Blue Marble - March 2010

Would a Gas Tax Work?

| Tue Mar. 30, 2010 11:30 AM EDT

Part of the compromise being worked out on climate and energy in the pending Senate bill is expected to be a fee on transportation fuels, rather than including oil refiners under a cap and trade program. The idea has been given a thumbs-up by oil companies, and environmental groups are also fans of the idea -- a rare coincidence these days. But will the policy work?

If done properly, it could be. Most environmental groups are supportive of the idea of a fee on fuels, or a "gas tax," if you prefer, but only if the fee goes to other programs that would help reduce oil use. The transportation sector accounts for 28 percent of US emissions, so it's not a small issue when we’re talking about a climate bill.

The linked fee would be an additional price added to fuels to pay for the carbon cost. It could be 25 cents, or it could be $4, if we wanted to be more like, say, Europe. The fee would be tied to the price of pollution permits in the greater carbon market. Oil companies like BP and ConocoPhillips favor the approach (which they suggested last year) because it frees them from the complex cap and trade program and instead puts the burden of reducing oil use on consumers. Oil-friendly senators like it too. And a lot of environmental groups say they're open to it as well.

"We generally like the idea of having a gas tax," said Kate McMahon, an energy policy campaigner at Friends of the Earth. "But it has to be really big ... I don't see Congress putting 50 percent tax on gasoline. That’s what we would need in terms of a price signal."

To be effective, a fuel fee has to cause people to use less oil -- by driving less, buying a more fuel-efficient vehicle, or switching to public transportation. Studies have found that a gas fee has to get into the dollar figures to actually change people's habits. A report released this month by researchers at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government found that "gas prices greater than $7/gallon" may be needed in order to meet the environmental goal of reducing emissions from automobiles 14 percent by 2020. Even the price spike to over $4 a gallon two summers ago didn't curb American driving all that much; we’re a society constructed to encourage use of the personal automobile, and a culture that really, really likes it.

"A price signal, unless it's a big price signal, is unlikely to have a big effect," said Deron Lovaas, federal transportation policy director at the Natural Resources Defense Council. Thus, he says, "What matters just as much as the price is where the investment goes." If that money is going to be used to build new roads, it's probably not going to help the climate very much. But it might if the money goes to programs to ease congestion on existing roads or, better still, create public transportation systems that get people out of cars.

Will that happen? Unclear. The bill's Republican co-conspirator, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, last week indicated that the price would probably be fairly low, and he told reporters that the majority of the money will come back to consumers via a rebate. "Any money not going back to the consumer from this linked fee has to go to something that the country needs, like retiring the debt, or I won't support it," said Graham.

If the fuel fee is low, and consumers are just going to pocket it again, that probably won’t do much to change their habits. Neither will using the revenues to pay down the debt. And if we're also larding the bill up with increased domestic drilling, we're certainly not sending the right signals about oil use in general.

There are also political challenges to setting a fee on gasoline. After the House bill was maligned as an "energy tax," there are plenty of worries among Senate Democrats about putting an actual tax on gasoline. Several Democratic staffers have expressed concern that the policy won't make be easy to sell back home. And they’ve also expressed concerns that the oil companies just like this approach because it's easier to demonize.

What the fuel policy looks like and how it plays out politically will be among the more interesting debates to watch when Sens. Kerry, Graham, and Lieberman roll out their bill following the Easter recess. There’s been a lot of hand-wringing about whether their effort can actually be considered a climate bill after all the special interests have been appeased. But considering the campaign that the American Petroleum Institute waged against the House bill last summer, it's no surprise that the trio has made keeping them happy a top priority.

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Actually, You Do Need a Weatherman

| Tue Mar. 30, 2010 8:59 AM EDT

Why don’t TV weather forecasters believe in climate change? It's an interesting question, raised recently in a fabulous Columbia Journalism Review piece by Charles Homans. A new study released yesterday by George Mason University’s Center for Climate Change Communication confirms that the portion of skeptical weathermen is sizable -- which is frightening news, considering how many Americans rely on their local weatherman for information about global warming.

The study found that only 54 percent of the 571 television weathercasters surveyed think that global warming is happening, and only 31 percent believe that it is "caused mostly by human activities." More than one quarter--27 percent--agreed with the statement "global warming is a scam." The New York Times has a good summary of why this might be the case. While the American Meteorological Society affirms the scientific consensus on climate change, only about half of TV weathercasters actually have degrees in meteorology. And weathercasters, by profession, focus on short-term weather patterns and use sensitive models that are can't predict weather more than a week in advance. Climatologists, on the other hand, focus on decades and centuries using more complex modeling. Homans' piece evaluates these factors much more in depth.

