During the run-up to Wednesday's debate, I remember seeing kids in the background of live shots wearing shorts and thinking, "Huh. Looks pretty nice in Denver." Friday morning, it snowed there. It snowed this week in Minnesota and North Dakota, too, in some places, more than a foot deep. The New York Times notes that such a snowfall is rare.
Well, then so much for global warming, right? Nope.
For one thing, it's not snowing all that early for these places. For another, as we constantly note, isolated weather extremes are different from the long-term trend. And, third, some scientists are expecting a bad winter -- thanks in part to global warming.
That'll teach me to ask for homework! (If you're not familiar with Jay Rosen, you oughtta be -- he's the smartest press critic going.)
First, as I'm sure Rosen knows, there is no singular "energy journalism," only various tribes with various beats. A quick taxonomy couldn't hurt.
There are finance and business journalists who cover energy as a commodity business, tracking global supply and demand flows, prices, futures trading, all that sort of stuff. There are business and tech journalists who focus on cleantech. There are environmental journalists, who tend to cover energy (when they do it) through the lens of enviros vs. polluters. And there are political journalists who cover energy as a campaign and/or policy issue, sometimes as a specialty, more often as part of a portfolio.
There are journalists who straddle more than one of these tribes, but they are fairly rare -- mostly what you have is a blind men and elephant situation. Each tribe has its own ambit, tropes, and habits of thinking, which persist through sheer vocational inertia.
What I'd like to see in all these varieties of energy journalism is a little bit more systems thinking, a greater sense of context. Humanity's relationship with energy is changing in fundamental ways and lots of the familiar frames for energy coverage no longer make much sense, or at least are woefully inadequate.
Here are the three great energy challenges of the 21st century:
What a month it’s been for contentious science! The latest scrum is over a new study from the University of Washington agricultural scientist Charles Benbrook, who looked at the rate of pesticide use in the age of genetically engineered seeds, or GMOs. Benbrook’s results undercut one of the main arguments in favor of the seeds -- the idea that they have significantly brought down pesticide use. In fact, according to Benbrook’s analysis, since their introduction in the 1990s, pesticide use for commodity crops like corn and soy has increased by approximately 7 percent.
What’s interesting is that the biotech industry’s claim about GMOs reducing pesticide use was true when the first GMO seeds came on the market. Those seeds, known as Bt corn and Bt soy cotton, expressed their own pesticide. And when they were the only GMO game in town, Benbrook confirms that pesticide use did drop.
But then came Monsanto and its herbicide-resistant RoundUp Ready product line -- seeds engineered to withstand the pesticide RoundUp (whose active ingredient is glyphosate). These seeds had the opposite effect, encouraging farmers to use a single pesticide, ultimately to excess. Benbrook decided to figure out exactly how much.
But the U.S. Department of Agriculture had ended its pesticide use tracking program years earlier, so Benbrook was forced to estimate the total use. He had to come up with a model using incomplete data from the USDA combined with other sources, like planting data and pesticide-use models. He arrived at this estimation: Since GMO crops were introduced 1996, U.S. farmers have used 404 million more pounds of pesticide than they would have with just conventional crops.
This conclusion is (surprise, surprise) not without its detractors.
Nicole Woodman could have found an easier place to be a sustainability director -- a place where left-leaning locals happily compost their kale stems and the mayor competes with other mayors to have the greenest city. A place like Minneapolis or Asheville, N.C. Instead, Woodman landed in Flagstaff, Ariz.
Her mountain boom town of 66,000, one of the gateways to Grand Canyon National Park, is facing water shortages so severe that officials are thinking of hauling water 40 miles uphill to supply the city during the dry season -- that is, seven months out of the year. And while Flagstaff is home to a mosaic of different cultures, including college students, Native Americans, and second- or third-home owners, its roots in the conservative interior West are unmistakable.
“Some people say Flagstaff is so liberal and green,” Woodman says. “It is still Arizona.”
Lunch. The eternal midday dilemma. Do I pack my own and take it to the office, or eat out and brave the world of disposable flatware? And what about the kids? Do I hand them a couple bucks and tell them, "Hope it's sloppy Joes today!" Or do I pack them a painstakingly prepared meal that they'll probably just trade to Jimmy Jones for a cookie and a bag of Fritos?
