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Death from above: Chicago’s bird casualties offer clues on climate change

Joseph Mietus

Dave Willard guides the way into a room within Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History, where the scene inside is at once ghastly and gorgeous. Soft down floats in the air as chatty biologists tear fistfuls of feathers from corpses of birds large and small. This day's work: sparrows, warblers, thrushes, sapsuckers, and creepers, all among the 3,000 birds collected from last fall’s migration.

It is Wednesday, "prep day" at the museum’s Bird Preparation Lab, the small quarters where Willard, a 66-year-old biologist specializing in ornithology, leads the nation’s most extensive study of migratory birds, most killed by brutal concussion when hitting windows at flight speeds of up to 65 miles per hour.

Because of its location on migratory routes, Chicago’s skyline kills more birds than any other in the country. Navigating by the stars and hungry after flights from as far away as Peru, the birds arrive on Lake Michigan's shoreline in search of food. There, the twinkling city and its canyons become a death trap.

Now, stripped down to the burgundy-brown musculature veined with tissue, the birds are lined up on cafeteria trays, their china-like frames reminiscent of a hat-and-cane vaudeville dance act. There’s a perfume of sweet meat, mothballs, and rot. As the biologists pluck and eviscerate, they sip coffee and talk about football and politics. Then someone carries in a paper tray of what looks to be -- yes, chicken nuggets.

Read more: Cities


Climate change and the cult of the presidency


If you read nothing else this week, please read this piece from Jonathan Chait. Seriously. Just read it.

He makes a point I've made a number of times, but (unsurprisingly) makes it better:

There is nothing quite like a presidential inauguration to bring to full bloom the cult of the presidency. We fuss over the pageantry and the ritual and the First Lady's attire like the tittering royal subjects we fought a war to stop being. The cult of the presidency is not merely excessive deference to the president as a figure. Sometimes, as when we expect the president to do things beyond the powers of his office and rage at his failure, it is not even that. The cult of the presidency is a pervasive assumption that public life is a drama revolving around the president.

The current debate swirling around President Obama's second term embodies that misconception. Obama is approaching the outset of his second term differently than his first, and also differently than the outset of his second two years, when he first confronted the Republican-controlled Congress. He is occupying popular centrist terrain, using his office to define the debate, and daring Republicans to oppose him. What will the outcome be? Some say Obama is treating the Republicans too meanly. Others think he has to be meaner.

But the prosaic reality is that Obama's disposition isn't the issue here. The main question is what the Republicans in Congress decide to do. The legislative results of Obama's second term lie almost entirely in their hands. Obama may be the central figure in the national political drama, but the choice is being played out offstage.


Nowhere is the assumption that "public life is a drama revolving around the president" more in evidence than in the climate world. I can't even tell you how many pieces I've read in the last week about what Obama will do on climate in his second term. The first paragraph of this Jeff Goodell piece captures the spirit. Climate was a "test" for Obama and he failed it. But if you look at the catalogue of failures, they almost all reduce to Obama not talking enough about it. He should have talked more to Congress, to force them to pass the law. He should have talked more to international negotiators, to force them to forge a climate treaty. He should have talked more to the American people, to educate them on the subject.

What all these pieces have in common is the vast power they ascribe to presidential talking. Journalists and green groups, one after another, call on Obama for an "ambitious agenda" and a "plan," but insofar as any of them offer details, it mainly comes down to talking. (Or having a climate "summit," which is one step below a "commission" in the hierarchy of things that matter in D.C.)

It's bizarre, this power we ascribe to Obama. Just to pluck one random example, this morning I read a Washington Post editorial that laments Obama's failure to advance a carbon-pricing bill in his first term. "Congress, too, bears blame for this," the editors note. Oh! Good to hear that the branch of U.S. government charged with writing and passing laws also bears some blame for not passing a law. Glad they at least got a mention. But note that they are treated as a Greek chorus, reacting to Obama rather than acting on their own agenda and in response to their own incentives.

The purported power of the "bully pulpit" has been vastly exaggerated. The president's ability to "focus" Congress and "set the agenda" has been vastly exaggerated. The president's ability to "twist arms" to get what he wants out of Congress has been vastly exaggerated.

It's not that Obama is helpless or powerless. There are things he can do on climate. He could direct EPA to get ambitious in limiting emissions from power plants. He could block the Keystone pipeline. He could quit leasing coal for pennies on the dollar. And yes, he could talk about it more (though the notion that he could "educate the American people" is forlorn, I fear).

In the end, his power on this issue pales before the power of Congress. It is Congress that passes laws, and it is laws we need. Right now, the radicalization of the Republican Party is preventing anything from happening on climate in Congress.

