Blue Marble - April 2010

A Modest Proposal for Hacking the Planet

| Tue Apr. 6, 2010 10:02 AM EDT

Are our worst-case scenario predictions about global warming overly optimistic? A new report published in the journal Oceanography argues that world leaders have underestimated the catastrophic consequences of climate change, and we may soon have to turn to dramatic options for reversing the warming trend.

In "A Very Inconvenient Truth," lead author Charles H. Greene, a professor of Earth and atmospheric science at Cornell University, argues that the United Nation's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's fourth assessment report, released in 2007, is too rosy.

Even if all man-made greenhouse gas emissions were stopped tomorrow and levels stabilized at today’s concentration, says Greene, global temperatures would still increase 4.3 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of this century, which is "significantly above the level which scientists and policy makers agree is a threshold for dangerous climate change."

"Of course, greenhouse gas emissions will not stop tomorrow, so the actual temperature increase will likely be significantly larger, resulting in potentially catastrophic impacts to society unless other steps are taken to reduce the Earth’s temperature," he says.

Greene's proposed solution to this epic problem is geoengineering–a highly controversial subject. See the Mother Jones piece "Climate Hacking 101" and dispatches from a recent conference on the topic for more. But as predictions about the planet's fate grow more dire, we can expect more modest proposals to radically alter the earth's atmosphere like this. The authors are probably spot on, however, in their conclusions about why we should even be thinking about this in the first place: "investing in geoengineering research now will enable policymakers to make informed decisions based on science rather than uninformed decisions made out of desperation."

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How to Make an Offshore Wind Grid

| Mon Apr. 5, 2010 6:39 PM EDT

There's enough offshore wind power to meet the energy needs of the entire human population. Now a new study proposes how an offshore wind grid could make that fickle power reliable.

Currently wind turbines provide power only as constant as the wind. But the winds could be made effectively steadier by choosing the best locations and then connecting them with a shared power line—even a single line. This according to U of Delaware and Stony Brook U researchers in an new (open access) paper in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The research, from the abstract:

"Based on 5 yr of wind data from 11 meteorological stations, distributed over a 2,500 km extent along the U.S. East Coast, power output for each hour at each site is calculated. Each individual wind power generation site exhibits the expected power ups and downs. But when we simulate a power line connecting them, called here the Atlantic Transmission Grid, the output from the entire set of generators rarely reaches either low or full power, and power changes slowly. Notably, during the 5-yr study period, the amount of power shifted up and down but never stopped. This finding is explained by examining in detail the high and low output periods, using reanalysis data to show the weather phenomena responsible for steady production and for the occasional periods of low power. We conclude with suggested institutions appropriate to create and manage the power system analyzed here."

Lead author Willett Kempton of the U of Delaware's College of Earth, Ocean, and Environment and director of its Center for Carbon-free Power Integration says:

"Our analysis shows that when transmission systems will carry power from renewable sources, such as wind, they should be designed to consider large-scale meteorology, including the prevailing movement of high- and low-pressure systems."

The ideal configuration is a north-south transmission line, to fit with the storm track that shifts north or south along the east coast weekly and seasonally. At any one time a high or low pressure system is likely to be producing wind power somewhere along that line.

No wind turbines are presently located in US waters, though projects have been proposed off several Atlantic states.
 

Has the Climate Clock Run Out?

| Mon Apr. 5, 2010 10:29 AM EDT

For months now, Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) have promised to deliver a climate bill in the "coming weeks." They've delayed the release repeatedly in order to continue the delicate negotiations needed to marshal 60 votes in the Senate. The three lawmakers now say they plan to introduce their bill the week of Earth Day, April 22. But have they already run out of time?

The biggest challenge to passing a climate bill in the Senate is the bloc of legislators agitating to move forward with an energy bill that has already been approved by the Energy and Natural Resources Committee. That bill had bipartisan support, but don't mistake it for climate legislation. Its targets for clean energy are comparatively weak and it includes handouts, rather than restrictions, for fossil-fuel industries. Most importantly, it places no firm limit on carbon pollution. The bill's author, Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), has maintained that he'd like to see his bill combined with a cap. But it appears he's growing tired of the endless wait for the Kerry-Graham-Lieberman legislation and skeptical that it can attract sufficient support to pass.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has called for a comprehensive bill. But last week, his office started sending clear signals to the climate troika: time is running out. The Washington Post reports that Reid is starting to put some pressure on the trio. "We have to be making final decisions soon," Reid spokesman Jim Manley told the Post. If there's no comprehensive bill soon, leadership seems likely to advance the energy-only bill.

Then there are the logistical constraints. There are 15 working weeks left before elections (Congress is in recess at the end of May, the first week of July and from August through Labor Day.) A climate and energy bill also requires five to six weeks of review by the Environmental Protection Agency. Most Senate observers admit that if a comprehensive bill isn't ready for consideration by Memorial Day (May 31), it probably won't be taken up. Legislation could be debated in June, but by July we'll be entering election season, where Congress' willingness to take risks plummets to new lows.

