Much of President Obama's green team is moving on to greener pastures. EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson announced last month that she'll be retiring soon, and Energy Secretary Steven Chu is expected to follow suit. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar is said to be mulling over his future. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood appears to be undecided as well, and there's a chance that Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack could leave.
Lesser-known but still critical positions are up in the air too. Jane Lubchenco, head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, has announced her resignation. Nancy Sutley, chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, and Heather Zichal, Obama's top climate and energy advisor, might also be leaving their posts.
You're probably aware that the federal government spends money on some things you like (national parks), and some things you may not care for (imprisoning non-violent drug offenders). But you probably don't know that the feds actually spend more money on real estate than practically anything else other than defense.
How so? As a new report illustrates, a variety of federal policies that go by other names are actually public investments in housing and other development. The report, "Federal involvement in real estate: A call for examination," by the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit Smart Growth America, adds it all up and finds approximately $450 billion each year in subsidies.
These public dollars, the report argues, collectively create an incentive for suburban sprawl and redistribute income from the poor to the rich. So much for the “war on suburbia.”
"Local governments are finding it hard to develop the walkable urban housing that is so in demand, and to leverage federal resources [for it]," said John McIlwain, senior housing fellow at the Urban Land Institute, on a conference call discussing the report.
"I think 2013's going to be a difficult year," [Marion Loomis, executive director of the Wyoming Mining Association] said. "Until the economy recovers and we start to see some growth, any increased (electricity) demand is probably going to be met with natural gas."
It's possible that economic growth will pick up in a significant way. But natural gas is going to stay cheap for the foreseeable future, EPA regs aren't going away, production costs are only going to continue rising, and climate change is going to see to it that future winters are less cold.
The only thing that can save U.S. coal is ramping up its overseas exports. As this year's drop in production shows, that's not happening fast enough to offset U.S. coal's inexorable decline.
One of the more fascinating and underreported stories in U.S. energy right now is the budding movement toward localism. In the case of energy, this doesn't necessarily (or exclusively) mean producing energy locally; few towns or cities could generate sufficient power for themselves within city limits. It just means asserting more local control over energy provision and use. Often that means buying cleaner power than large, bloated, risk-averse utilities are able to provide, and using it more intelligently.
There are two ways a town or city can opt out of being served by big utilities. The first is, it can buy and sell power directly while using the utility's lines. That's what Chicago is doing. As I wrote last year, Illinois recently passed a "community aggregation" law that allows cities and towns to opt out of the power purchases made by the state's big utilities and instead procure their own power directly from providers. Dozens of towns and municipalities have jumped at this approach, including Chicago, which late last year put out a "Request for Qualifications" [PDF] seeking power that is clean and coal-free, with a strong focus on reducing consumer energy use via efficiency, demand response, and other consumer-side measures. That's close to a million new customers for innovative low-carbon energy, with an aggressive schedule for moving forward.
The second way is for a city to form its own, publicly owned municipal utility. That's what Boulder, Colo., is investigating. The impetus is the climate action plan the city passed in 2002, committing it to reducing its emissions in line with Kyoto targets. In 2006, the city imposed a carbon tax and just last year extended the tax by five years. Nonetheless, the city is falling short of its targets, in large part because it gets its electricity from the big private utility Xcel, which gets 60 percent of its power from coal (as of 2011). The idea behind forming a municipal utility would be to buy more renewable energy and have more direct control over pricing, distribution, and demand-side programs.
In the world of coral reefs, most of the news is pretty gloomy. Rising ocean temperatures have led to massive die-offs from Indonesia to Florida; emissions-driven acidity could dissolve corals’ structure-building ability in 20 years; rising sea levels threaten to block sunlight even from healthy reefs; and in November, NOAA called on Congress to afford endangered species status to over 60 species. A blunt, unsparing editorial in The New York Times this summer slathered on the melodrama: Coral reefs are being pushed “into oblivion … there is no hope.”
Coral are not exactly the most dynamic animals in the ocean: They take decades to grow and are then rooted at the mercy of their environment, so they don’t inspire much confidence when it comes to adapting to climate change. But a study out Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences from a group of Stanford geneticists suggests that coral might have more of a fighting spirit than we gave them credit for.
In 2000, ecologist Dan Barshis was with a research group in American Samoa, wading through tide pools, when he noticed that coral in some pools seemed healthy, despite being bathed in water much warmer than corals can normally survive, and despite the fact that individuals of the very same species were on their deathbeds in pools just down the beach. Corals get stressed when water temperatures rise, especially when it happens quickly; under enough stress, they’ll boot out the symbiotic algae that photosynthesize sunlight for the coral’s food and give the coral its signature color palette, leaving the coral pale -- hence the term “bleaching” -- and starving.
But the coral Barshis saw looked inexplicably happy, and over the next several years he found that the reason why is all about training. Barshis compared the genes of the heat-resistant corals and their more fragile brethren under a range of water temperatures. He found that, in both groups, heat changed the way hundreds of genes were expressed. But in the heat-resistant group, 60 of these genes were flipped on all the time, and helping to crank out heat-resilient proteins and antioxidants. Using records of the pools’ temperatures, Barshis found that the strongest corals came from pools that were consistently but briefly exposed to high temperatures during low tides over time. He thinks the repeated exposure helped condition the corals to build up their tolerance, like an athlete building endurance through weight training, only on the level of DNA.
