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  • By naming the root cause behind food crises, we stand a chance at solving them

    This is a guest post by Cary Fowler, executive director of the Rome-based Global Crop Diversity Trust and co-author of Shattering: Food, Politics, and the Loss of Genetic Diversity.

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    Southern Africa, 2030. A throng of emaciated people waits for food rations to arrive. The maize crop has failed, devastated by hot weather and drought. Yet again. A "food crisis?" Yes. That's what we'll call it in 22 years.

    But not today. If we want to do something about future food crises, we should name them today, and name them properly. Problems unnamed or improperly named are problems left unsolved.

    In many cases, what we call food crises are more precisely thought of as crop-diversity crises. That's what history's most famous "food crisis" -- the Irish potato famine -- really was.

    A paper recently published Science -- abstract here -- by a group of scholars with whom the Crop Diversity Trust collaborates, predicts a drop in maize (corn) yields of 30 percent in southern Africa by 2030 as a result of climate change, unless new climate-ready varieties of maize are developed. A huge drop in production of the region's most important food crop will bring instant famine.

  • Against the so-called 'need' for new long-distance, high-voltage transmission lines

    The following is a guest post from Carol A. Overland, a utility regulatory attorney and electrical consultant based in Minnesota and Delaware, representing clients in energy dockets including transmission projects, wind, gas and coal gasification generation, and nuclear waste.

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    towersTransition ... transmission ... transition ... transmission ...

    That old Bowie hook is on my mind as I represent individuals, community organizations, and local governments opposing high-voltage transmission lines. Today we're at a crossroads in energy, a transition point where the decisions we make, like electricity itself, are binary. What we choose will determine how we use electricity in the future. The first step is to carefully define "need."

    Transmission doesn't produce electricity. It is passive infrastructure that just sits there, conducting energy from one place to another. At its worst, though, it's an enabler of dysfunctional energy planning and profit-driven projects that are against the public interest. Claims that we "need" transmission are end-stage conclusions of a many-step planning process that we as a society have not yet consciously begun.

    "Need" is a term of art, and the crucial task for energy planners is to define the need. We need energy when we flick the switch, and when we do, that's a utility's need for service of local electrical load. We also need renewable generation, and we have an equally compelling need to reduce the CO2 emissions, pollutants, and toxic waste of electrical generation (a need not readily recognized in energy planning). Energy planners plan for peak "flick of the switch" need, those few very hot summer days or very cold winter nights. How much "flick of the switch" energy do we need? It depends.

    Prior to assessing local load-serving need and making demand projections -- before "need" is considered -- the first and unarguably least-cost step is conservation. We can easily make up for an annual projected increase in demand of 1.5 percent through conservation, and can probably cut today's "need" by 10 percent or more, though compound conservation gets more difficult as we cherry pick the easy stuff. The next step before analyzing need is to enact energy efficiency, demand-side management, and load-shifting to cut the peaks and level out the dips. This is also a comparatively least-cost means of meeting demand.

    When that's done, and not before, it's time to assess our need for electricity -- the supply side. Utilities, which are in the business of selling electricity and building their infrastructure -- for which we pay, routinely promote sales and exaggerate growth in demand. Because of their overstatements of need in similarly recessionary times, we overbuilt in the 1970s, to the extent that many proposed plants were ultimately canceled. Still so much was built that we haven't needed much utility infrastructure since. We've been through this before, and should be mindful in making investments.

  • The prospects for ocean protection under a new president and Congress

    This is a guest post by David Helvarg, an author and a coordinator of the upcoming Blue Vision Summit in Washington, D.C. His next book is Rescue Warriors: The U.S. Coast Guard, America's Forgotten Heroes (May 2009).

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    America now has, among other historic precedents, its first bodysurfing president. Of course, protecting the ocean (71 percent of the planet's surface and 97 percent of its livable habitat) is still not likely to be the top priority of Hawaii-raised Barack Obama. He's got more than enough policy challenges for his first weeks in office, with the collapse of a world economy based on American consumers buying stuff, two ongoing and intractable wars, and the civilization-ending threat from fossil fuel-fired climate change.

    Still, healthy oceans and coasts are essential to the nation's economy, security, and stability. About half of America's GDP is generated in its 600 coastal counties (which are home to $4 trillion of insured property). And to some degree, everyone is at risk from the cascading marine ecological disasters of overfishing (loss of food security), nutrient and plastic pollution (public health threats), coastal sprawl (increased risk of disaster), and climate change (big increased risk of disaster).

    The first sign of hope is the new president's insistence that change has to come from bottom-up engagement of our citizenry. On Martin Luther King's birthday, the night before the inauguration, some 300 people participated in a seaweed shoreline restoration in my Bay Area neighborhood of Richmond, Calif., and about half of the participants had heard about it on an Obama-linked volunteer website.

  • NRDC responds to criticism of USCAP's Blueprint

    This is a guest post from David Hawkins, director of the climate program at NRDC, in response to Joe Romm's post "CAP and degrade," which criticized the U.S. Climate Action Partnership's Blueprint for Legislative Action.

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    Joe,

    You are and will remain a respected friend. As an author and blogger, you call it as you see it on what needs to happen to emissions and our energy system if we are to avoid a climate catastrophe. And you do a great job at it.

    We at NRDC have another job. We must do what has to be done to move this Congress to enact climate protection legislation that will change overnight the kinds of energy and other investments that are made, start the innovation engine spinning, bend our emissions down without further delay, and show the world that the U.S. has emerged from its cave of inaction.

    We are buoyed by President-elect Obama's commitment to act but we will need action from Congress as well. The new Congress contains a growing number of climate protection champions but it also contains a core of obstructionists bent on using every tactic to block any action, other members who think global warming is not enough of a problem to warrant any real change, and members who are inclined to be helpful but not if it involves spending much political capital as they see it. We don't have time to change who the members of Congress are; we need to change the way current members think about this issue.

    There are a number of ways to move Congress to act and NRDC is pursuing all that we believe will help. One important way is to engage deeper and broader support for action from the U.S. business community -- a community that until recently was dominated by outspoken opponents of any action to cut global warming pollution. The USCAP Blueprint you attack is an effort to get major American business leaders, joined with a number of U.S. NGOs, firmly committed to working to get this Congress to pass climate protection legislation. It is part of a process designed to make good legislation possible.

    This past Thursday, the business members of USCAP testified to Congress that action by Congress is urgent, not only to protect the climate but to provide a foundation for economic recovery. Their testimony powerfully challenged those members of Congress whose mindset is still that we cannot afford to act now because they think climate protection means economic sacrifice. The business leaders' testimony was "yes we can" take action to protect the climate and it will help the economy, not hurt it. The members of USCAP will be a strong force and voice for action in the weeks and months ahead. Without those voices NRDC believes action in Congress would be slower and less effective than it has to be to protect the climate.