But here’s the more concerning data from the new poll: the vast majority of the public relies on these men and women for their climate-related information. The poll notes that "the public has identified weathercasters as one of the sources they most trust for information about global warming." Indeed, a separate study from George Mason and Yale found that 56 percent of Americans trust weather forecasters to give them information about global warming more than any other source. And in the latest poll, a full 94 percent of respondents said they "work at stations that do not have anyone else covering science or environmental issues full-time." That means a lot of people are relying on weathercasters as a primary source of information.

But there were also positive results in the survey. Two-thirds of TV weathercasters said they "have an interest in reporting on climate change." Over 90 percent said that they believe that additional resources could help them to a better job covering climate change – including access to climate scientists for on-camera interviews, peer-reviewed journals, and better graphics and animation for television. They also expressed interest in improving their coverage of the local effects of a changing climate, like increased precipitation and flooding, droughts, extreme weather events, and human health impacts of air quality concerns. It seems like there's plenty of room for improvement on that front, and it could significantly improve public understanding as well.

Do We Test Geoengineering? (Asilomar Dispatch 3)

| Tue Mar. 30, 2010 6:30 AM EDT

For years, climate scientists have used computer modeling rather than field tests to predict the likely effects of certain geoengineering methods—like whitening clouds or dispersing sulfur particles into the upper atmosphere to reflect the sun's rays back into space. But at last week's Asilomar International Conference on Climate Intervention Technologies, researchers were divided over whether models are enough.

In one corner was Alan Robock, a professor at Rutgers University who has spent most of his career modeling the climate-cooling effects of volcanic eruptions—which spew sulfur dioxide into the upper atmosphere. Indeed, it was knowledge gained from the 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubu in the Philippines (here's a pdf of one of Robock's papers) that inspired one of the more controversial geoengineering schemes. Robock says that one recent Russian eruption he is studying put more sulfur in the atmosphere than any scientific team would likely deliver. "So why do we have to actually do tests?" he asks.

Cap and Trade is Dead. Long Live Cap and Trade!

| Mon Mar. 29, 2010 2:46 PM EDT

Last week, John Broder penned a piece in the New York Times on the "demise of cap-and-trade," since mention of it has been almost completely axed from the Senate discussions. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) also reiterated his belief that it's dead and gone. "It’s been beaten to death," he said, adding, "I think it’s an idea that needs to die."

In reality, the death of cap and trade is mostly rhetorical. The bill that Graham, John Kerry, and Joe Lieberman are expected to introduce next month will still include a cap on major emitters and a trading component, though it's likely to be more limited than the House-passed bill. So Graham can keep declaring it dead, even if that doesn’t really mean all that much in practice.

Actually, the term "cap and trade" died a while ago. In the debate over the House bill, it was rarely discussed, apart from Republicans slamming it as "cap and tax." In the previous Senate bill offered by Kerry and Sen. Barbara Boxer, they dropped the phrase in favor of "Global Warming Pollution Reduction and Investment program."

What’s interesting is how politically undesirable "cap and trade" has become in recent months. What happened to make cap and trade politically toxic in Washington in just the nine months since the House passed its version of the policy? Broder posits that the term "was done in by the weak economy, the Wall Street meltdown, determined industry opposition and its own complexity." Those are factors, yes, but I think Robert Stavins of Harvard’s Kennedy School has a better reading. He concludes, basically, that the problem wasn't the phrase or even the idea itself:

But the most important factor--by far--which led to the change from politically correct to politically anathema was the simple fact that cap-and-trade was the approach that was receiving the most serious consideration, indeed the approach that had been passed by one of the houses of Congress. This brought not only great scrutiny of the approach, but--more important--it meant that all of the hostility to action on climate change, mainly but not exclusively from Republicans and coal-state Democrats, was targeted at the policy du jour — cap-and-trade.
The same fate would have befallen any front-running climate policy.

This argument puts Graham, Kerry and Lieberman's contortions to convince us that a) cap and trade is dead and b) their proposal offers something totally different in a new light. The problem isn’t the language; it’s that the American public still isn't convinced that climate change is a problem that urgently needs to be acted upon, or that any of Washington’s proposed solutions are viable. That’s where the real change needs to happen—not in the rhetorical packaging.