“It kinda comes down to what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” he says.
Imagine Earth with toxic air, stifling heat, no water, and no signs of life -- sort of like Los Angeles. This is a world laid bare by massive and catastrophic climate change, and believe it or not, it isn't science fiction. It’s our neighbor, Venus, and it’s more similar to Earth than you might want to believe.
Venus and Earth have a lot in common: They’re practically the same size, they’re made up of basically the same stuff, and early in the life of our solar system they were nearly identical, right down to oceans and moderate atmospheres. But then climate change arrived on Venus -- the same processes that are playing out on our planet today with rising carbon dioxide and an increasing greenhouse effect -- and transformed the planet into an uninhabitable, 900-degree-F wasteland swathed in clouds of sulfuric acid.
“It’s almost as if you had a twin study -- you take these identical twins and give them different experiences in life and see how they grow up,” says David Grinspoon, an astrobiologist with the Denver Museum of Nature & Science and the NASA-sponsored astrobiology chair at the Library of Congress’s John W. Kluge Center.
Boosters of natural gas frequently argue that it can serve as a "bridge fuel," spanning the chasm between our current global electricity systems, dominated by coal, and systems mostly or completely comprised of low-carbon sources like wind and solar. The idea is, we ramp up natural gas, the least dirty of the fossil fuels, to displace coal, thereby giving ourselves a few more decades to develop renewable energy, which will then replace natural gas. Natgas gets us from here to there.
This argument has become popular for a broad swath of U.S. elites, not only typical fossil-fuel boosters but lefty luminaries like Center for American Progress founder John Podesta and green leaders like Environmental Defense Fund President Fred Krupp.
Despite the notion becoming common to the point of cliché, however, there's been almost no effort to model a natural gas bridge -- that is to say, to construct a climate scenario that a) stabilizes atmospheric carbon dioxide at a safe level and b) includes a large-but-temporary increase in natural gas consumption. There have been climate scenarios that incorporate a baseline level of natural gas consumption (assuming no significant policy shifts), and some that model consumption substantially and permanently increasing, but none that explicitly model a bridge, that is, a rise and subsequent decline.
Into the breach steps Michael Levi of the Council on Foreign Relations, with a new paper, "Climate consequences of natural gas as a bridge fuel," published in the journal Climatic Change. It's a fascinating and timely bit of work that takes as its goal "to explore the properties of scenarios that feature natural gas as a bridge and that stabilize CO2 concentrations at or near the oft discussed targets of 450 and 550 ppm."
You know what’s fun? What’s fun is watching young people figure out how to change the world they've inherited.
Case in point: Billy Parish. When I first met him, he’d just dropped out of Yale. Not because he couldn't hack it. Because he didn't think it was as important as fighting climate change. And so he built the Energy Action Coalition, the nationwide student mobilization against global warming. And he built it in a particular way, as a coalition of like-minded groups on hundreds of campuses -- he was charismatic, but he put his charisma to use helping to leverage many disparate voices into one force.
As he got older, he let others take over the student movement, and he went to work looking for practical solutions to the same crisis. Given his skills and drive, he could have become a conventional entrepreneur, starting some solar start-up that would make deals and build projects and collect revenues. But his basic sense never wavered: What we needed was a way for communities to work together.
And so, Monday, Solar Mosaic starts accepting investments. If you live in New York or California, or you are an "accredited investor" in other states, you can invest money; it will be used to put up solar panels on a grand scale, and the revenues will pay you a nice rate of interest. It's a way, one of the first, to put lots of individuals' money to work building the future we need.
Just before Christmas, and ever so quietly, the Federal Trade Commission released a review [PDF] of corporate food marketing to kids. The FTC hasn’t examined this kind of data since 2006, so this was its chance to check up on the processed food and beverage industry’s much-ballyhooed self-regulation of food advertising aimed at young kids and teens. The data for the new report is from 2009. The upshot? Food marketing to kids totaled $1.79 billion and went down a skosh from 2006 levels.
Does this mean corporate self-regulation is working? Not at all. First off, in 2009 this country was in the teeth of the Great Recession, so all marketing spending was down. The good intentions of food companies may have had little to do with the drop. But what’s more interesting is the fact that food companies shifted spending away from television advertising and toward online and social media spending.
Food companies spent 19.5 percent less on television ads and 60 percent more online between 2006 and 2009. Because TV ads are so expensive, reducing them explains most of the overall drop in spending. But that doesn’t mean ads weren’t being seen; companies also get significant bang for the buck when they invest in online marketing -- and they spent $122 million online in 2009. One can only imagine what that number looked like in 2012.
So it's lovely that this time of year you can get little baby oranges in abundance, but you know those mesh nets they come in? They look dangerous. Are they killing sea critters? Should I cut every little piece apart before I throw it away like you should soda can rings? Should I stop buying them? Help!!
Laura S. Bar Harbor, Me.
A. Dearest Laura,
It is lovely that we can buy baby oranges in deepest mid-winter, isn’t it? It’s also a sign of just how reliant we are on a massive, unwieldy global food system. But more on that in a moment.
First, those mesh nets. The packaging that has you in knots is typically made of plastic, usually polypropylene (#5) or nylon, and is often referred to as “poly mesh.” It is used to hold ungainly products like citrus, nuts, onions, and potatoes. It keeps them in one place while presenting shipping benefits over small boxes, such as being lighter and cheaper.