The energy-only approach may be more expedient. But it, too, could face major hurdles. Environmental groups have made it clear they won't back a bill that doesn't address the problem of global warming, and a number of senators have pushed for a vote on a comprehensive bill this year. Even Lindsey Graham has expressed doubts about the energy-only route. "I'm not going to ask the environmental community to accept a compromise that doesn't in a serious way deal with our carbon pollution problems," he said earlier this year.

With April now well underway and still no sign of the Kerry-Graham-Lieberman bill, time is running out fast.

Obama's Recess Appointments Include Pesticide-Pushing Trade Rep

| Mon Apr. 5, 2010 7:34 AM EDT

President Barack Obama's 15 recess appointments drew fire from the right last week, in particular the choice of labor lawyer Craig Becker to serve on the National Labor Relations Board. But one controversial pick flew under the radar: Obama's pesticide-pushing nominee to serve as the country's chief agricultural negotiator.

Obama's appointment of Islam "Isi" Siddiqui, a senior executive at the industry's main trade association, CropLife America, to serve as the head agricultural negotiator for the office of the US Trade Representative provoked fierce opposition from environmental, organic, and local agricultural groups. His opponents say that his close relationship with the pesticide industry should disqualify him from a role in which he will be responsible for negotiating international agreements governing the use of pesticides and genetically modified foods. More than 110 organizations, lead by the Pesticide Action Network and the National Family Farm Coalition, wrote to senators protesting his appointment.

Obama's frustration at Republican blocks on his nominees is understandable. But in this case, there was substantial opposition from more than just Republicans that merited better scrutiny before moving Siddiqui forward.

Econundrum: Which Gardening Moves Burn Most Calories?

| Mon Apr. 5, 2010 4:30 AM EDT

Last weekend, when I finally ventured into my backyard garden after a long El Niño winter of rain, I knew it wasn't going to be a pretty sight. But I was not prepared for just how bad things had gotten. A few years back, Alan Weisman wrote a great book called The World Without Us, about what might happen to the planet if humanity suddenly vanished. He could have used my backyard as a visual. "Messy" would be a major understatement: Rosemary forest. Compost pile taken over by spindly weeds. Waist-high grasses, grown so thick I couldn't even see the edges of the vegetable bed. Cat poop everywhere.

So I have my work cut out for me. Which is not necessarily a bad thing, considering the long winter has meant I've done a lot of sitting around, and all that weeding will be a good workout. Just ask gardening exercise guru Jeffrey Restuccio, who has written two books on the fitness advantages of yardwork. "To me the greatest benefit of eating organic food is not the food itself," says Restuccio. "It's the exercise that you get growing that food."  He's also developed a series of moves that maximize the fitness benefits of gardening. (The lunge-and-weed looks especially awesome.)

With the help of the University of South Carolina School of Public Health's Compendium of Physical Activities, Restuccio estimated the amount of calories burned during half an hour of common gardening activities. Unsurprisingly, turns out that in general, activities that require less power from the grid are also a much better workout. For example:

Mowing:

Ride-on mower: 101 calories
Push mower with motor: 182 calories
Push mower: 243 calories

Trimming:

Power shears: 142 calories
Manual shears: 182 calories

Weeding is also pretty good exercise, at 182 calories burned in a half hour. Restuccio doesn't calculate how many calories you'd burn applying a chemical weed killer, but I'm guessing it's pretty similar to watering, which burns only 61 calories. (One exception to the greener gardening=better exercise rule: "gardening with heavy power tools," which burns a whopping 243 calories, presumably because the tools are, well, heavy.)

Full list of 18 gardening activities and calories burned:
 

Webcams Record Climate Change

| Fri Apr. 2, 2010 4:14 PM EDT

Thousands of webcams pointed at roads, airports, parks, and other outdoor environments could enable researchers to monitor climate change on a continental scale.

We know that climate change is shifting the timing of some plant phenology (flowering, budding, senescence) in some environments. Yet monitoring large scale changes is difficult—satellite images suffer from inaccuracies due to cloud cover, while on-the ground monitoring is accurate but expensive.

So researchers from UCLA tested a webcam approach, based on the notion that public cameras installed for other purposes are free online. They collected images twice a day from more than 1,100 georeferenced public webcams across North America from February 2008 to 2009. Their findings:

  • Webcams are as good or better at detecting the spring green-up and the fall die-off than satellite-based data
  • Webcams have fewer poor quality days, shorter continuous bad data days, and significantly lower errors of spring and fall estimates in various vegetation types

The data weren't perfect. The researchers lacked control over where the cameras were looking and for how long. They provided hugely varying image resolution. Some cameras disappeared suddenly.

Yet overall the results were extremely useful for large scale monitoring. From the abstract:

"Additional advantages of a public camera-based monitoring system include frequent image capture (subdaily) and the potential to detect quantitative responses to environmental changes in organisms, species, and communities. Public cameras represent a relatively untapped and freely available resource for supporting large-scale ecological and environmental monitoring."

The paper is in Global Change Biology. Thanks to Conservation Maven for the link.
 

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Why is Smithsonian Taking Koch's Cash?

| Fri Apr. 2, 2010 1:32 PM EDT

Koch Industries and its billionaire leaders are among the biggest funders of the climate denial machine. And now Koch money is funding a new wing of one our nation's museums of record, the Smithsonian. In March, the National Museum of Natural History opened the David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins, after the billionaire polluter donated $15 million.