Ocean Bugs Eat Plastic?

| Mon Mar. 29, 2010 2:29 PM EDT

Researchers are zeroing in on marine microbes that may help clean up some of the 127 million tons of "disposable" plastic produced every year, 10 percent of which ends up in the ocean. Early research from the University of Sheffield and the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science finds:

  • The marine microbe groups that can grow on plastic waste are significantly different from the microbial groups that colonize natural ocean surfaces.
  • This suggests that plastic-associated marine microbes have different metabolic activities that could contribute to the breakdown of plastics or of the toxic chemicals associated with them.

This is the first DNA-based study to investigate how microbes interact with plastic. Specifically, the team investigated the attachment of microbes to fragments of polyethylene, the plastic commonly used for shopping bags. They found the plastic was rapidly colonized by multiple—though not every—species of bacteria, which congregated into a biofilm on the surface of the plastic.

Next, they'll investigate how the microbial interaction with microplastics varies across habitats on coastal seabed—research the team believes could have huge environmental benefits. Researcher Jesse Harrison presented their early findings at the Society for General Microbiology's spring meeting in Edinburgh:

"Microbes play a key role in the sustaining of all marine life and are the most likely of all organisms to break down toxic chemicals, or even the plastics themselves. This kind of research is also helping us unravel the global environmental impacts of plastic pollution."
 

Climate Bill Losing Support on the Left

| Mon Mar. 29, 2010 11:33 AM EDT

As John Kerry (D-Mass.), Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) continue to court industry support for a climate and energy bill, the Senate's left flank is growing increasingly uneasy.

Last week, 10 senators sent a letter to the trio urging them to drop provisions that would expand offshore drilling. Today, Vermont Independent Bernie Sanders sent Kerry a letter expressing his "deep disappointment with the direction of the current effort." While he praises Kerry as a "tireless advocate for taking action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions," Sanders says he has "serious concerns about provisions that could harm the environment and provide new federal government support for polluters."

Sanders is particularly worried about a proposed provision that would nullify existing state programs to limit emissions. Vermont is among those states that have paved the way for national carbon regulations, and the bill would remove the ability of states to set tougher restrictions on carbon dioxide than those passed by the federal government. Sanders describes this as "a huge mistake," writing that "we should definitely set a floor, but not a ceiling." He also expresses reservations about new loan guarantees for nuclear power, expanded offshore drilling, and the bill’s likely giveaways to coal. "I do not want to see a global warming bill become an bonanza for the coal industry," he writes.

Sanders is also worried about what's not in the outline of the bill that the senators are circulating. In particular, he thinks that their plan doesn't do enough to promote energy efficiency, develop a renewable energy industry, and provide incentives for green jobs.

Kerry, Graham and Lieberman clearly believe that the industry support is crucial to winning 60 votes for a climate bill this year. But in this effort, they're neglecting the Senate's environmental champions. As one Democratic aide told me recently, "They've pretty much ignored the whole left wing … They just take everyone for granted."

Lieberman brushed off such criticisms last week, telling reporters, "In the end this will be one of those cases where everybody will be a little unhappy… But if they’re mostly happy that we've done something constructive, it will pass." Maybe Lieberman's right. But at the moment, the senators who should be the most enthusiastic cheerleaders for this effort are sitting disgruntled on the sidelines.

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Greenpeace Spoofs Offshore Drilling in New Ad

| Mon Mar. 29, 2010 9:07 AM EDT

Greenpeace's PolluterWatch brings us a new love story, this one bringing new meaning to the phrase, "Drill, baby, drill." In their latest, "Rex" (a spoof of ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson) meets "Bob" (Virginia’s new Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell), and the two realize that they’re a match made in offshore heaven.

"I do have exotic tastes, if you know what I mean,” says Rex, referring to his previous lovers from the Middle East. But now he’s looking for "something closer to home." Via PolluterHarmony, he meets Bob, who’s "Full of energy, ready to drill." And Bob’s OK with an open relationship, though he helps Rex see the beauty of the idea "Think globally, drill locally."

The ads, of course, are meant to spoof McDonnell’s pledge to open up Virginia’s coast line to drilling, and Tillerson's desire to drill more domestically (an opportunity he may get via climate and energy legislation). McDonnell campaigned on the issue, and has been pressing the Department of Interior to approve drilling in the region. Earlier this month signed off on plans to develop the coast.

Here’s the latest PolluterHarmony spot:

Who Eats Geoengineering Risk? (Asilomar Dispatch 2)

| Mon Mar. 29, 2010 7:00 AM EDT

During a panel discussion at last week's Asilomar International Conference on Climate Intervention Technologies, Mashahiro Sugiyama, a researcher for Japan's Central Research Institute of Electric Power Industry, stepped to the microphone to point out the obvious: Nearly everyone in the room was from the United States and the United Kingdom. There were no researchers from China, Russia, or Africa at the conference—and just one from India.

