David Roberts

David Roberts

Energy, politics, and more

David Roberts was a staff writer for Grist. You can follow him on Twitter, if you're into that sort of thing.

Germany’s environment minister on eschewing nukes

Five years ago, Germany officially decided to shut down all its nuclear plants by 2020. This past May, the second of 19 plants went offline. Outgoing German environment minister (and member of the Green Party) Jurgen Trittin has a succinct piece on BBC explaining the government's rationale and arguing for seeing the policy through. Far from being a necessary element in Germany's quest to meet Kyoto targets, he says, "technically speaking, this base-load relic of the past is standing in the way of flexible and intelligent electricity production." Word.

Encyclopedia Brown and the case of the missing map

Not really sure what to make of this. Apparently the government's map of the Arctic Refuge is gone -- poof, vanished. Why on earth, you're wondering, does the government only have one detailed map of the Refuge? I don't know. Why was it sitting behind some file cabinet? You got me. Was it thrown out deliberately or by accident? Nobody knows. Does it matter? Felicity Barringer thinks maybe so:


Makower thinks the retail giant might just be turning over a new leaf

We debated whether to write up this story of Wal-Mart's alleged "going green" in Daily Grist, but at a quick glance it seemed trivial and a bit self-serving. But Joel Makower, who knows as much about these matters as anyone, thinks there may be something to it. I, for one, am skeptical that the great, great Wal-Mart turnaround is nigh. But I'm also not ready to write off Lee Scott or his company as sustainability poseurs. I believe we'll see a steady stream of new initiatives coming out of the company's Bentonville, Ark., headquarters in coming months. He even quotes an anonymous colleague tantalizingly saying, "This has the potential to be the fastest turnaround ever on sustainability and the most comprehensive." If that were true it could have potentially epochal consequences. As Joel notes, Wal-Mart may account for as much as 1% of China's entire GDP. That's a lotta skrill. Of course some folks will say that "green Wal-Mart" is an oxymoron. Activists of virtually every stripe have legitimate beefs with the company. But the thing here is to be dispassionate. The 'Mart has more power than many governments. It is, for good or ill, here, and enormously influential. If even a fraction of its power can be turned to stimulating green markets and establishing green practices, it could be a game changer.

Personal energy conservation in Houston

Why it seems like just yesterday I was harping on the notion that, as long as our public policies yield built environments in which eco-friendly choices are difficult, eco-friendly choices will not be the norm. Today I find a superb illustration of my pet notion in the Wall Street Journal, in the form of an excellent piece by Jeffrey Ball. I beg of you: go read it. (Of course, you can't unless you subscribe to WSJ, which you don't, so ...) It's about people trying their best to conserve energy (you might recall that the president wants us to be "better conservers") in Houston, Texas. Long story short: it ain't easy. Admittedly, one part of the problem is the typical American craving for luxury and comfort:


We all know that then-FEMA director Michael Brown's response to Katrina was grossly incompetent. But now a regional director of FEMA has started talking to the press, and as Josh Marshal says, it's worse than you thought. Savor this: Later, on Aug. 31, Bahamonde frantically e-mailed Brown to tell him that thousands of evacuees were gathering in the streets with no food or water and that "estimates are many will die within hours." "Sir, I know that you know the situation is past critical," Bahamonde wrote. Less than three hours later, however, Brown's press secretary wrote colleagues to complain that the FEMA director needed more time to eat dinner at a Baton Rouge restaurant that evening. "He needs much more that (sic) 20 or 30 minutes," wrote Brown aide Sharon Worthy. "We now have traffic to encounter to go to and from a location of his choise (sic), followed by wait service from the restaurant staff, eating, etc. Thank you."