The museum has defended Koch, the ninth richest man in the United States, as a "philanthropist who is deeply interested in science." Moreover, Smithsonian Human Origins Program director Rick Potts said, "our donors have no control over the content of our science or scholarship of our exhibits." Climate Progress blogger Joe Romm, however, argues that the new exhibit "whitewashes the danger of human caused climate change." See his post for more on the subject.

Think Progress has also been doing a bang-up job of covering David Koch's anti-environmental work. Lee Fang today has a timeline of Koch's polluter front groups dating back to 1977.

Nuclear Exec Tops Corporate Pay Ranking

| Fri Apr. 2, 2010 12:46 PM EDT

Amy Harder at National Journal takes a look at executive salaries in the energy and environmental sector today, and finds that the nuclear industry’s chief officer is doing a lot better than his peers.

In 2008, the most recently available figures, the Nuclear Energy Institute paid president and CEO at that time Frank Bowman more than $3 million. Her post is part of the a larger survey of 514 executives from trade associations, professional societies, interest groups, think tanks, and unions that bring in more than $10 million in revenue each year. Bowman was the seventh-highest-paid executive out of the entire survey. That's no small change, especially for an industry whose existence is almost entirely reliant on the federal government.

Here are the top-paid executives in the sector:

  1. Nuclear Energy Institute, $3.0 million
  2. American Petroleum Institute, $2.7 million
  3. Edison Electric Institute, $2.5 million
  4. National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, $2.0 million
  5. American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, $1.7 million
  6. American Iron and Steel Institute, $1.6 million
  7. American Gas Association, $1.4 million
  8. American Chemistry Council, $1.3 million
  9. Association of American Railroads, $1.1 million
  10. American Forest and Paper Association, $896,168

At the other end of the spectrum are the chiefs of the biggest environmental groups:

The Union of Concerned Scientists, Greenpeace, the National Wildlife Federation and the American Wind Energy Association were among seven groups paying their chiefs between $400,000 and $100,000. Greenpeace's former executive director, John Passacantando, was the fifth-lowest-paid executive in the survey overall, making a (comparatively) paltry $103,624. The Environmental Defense Fund and World Wildlife Fund paid their executives the most of the green groups, at roughly $496,000 and $486,000, respectively.

It ain’t easy, or particularly well-paying, being green.

Eco-News Roundup: Friday, April 2

| Thu Apr. 1, 2010 4:48 PM EDT

Measles Mystery: Anti-vaccine folks try to use graphs to prove their point.

Drill, Baby, Drill: Obama opens up coasts to new oil and gas drilling.

Bagging Plastic: DC's new plastic bag tax is working well, despite being only five cents.

CAFE Stop: New CAFE standards, 35.5 mpg before 2016, are finalized.

Healthcare 101: Quick primer on how healthcare reform would work in practice.

Gang Green: Oregon and other states are fighting Obama's reform on healthcare.

Climate-Hacking: How much weather manipulation could the planet take?

White Tax: Some argue that a proposed tax on tanning salons is racist.

 

Obama Admin Issues Plan To Actually Decrease Oil Dependence

| Thu Apr. 1, 2010 4:13 PM EDT

The Obama administration actually made two major environmental strides on Thursday, perhaps in apology for yesterday's oil news: the new guidelines on mountaintop removal coal mining, and the announcement of new standards for automobile emissions.

The new car rule, a joint effort of the Department of Transportation and the Environmental Protection Agency, will increase the average fuel efficiency standards for cars and light trucks to 35.5 miles per gallon by 2016. They also put in place the first-ever greenhouse gas emission limits for transportation fuels. The goals aren't a surprise; the administration first announced them last May. These are just the first rules specifically detailing what automakers will need to do for the next four years. Jon Hiskes has a good rundown of what exactly the new rules mean over on Grist.

In a call with reporters today, administration officials estimated that the rules would save consumers $3,000 on fuel over the life of a 2016 model car. The rules would also cut one billion tons of emissions, compared to current standards. This is a pretty big deal in terms of climate change policy; the transportation sector is responsible for 28 percent of US emissions.

The rules are also expected to save 1.8 billion barrels of oil over the life of the new vehicles. This, I would say, will go a lot farther to address our oil problem than yesterday's big offshore drilling announcement. The rules are also notable in that they represent a deal struck between automakers, states, and the federal government to reduce automobile emissions, and are the first national rules limiting planet-warming gases. "America needs a roadmap to reduced dependence on foreign oil and greenhouse gases, and only the federal government can play this role," said Auto Alliance CEO Dave McCurdy in a statement.

Not everyone is happy about cutting our oil use, though. The American Petroleum Institute fired off the obligatory statement condemning the new rules on Thursday: "The rule is not just about vehicle efficiency. It's about EPA overreaching to create an opportunity for regulating greenhouse gas emissions from virtually every firm and business in America, no matter how unwieldy, intrusive and burdensome such regulation might be."

Poor API. Not every day can be Christmas like yesterday.