Luckily for you, Umbra is here with some thoughts on earth-friendly lunch packaging, suggestions for tasty (and meat-free) meals -- even a few words of wisdom about the lunch lady.
I'm going to write up my thoughts on the debate without having read or watched any talking-head reactions. I'd rather not have my impressions influenced. I believe this is a tradition Kevin Drum shares, but I can't go check because I might inadvertently read his debate piece.
On climate change, it was just as I predicted: nothing. Not a whisper. On energy too, just as I predicted: a series of soundbites recycled from countless stump speeches.
A few things jumped out at me on energy. First was Romney's slightly misleading but close-enough attack on Obama for investing $90 billion in wind and solar. He said that 50 percent of the projects had failed -- an outrageous lie -- but more to the point, he's just tacking straight against public opinion on this. Americans of both parties, all ages, and every region support investments in clean energy. I can't believe he was dumb enough to highlight it.
Romney tried to blunt Obama's oil triumphalism with the by-now-familiar charge that oil production has only risen on private land but has declined on public land. That is also false, but Obama made no effort to engage it. And finally, Obama got in a few zingy lines about oil subsidies, but as usual, they were blunted by the fact that he was praising high oil production mere minutes prior.
Really, nothing about the energy bits popped enough to be remembered by anyone but us long-suffering energy journalists. ("I like coal"!) If you want a more detailed factcheck, Stephen Lacey has you covered.
It sounds too good to be true, but a groundbreaking bill passed in California last week that promises to do two important things at once: boost sustainable farming in the nation’s biggest agricultural state and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
You see, the Golden State is revving up to start its own carbon market (or "cap-and-trade" plan) and it kicks off next month. This plan is designed to cut greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent by 2050 and will require power plants and large industrial facilities like oil refineries and manufacturers (and eventually fuel and natural gas distributors), to participate in a process of paying for their pollution (or, in some cases, selling credits they earn by not polluting).
This cap and trade program will result in new public funds that can be invested in activities that further reduce greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, as the state’s public radio affiliate KQED reports, revenues “are expected to reach into the billions of dollars by the end of next year.” And the bill that passed last week -- AB 1532 -- dictates what kinds of activities those dollars can be spent on. But here’s the coolest part: Sustainable and organic farming practices made the list!
The iPhone has become one of the developed world’s most ubiquitous consumer products; the new iPhone 5 sold more than 5 million units in its first week. But the vast majority of iPhone users have no clue what goes into the guts of their coveted toy. That’s no accident, since the phone’s internal design and chemical content are closely guarded trade secrets and Apple deliberately makes it difficult for consumers to open up the device.
Enter Kyle Wiens, whose company, iFixit, aims to help users penetrate their gadgets’ dark secrets, from how much toxic mercury they contain to how to change the damn battery. Last week, Climate Desk found shelter from a torrential rainstorm near one of New York City’s Apple stores and watched Wiens go to work (see video above). Today, iFixit released the results of its chemical analysis of the iPhone 5 and a suite of other popular cellphones, conducted by the environmental nonprofit Ecology Center.
First the good news: The iPhone 5 is leagues ahead of its more toxic predecessors -- especially the 2G.
Big Bird might have been one of the most popular trends on Twitter during the first presidential debate between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama. But as the discussion of domestic issues unfolded, #climatesilence got some play as well. Sadly, not because the candidates broke their silence on the issue.
Here are two tweets that summed up the lack of attention to climate change:
And this one from climate activist Bill McKibben:
If you watched the real-time reaction to the debates, the disappointment among folks within the energy and environment community over the lack of attention to climate was palpable. Even with 160,000 signatures delivered to PBS’s Jim Lehrer calling on him to ask the candidates about climate change, the issue was completely ignored during the 90-minute conversation — continuing a long streak of silence throughout the campaign.
Apparently, neither of the candidates has been watching the polls showing that climate could be a major factor in how undecided and independent voters cast their ballots.
Energy issues were sprinkled throughout the debate, however. The mentions were focused mostly on domestic drilling and clean-energy spending.