Personal choices and the built environment

Environmentalism will never succeed by relying on personal virtue

A post on "unnecessary driving" from Clark and a post on poverty and obesity patterns over on NEW's blog both point to the same fact: The structure of our built environment largely determines our day-to-day habits. It's hard to eliminate "unnecessary driving" if the store, school, and work are miles away through pedestrian-unfriendly highways. It's hard to eat healthy when you're surrounded by fast-food restaurants, the nearest supermarket is a long bus ride away, and local/organic food is nowhere to be found. Most people, particularly poor people, live in environments that make unhealthy and eco-unfriendly choices the path of least resistance. There are very few built environments in the U.S. that make eco-friendly choices easy. You need to be relatively well-to-do and live near the core of one of a small number of transit-friendly, progressive cities. So, it's fine and dandy to ask people to push against the grain, to sacrifice and go out of their way, to make eco-friendly choices. There's nothing wrong with pushing people to display personal virtue. But it sometimes seems to me that environmentalists are devoted almost entirely to this quixotic undertaking -- indeed that "environmentalism" is sometimes taken as synonymous with personal virtue. That's bad. It gives an easy out to those at the local, state, and federal level who make public policy decisions. It reduces political matters to "personal responsibility." Environmentalists ought to be devoted to reshaping public policy, in order to reshape our built environments, in order to make eco-friendly choices easy, so the health of the earth does not require most people on it to be virtuous, cause that's never going to happen. And yes, I make this point over and over and over again. Sue me. I like to harp.

Oil and meth

Turns out oil rig workers are using meth, getting fired, and driving up oil prices

Well, of all the things I might have thought would affect oil prices, here's one that never occurred to me: apparently a growing number of oil-rig crews are meth users. Ben Dell, analyst at Sanford Bernstein, said the issue was serious enough to have an impact on international oil prices. He said: "With a third of all rig crews in the Rocky Mountains having methamphetamine problems, it's difficult to get a crew that's not high." Seems that sodium hydroxide, one of the main ingredients of meth, is used to reduce the acidity of drilling mud, and thus easily available on rigs. Random drug tests are now the order of the day, people are getting fired right and left, and it's increasingly hard to find workers. This comes at an awful time for an industry whose workforce is aging: "Most industry groups put the average age of employees at 49, with 50 percent expected to retire in the next five to 10 years." Tweaking, it turns out, is not really what you want in an oil-rigger: "Meth is particularly dangerous for oil and gas workers because meth users go through a wide range of emotions including the Superman stage during which they believe themselves to be invincible," Mr Walsmith added. "Believing oneself to be invincible when working with hundreds of tons of steel and thousands of pounds of explosive pressure can maim or kill in an instant." Crazy. How about instead of drilling in the Arctic Refuge, we offer drug counseling on oil rigs? Probably have roughly the same effect on oil price. (via The Watt)

Arctic Refuge drilling: Down the rabbit hole

Liberal opposition to drilling is reason enough to support it for some folks

The Senate Energy Committee voted today to include Arctic Refuge drilling in a massive budget reconciliation proposal, which will make it filibuster-proof. The fate of the budget reconciliation is not totally clear, but the odds are looking pretty grim. Our own Amanda Griscom Little will be writing more about this later in the week. If you want to do something to try to stop it, the Wilderness Society has your standard online petition going. Sigh. As a political issue, I find the Refuge rather mystifying.

Global warming, in capsule form

In the midst of a long post on Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer's coal-to-liquid-fuel plans, Oil Drummer Stuart Staniford provides a handy one-paragraph-long roundup of evidence on global warming. The next time someone you know asks about it, just cut and paste this paragraph and send it to them. Warming cliff notes! [W]e are reaching the point where we can see that we are starting to make massive, probably irreversible, changes to our climate. The glaciers are in full retreat almost everywhere, the Arctic is melting (with total melting of the summer sea ice possible, though not certain, as early as 2020), the permafrost is melting, and releasing large amounts of methane, which is a very powerful global warming gas, while in the last thirty years, droughts have doubled due to warming, hurricanes are much more intense all over the globe, and are showing up in places they never did before in recorded history. Scientists have been projecting changes in ocean circulation, and lo-and-behold, they are starting to show up, including changes to the North Atlantic Circulation, although major change here was previously thought unlikely this century. There is some possibility of changes in deepwater circulation destabilizing methane hydrates in the ocean, particularly in South East Asian deeps. Oh, and the Greenland ice sheet is now melting much faster than climatologists expected, and the West Antarctic ice sheet is starting to collapse, though again, this was previously thought unlikely. Also paleoclimatological studies have made it clear that in the past the climate abruptly flipped between modes, sometimes with dramatic change in as little as three years. And we are making rapid changes in carbon dioxide, known to be critically important in regulating the temperature of this sensitive climatic system for a century now. As he says, "maybe there's some scientific doubt still on any individual piece of the picture, but the gestalt is starting to look extremely alarming." Yes.