Afterward, Sugiyama stressed to me that while most climate-intervention research is being done in America and the UK, the Asilomar meeting was about more than science. The goal, he said, was to develop ground rules to help scientists navigate the legal, ethical, and political implications of proposed strategies to counter global warming—and to work with governments and global coalitions to regulate them appropriately.

According to David Keith, a researcher at the University of Calgary who has studied climate intervention for 20 years, long-term field tests are the only way to truly predict how spraying sulfur aerosols into the atmosphere—one proposed climate intervention—will affect global temperature, weather, and other factors. The tests themselves could lead to drought and dangerous weather patterns; entire communities could suffer, and people might well die. "You need input from other countries, and I do not see many here," Sugiyama said.

How Our Cell Phones Kill Gorillas

| Mon Mar. 29, 2010 6:10 AM EDT

Last week, the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) announced that gorillas in the Congo may be extinct by the mid-2020s, a drastic change from its 2002 projection which had 10 percent of the original range surviving in 2030. The culprits behind the demise of one of the world's brightest primates: poaching, logging, mining, the Ebola virus, and...cell phones. Adam Hochschild's piece in the March/April issue of Mother Jones, describes how the Congo's vast natural resources are continuously pillaged to feed foreign interests to the detriment of locals, their environment, and now gorillas. CNN reports:

Militias have seized large chunks of gorilla land and logged and mined it. They have done so because the illegal trade in timber and in metals such as gold and coltan -- used in cell phones -- generates between $14 million and $50 million a year for them.

Said Achim Steiner, UN Under-Secretary General and Executive Director of the UNEP:

This is a tragedy for the great apes and one also for countless other species being impacted by this intensifying and all too often illegal trade. Ultimately it is also a tragedy for the people living in the communities and countries concerned. These natural assets are their assets: ones underpinning lives and livelihoods for millions of people. In short it is environmental crime and theft by the few and the powerful at the expense of the poor and the vulnerable.

Read the full report, "The Last Stand of the Gorilla - Environmental Crime and Conflict in the Congo Basin."  

Follow Titania Kumeh of Twitter.

Econundrum: Recycle Plant-Based Plastics?

| Mon Mar. 29, 2010 4:30 AM EDT

A café in my neighborhood sells salads in supposedly compostable corn-based containers. Since I live in one of only a handful cities in the US with a curbside composting program, I can just chuck my empty salad container into my curbside green bin. But I always wondered what might become of it in a backyard compost pile. Luckily, MoJo senior editor Dave Gilson answered my question last year in an article on the subject: Ramani Narayan, a Michigan State professor of chemical and biochemical engineering who helped develop biodegradable corn-based plastic, told Gilson that most plant-based plastics need to go to a commercial composting facility, not just your yard.

So if you can't throw bioplastics onto your compost heap, can you at least recycle them? A recent UK study recommended doing so, but I'm skeptical.

Turns out industry groups have been sparring over this very issue. Bioplastics manufacturer NatureWorks LLC recently claimed that commercial recycling facilities are perfectly capable of separating out plant-based materials from conventional plastics—an essential step in part because bioplastic melts at a different temperature from most types of conventional plastic. But the National Association for PET Container Resources (NAPCOR), a trade group for manufacturers of polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic containers, fired back (PDF) that NatureWorks had only tested one type of sorting machine, called near infrared (NIR). "Other sorting systems were not part of the recent tests, nor were ways to address quality issues such as [bioplastics] getting stuck in the dryers during the PET reclamation process," NAPCOR said in a press release.

The recycling gurus at Earth 911 come down on NAPCOR's side. "Most biodegradable plastic should not go into normal recycling streams—there's not enough research about what will happen to it," says Earth911 spokesperson Jennifer Berry. EPA resource conservation expert Saskia Van Gendt agrees. "It's practically impossible for sorters to differentiate the different plastics," she says. For now the only foolproof way to recycle bioplastics is through their manufacturers. "And in order to do that, you need a large volume of containers," says Van Gendt. "You can’t just send one container back."

Bottom line: If you don't have access to a commercial composting facility, your best bet is to throw bioplastics in the trash. Two notable exceptions: Coke's new bottle, which is made from as much as 30 percent sugarcane-based plastic, has been specially designed to be recycled right alongside regular PET plastics. Then there's Frito-Lay's new compostable SunChips bag. Unlike the corn containers from my neighborhood café, these bags really can go into your backyard compost pile, where they will supposedly degrade in 14 weeks—no super hot commercial composting facility necessary. Cool products both, and a good sign that bioplastics might get better down the road.