Whenever I make this argument, people respond by accusing me of "letting Obama off the hook." That's not the point. The point is not to argue solely about what Obama should or shouldn't do. The point is to question whether that's the only argument that matters. From what I can tell it's the only argument greens are having.

I understand it's frustrating to focus on Congress. It's like focusing on a committee. No one's in charge. There's no singular hero or villain, none of the human drama we love. As Chait says, "Nobody knows or cares whether John Boehner's wife has bangs." There's systemic dysfunction that requires systemic solutions. Kinda boring.

But the obsession with Obama is unhealthy because it distracts attention from the way U.S. politics works and the ways it can be fixed. Bullying Obama into saying the word "climate" more -- the seemingly irresistible sport of climatespotting -- is way, way down the list of things that would help. If we want change on climate, we'll have to change U.S. politics. There is no shortcut. Obama is not our daddy, our king, or God. As Chait concludes:

... that is all he is — the head of one, equal branch of government, a man we have hired to do a job. Our need to elevate him into a monarchial figure not only causes us to persistently misunderstand the world around us, but is also detrimental to the habits of self-government.


Read more: Politics


Big Coal to meet its fate in tiny Northwest town

The Columbia River meets the sea near the site of the proposed terminal.
Brett VandenHeuvel
The Columbia River meets the sea near the site of the proposed terminal.

Last week, Beijing saw its infamous smog thicken to unprecedented levels, driven largely by emissions from coal-fired power plants across China. In recent years, coal from U.S. mines has stoked more and more of these plants, in effect off-shoring the health impacts of burning coal. This year, much of the U.S. coal industry's focus will be on pushing an unfolding campaign that seeks to dramatically ramp up the amount of coal we ship overseas.

Morrow County, Ore., is a quintessentially green pocket of the Pacific Northwest. It's capped by the Columbia River, which winds past the hipsters in Portland en route to the sea, often carrying schools of the salmon that have long been an economic staple for locals. But Morrow County could soon become a backdrop for the transformation of the U.S. coal industry, if a planned loading zone for massive shipments of coal -- harvested in the Powder River Basin in Montana and Wyoming, and packed into Asia-bound cargo ships -- gets final approval.

Right now, local, state, and federal lawmakers are hammering out the details in what is unfolding as one of the biggest climate fights of 2013.

Tim McDonnell
Read more: Climate & Energy


The 14 fossil-fuel projects poised to f*ck up the climate

In a justly famous Rolling Stone piece, Bill McKibben popularized the notion of "Global Warming's Terrifying New Math." We have a "carbon budget," between now and 2050, of roughly 565 gigatons of carbon dioxide. If we emit more than that we are likely to exceed the 2 degree C target agreed to in the Copenhagen Accord. (As Thomas Lovejoy notes in clear-eyed and essential piece in The New York Times yesterday, "2 degrees seems nightmarish as it is.")

According to the Carbon Tracker Initiative, the amount of CO2 represented by the world's proven fossil fuel reserves is 2,795 gigatons. Here's the problem, in math terms:

2,795 > 565

If we want a reasonable hope of hitting our 2 degree target, we have to leave about 80 percent of the known fossil fuels in the ground.

That is indeed terrifying math, but it may become slightly less so as it becomes more specific and concrete. (It is always helpful to break a large task into component parts.) Toward that end, today saw some fascinating new work from the research consultancy Ecofys. Commissioned by Greenpeace, it attempts to rank the most dangerous fossil-fuel projects currently being planned.

The metric is simple: how many additional tons of CO2 the project will emit by 2020. (See the report for more on methodology.) Here's how they rank:

  1. China's Western provinces / Coal mining expansion / 1,400
  2. Australia / Coal export expansion / 760
  3. Arctic / Drilling for oil and gas / 520
  4. Indonesia / Coal export expansion / 460
  5. United States / Coal export expansion / 420
  6. Canada / Tar sands oil / 420
  7. Iraq / Oil drilling / 420
  8. Gulf of Mexico / Deepwater oil drilling / 350
  9. Brazil / Deepwater oil drilling (pre-salt) / 330
  10. Kazakhstan / Oil drilling / 290
  11. United States / Shale gas / 280
  12. Africa / Gas drilling / 260
  13. Caspian Sea / Gas drilling / 240
  14. Venezuela / Tar sands oil / 190

There's a lot to mull over in this list. Here are a few things that jump out:

Read more: Climate & Energy


Baby, you can drive my car: How car sharing teaches us to be good neighbors


When news got out a few weeks ago that car-rental company Avis had purchased the popular car-sharing service Zipcar, many reacted warily, wondering if the deal would kill Zipcar’s grassroots ethos. Others found such negativity overblown, calling the move not only unsurprising but smart, on both Avis’ and Zipcar’s parts. Whatever the future of Zipcar (and it’s hard to imagine Avis changing its model in any significant way), it’s undeniably helped us reimagine our relationship with cars – and maybe, at the same time, with our neighbors, too.

