Blue Marble

Bank of America Pledges $20 Billion for Green Loans

| Tue Mar. 6, 2007 7:53 PM EST

Bank of America dedicated a huge chunk of change today to green initiatives. It may just be the biggest green project of any corporation in history.

No doubt this is fantastic for the planet. But it may take a few years to tell whether this is as good for the planet as it is for the bank's reputation. For example, Yale law professor Daniel Esty said that last year Virgin's Richard Branson pledged $3 billion to combat global warming over a decade. But Branson only earmarked profits from his air and rail businesses, which don't always turn a profit.

Suspicion aside, it's crucial for corporations to get recognition for good work. Otherwise they won't do it. They'll behave according to the adage, "no good deed goes unpunished." Most of $20 billion will go to cut-rate rate loans for green business and green real estate. But the bank pledged to donate $100 million outright for conservation and to LEED certify all bank buildings. So give it up for the bank! Let's hope others follow suit.

The manifesto on cooperation between corporations and environmentalists is Natural Capitalism, an inspiring read. When is "corporate responsibility" just hype? Read about British Petroleum and Interface carpet company in our November issue.

—April Rabkin

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Pollution Kills Babies (But So Do War and Poverty...)

| Tue Mar. 6, 2007 6:18 PM EST

San Francisco, that lovely city by the bay where you once left your heart—and home of Mother Jones, has the lowest infant mortality rate of any large U.S. city. But one neighborhood has the highest rate anywhere in California—comparable to those of developing countries. That neighborhood is the troubled Bayview-Hunters Point, home of gang violence, the city's main power and sewage treatment plants and a Superfund toxic waste site. Resident Tuli Hughes has lost 5 babies there.

Exposure to even small amounts of toxic substances during early pregnancy can result in miscarriages. That's abortion by neglect, or so a new report from the Center for American Progress attempts to persuade evangelicals, AlterNet reports approvingly. Indeed, the religious right has begun to take some interest in environmental "sanctity of life" issues, but thus far they have focused on mercury in fish—a problem far more likely to affect middle-class women (and, you know, fetuses).

I'm not convinced this is the best way to persuade people that environmental injustice is wrong. All people have equal rights to have a baby, but the world is overpopulated and anti-choice arguments hardly need encouragement. Maybe we should just call environmental injustice what it is—genocide.

Coal in Cars

| Tue Mar. 6, 2007 1:15 PM EST

A really bad idea that Washington likes and coal states are already funding.

EPA Wants Train and Ship Emissions Cut 90%, Starting Next Year

| Mon Mar. 5, 2007 9:28 PM EST

EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson held a press conference last Friday in one of the busiest ports of one of the reputedly dirtiest states: Newark, New Jersey. Johnson's goal is to make Newark and the rest of the nation cleaner, by reducing fumes and soot from diesel transport like cargo vessels and container trains by 90 percent. The changes will apply to a variety of vehicles, including freight and passenger trains, tugboats, yachts, ferries, and cargo ships.

This is one of the first times the Bush administration's EPA has made such an innovative proposal. As we reported last year, the EPA has had its libraries closed and Bush's latest budget is kind to corporations but harsh on wildlife.

When the EPA's proposed changes are completed, diesel engines would have reduced soot and other airborne matter by 90 percent. Most likely, Johnson said, the plan would not be fully implemented until 2030, and would cost $600 million to fulfill. But, he added, the savings from reduced respiratory illnesses and other air pollution-related maladies would be around $12 billion by 2030.

A timeline of the proposed changes:

  • 2008: New eco-friendly fuel, emissions systems are certified for locomotives, implemented as available
  • 2009: New diesel-powered trains and ships required to use "new emissions technology"
  • 2010: All older locomotives required to have "new emissions technology" implemented
  • 2012: Ships and trains required to use a cleaner diesel fuel which has very low sulfur levels
  • 2014: All marine vehicles using diesel engines required to use catalytic converters
  • 2015: All trains with diesel engines required to use catalytic converters
  • 2015: Final rules regarding manufacturing clean vehicles and their fuels implemented
  • 2030: Goal for all diesel-powered marine vehicles and locomotives to adhere to new environmentally-friendly regulations. Air-borne soot reduced by 90%
  • —Jen Phillips

    California's a Model in Global Warming Fight

    | Mon Mar. 5, 2007 1:23 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.

    Plight of the Ugliest Endangered Animals

    | Mon Mar. 5, 2007 12:57 PM EST

    aye-aye2.jpg


    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

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    Age-Old Tradition Felled by Climate Change

    | Sat Mar. 3, 2007 1:42 PM EST

    maple_tree.jpg

    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 1:41 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 7:38 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 6:38 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.