, the Pebble pit is projected to produce more than 42.1 million ounces of gold, 24.7 billion pounds of copper, 1.3 billion pounds of molybdenum—and 3 billion tons of waste.

More than three years later, it remains to be seen whether the Pebble Mine or the larger mining area under review by the BLM will get the green light or not. The latter decision, a Bureau of Land Management spokeswoman told the Anchorage Daily News, rests in Salazar's hands now. As Miller points out, the consequences of allowing more industrial mining into Bristol Bay could be disastrous not just to the environment, but to life as those who live there know it. Here's hoping Salazar is bearing that in mind.

Photosynthesizing Buildings

| Thu Aug. 27, 2009 7:42 PM EDT

Further to Andy Kroll's blog post on artificial trees... that report from the UK's Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IOME) argues that without geoengineering it will be impossible to avoid dangerous climate change. The report includes a 100-year roadmap to decarbonize the global economy and suggests implementing three geoengineering projects based on low-carbon technologies:

  • Algae-coated buildings: The engineers envision attaching transparent containers filled with strips of algae to the outside of buildings and since algae naturally absorb CO2 in the course of photosynthesis, the strips could be harvested periodically from the surfaces and used as biofuels.
  • Reflective buildings: The report suggests reducing the amount of solar radiation absorbed by the earth’s climate and, hopefully, cooling the planet. This could be achieved simply and quickly by making building surfaces more reflective. Some of us have've written here about the potential for cooling in white roofs and better highways.

The IOME report forecasts 1 to 2 million new green jobs in the UK by 2050 based on these three initiatives alone. So many good ideas. So few implemented. Let's change that.

 

 

CO2 Eating Trees to the Rescue!

| Thu Aug. 27, 2009 4:52 PM EDT

Could a forest of fake, CO2-gobbling trees save the planet? 

On their own, no. But if successfully deployed, they might buy the planet some precious time as we try to end our addiction to fossil fuels and curb dangerous greenhouse gas emissions. At least that's what a new report released by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers says. The report's support for artificial trees (the scientists say about 100,000 would suffice) is the latest in the ongoing debate over geoengineering—the deliberate modification of the planet's atmosphere to slow global warming.

While earlier geoengineering schemes focused on blocking out solar radiation to reduce the heat trapped near the Earth's surface, current proposals like the one outlined in this new report are aimed at actually pulling existing CO2 out of the atmosphere. Which makes sense, because even if we stopped emitting carbon today, the CO2 already floating around could continue global warming for another 1,000 years. Those geoengineering trees, it seems, can't come soon enough.