Over the 13 years since Zipcar’s founding, more of us have realized that the mobility we desire doesn’t require owning a car. In fact, for many of us city dwellers, especially young, single, and/or not-very-high-income ones, a car can be more of a burden than a convenience, once you factor in the price of gas and insurance and the hassle and expense of finding parking.

That doesn’t mean that we have no use for driving, however. Whether you’re car-free by choice or by circumstance, you’ve no doubt experienced the occasional surge of longing for a vehicle, when it’s pouring rain and the bus is late, or when you realize, walking home from the grocery store with several heavy bags, that you vastly overestimated your own strength and stamina. Zipcar (and its earlier peers, like Flexcar, with which it eventually merged) showed us that you don’t need to own a car to use one. Cars, like bikes and buses, can be just another element of a multi-modal transportation system -- a system that offers people a range of transit options and makes it easy to combine them.

“The U.S. has always been car-centric. I don’t see car-sharing itself changing that,” says Nick Cole, CEO of car2go North America, one of the latest companies to arrive on the sharing scene. “Not everybody’s going to be able to afford a car … but there’s going to be a need for this transportation.”

Zipcar saw that need and inspired a wave of other car-sharing operations to improve and build upon its model.


Ask Umbra: Should I sell my Exxon stock?

Send your question to Umbra!

Q. Dear Umbra,

I own stock in Exxon Mobil. It was given to me by my grandparents when I was born (I'm now 46). I go back and forth between being appalled that I am making money off a company that I despise and thinking that at least by owning stock I can vote for some progressive changes (not that my vote ever seems to make a difference). Now I'm reading about asking universities to divest from their oil and gas portfolios, and wondering if I should do the same. My question is, if I sell my stock, won't someone else just buy it who will be less inclined to vote for progressive change? I've thought about donating it to a nonprofit environmental group (Grist, perhaps) and letting them wrestle with this question. Umbra, what would you do in my situation?

Too Many Stock Options
Sagle, Idaho


A. Dear TMSO,

There’s a reason you’re going back and forth about this. It’s a tricky question. Your loving grandparents hardly knew the dilemma they were putting upon their precious little grandchild. Although they surely knew something: According to this handy index, the value of Exxon shares has risen from about $2 in 1970 to close to $90 today.

Actually, this story starts well before you were born. Travel with me for a moment to the 1930s, when a country still reeling from the Great Depression said, “Hey, you know what? If we put money into a company, we ought to be able to ask questions about how that company is run.” That’s why shareholders got the right [PDF] to add proposals to corporate ballots. In the early 1970s, prominent campaigns against Dow Chemical and General Motors paved the way for proposals that went beyond business and looked at corporate social responsibility, earning liberal bleeding hearts and others a seat at the table, too. Or at least a seat in the hallway leading to the boardroom.

Since then, shareholder activism has seen tangible results -- here, for instance, is a list of recent environmental accomplishments spearheaded by the activist organization As You Sow. Increasingly, heavy hitters like state pension funds and colleges are pushing for progressive change from within. So in theory, you could hang on and fight the good fight. But should you?


Happy MLK Day! Now get off the couch and do the King proud

Most holidays are about taking a day off in celebration, remembrance, or acknowledgment. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is the only federal holiday observed as a national day of service. In other words, today is a day to celebrate, remember, and acknowledge through engagement with the community as opposed to the couch. You may be out of the office, but there is so much other work to be done.


This is the 30th anniversary of the day honoring the activist, clergyman, and iconic civil rights leader, who was gunned down in Memphis, Tenn., at the age of 39. The day is meant to empower individuals and communities, and to create solutions to social problems. From community gardening to clean-ups to food service for the hungry, we know damn well there's far more to be done than we could hope to accomplish in just one day. But this one day is a good time to start.

Read more: Cities, Living, Politics


In Detroit, automakers gear up to meet new fuel-efficiency standards

Alan Baum has to shout into the phone for me to hear him over the cacophony of the Detroit Auto Show, which opened Monday. Around him, thousands of journalists swarm from one new car to the next, lights flash, DJs spin, and the cream of the world’s automotive crop glistens. “A lot of show and not a lot of substance,” Baum, an industry analyst, jokes.

Just to look around at the “performance” cars on display here, from hulking pickups to lightning-fast sports cars, you might not be able to tell that this is the first major car show in Detroit since the introduction last fall of President Obama’s new fuel-efficiency standards, which will require all cars and light-duty trucks to operate at 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025, nearly doubling current requirements, a move the administration predicts will save Americans nearly $2 trillion at the pump. The cars below are a few being featured this week in Detroit that are already taking steps in that direction.

The 2014 Corvette Stingray.
General Motors
2014 Corvette Stingray.

Let’s be honest: No one is buying one of these for the great gas mileage. It’s more like the car you fantasize about from the age of 14 and take a soul-sucking job on Wall Street just to afford. But the simple fact that the Stingray, one of the gas-guzzling belles of the Detroit ball, takes even one step in a green direction is a sign of how deep the efficiency paradigm has penetrated the auto industry, says Don Anair, an analyst with the Union of Concerned Scientists. Ironically, high-tech fuel-management equipment in the engine actually adds weight to a car that has traditionally tried to shave pounds wherever possible for the sake of speed.

While it’s true that the Detroit show has its of share super-green cars (like the futuristic Tesla Model X and a marked-down version of the classic Nissan Leaf), Baum says the real progress is on prioritizing fuel efficiency on updates to familiar models that used to be all about style or power. Fuel-efficiency standards and record-high gas prices be damned; in Detroit the floor is still packed with muscle-bound models, but a recent analysis by Baum’s firm found that from 2009 to 2013, the number of popular vehicles with improved fuel efficiency more than doubled, from 28 to 61, of which only a third are tiny subcompacts.


The problem wasn’t the green groups: What Skocpol gets wrong about the climate bill fight

A lengthy new study opinion piece aims to pin the blame for the failure of the climate bill on the environmental community. It has already resulted in head-exploding headlines like this one in The Guardian:


First, if we’re going to truly learn from this epic failure, let’s frame the issue fully, something Harvard political scientist Theda Skocpol fails to do in her incredibly long but oddly incomplete essay “Naming the Problem: What It Will Take to Counter Extremism and Engage Americans in the Fight against Global Warming” [PDF].

As readers know, I think the opponents of action -- the fossil fuel companies, the disinformers, the right-wing media, and the anti-science, pro-pollution ideologues in the Senate -- deserve 60 percent of the blame. The lame-stream media gets 30 percent for its generally enabling coverage -- see “How the status quo media failed on climate change” and "The media’s decision to play the stenographer role helped opponents of climate action stifle progress.” Then the “think small” centrists and lukewarmers get 5 percent for helping to shrink the political space in the debate (see here and here).

So we are divvying up the remaining 5 percent of blame between team Obama and environmental groups (along with Senate Democrats, scientists, progressives, and everyone else, including me). I’m not sure how much can be learned from the climate bill failure if your main focus is the elite environmental community. Skocpol does spend a lot of time discussing the Tea Party-driven extremism of the GOP, but, I think, drawing the wrong lessons.

Second, for that last 5 percent of blame, the lion’s share has to go to Obama (see “The failed presidency of Barack Obama, Part 2"). He is the agenda-shaper. He has the biggest megaphone by far. He made most of the decisive blunders (see below). But not according to Skocpol.


U.S. military gets serious about microgrids … which is more exciting than it sounds

The Department of Defense has bases in the U.S. and forward operating bases in theaters of war like Afghanistan. In both cases, providing reliable electricity, a strategic and tactical necessity for an increasingly wired military, is a challenge. One way the military is meeting that challenge is developing microgrids, which are way cooler than they sound.

The two types of DOD bases face the same challenge, but for different reasons. In Afghanistan, the diesel generators that provide electricity at bases are the top consumer of fuel on the battlefield. And it's not just any fuel, it's high-grade jet fuel, trucked into the country in caravans that cross treacherous, hostile territory and are frequently attacked. The "fully burdened cost" of that fuel -- the cost of the fuel plus the costs of transporting and protecting it -- can reach into the hundreds of dollars per gallon, especially at the smaller forward bases.

One way to reduce that fuel use is to generate more power on site, through distributed generation technologies like solar or waste-to-power plants. Another is to use that power more efficiently. And another is to network the base's power sources and loads together into a microgrid that can be managed intelligently. For the bigger bases, it means they can be self-sustaining and not rely on primitive grids. For the smaller units up on the front lines, there are "mobile tactical microgrids," which are small, modular systems that are easy to set up and disassemble, allowing a balance of connectivity and mobility.

Anyway, that's the battlefield microgrid stuff, and it's really cool. But I want to focus on the state-side "stationary" bases. As it happens, they are also plugged into a primitive grid -- namely, the aging, shaky U.S. power grid. The military doesn't trust it. It's one thing if you're at home and the lights flicker. It's another if you're piloting a drone strike by remote control and the lights flicker. So DOD is looking into microgrids for domestic bases too.