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Tag: "environment"

Had A Nice Day?

[ 30 ] July 19, 2012 |

No? It was scorching hot and dry, even if humid? Hard to imagine why, given that this week’s drought update shows the nation in officially the worst drought of the 21st century. An amazing 42% of the nation is in Severe Drought and 14% in Extreme Drought, according to the National Drought Mitigation Center.

The full report here.

Personal Experience and Environmental Change

[ 180 ] July 18, 2012 |

As we see during most heat waves, the number of people who believe climate change is happening peaking. During cold spells in the winter, the number dives. This reminds me of one of the biggest problem in creating long-term environmental reform–everybody believes their personal experience in the norm. There’s a Facebook cartoon I’ve seen a couple of people put up recently that tells everyone to shut up because it’s the summer and it’s supposed to be hot. Well, no. Or at least not like this. 2012 is almost certainly going to go down as the hottest year in the history of the United States. Most of the other leading years are also in the very recent past. There has basically never been a heat wave in the history of this country like the current one plaguing the eastern half of the country for the last month.


But we very quickly internalize this as normal.

This isn’t just climate. I was talking to a environmental scientist friend of mine recently who recalled a conversation with the owner I think of a timber operation. The guy didn’t understand why he needed to comply with stormwater drainage regulations. He said the rivers turn brown anyway. And my friend was like, that’s not natural! It’s the result of logging and erosion and other issues. But if you see it for more than a short time, you can easily internalize it and assume that you are not responsible.

That’s hardly a recent phenomenon. Whites moved onto the western Great Plains in large numbers in the late 19th century. Places like western Nebraska and eastern New Mexico became exciting spots to start a farm. It seemed like a great idea at the time because there was enough rain. Everyone assumed there would always be enough rain. But the 1880s and 1890s were unusually wet decades and when the land dried up, it became impossible to live out there. That’s why you see so many abandoned buildings in these places–they are the homesteads of people from 50, 70, 100 years ago who finally gave up on the land. Plus the farming out there had major environmental impacts, particularly the plowing of the sod to plant grains. When the drought came, nothing grew and the soil blew away, leading to the Dust Bowl.

I’m not sure what you do about this. But it’s really really hard to create policies to fight climate change when we assume our own experiences are normal. Combine this with the right-wing propaganda machine telling everyone climate change is a liberal myth and you have a recipe for doing nothing.

Forest Fires and Exurban Housing

[ 84 ] July 12, 2012 |

The Times hosted a “Room for Debate” about forest fires. They address it in a silly way, asking “Does the Government Cause or Prevent Wildfires?” Um, both? Also, wrong question.

The fundamental problem is that wealthy people have moved to the forest edge, built large homes without proper vegetation clearance to protect those homes from the common fires in dry-land western forests, don’t want to pay taxes or serve in rural western volunteer fire departments, and demand full service from the government for every little problem they have. This latter point is getting to be a bigger deal every year–since it is mostly those past middle age with the money to buy land in the mountains outside of Denver, the need for medical services in remote places grows precipitously. But I’ll leave that aside for now. And then there’s climate change exacerbating the situation.

The government has played a role in making the problem worse through a century of fire prevention that was unnatural and created an overgrowth of vegetation that has allowed superfires to develop. But that’s not just the government–the timber industry lobbyed around this ideology that all fires must be suppressed. And today, with ecologists and botanists suggesting that foresters manage the forest in a more historically natural way, austerity-loving Republicans, often from the states where these fires take place, have decimated funding for both controlled burns and fire-fighting. For instance, the air fleet we use to fight fires is laughably old and many of the planes are quite dangerous and should not be flying. Of course, there’s no plans to replace them since there’s no money in the budget.

Briefly going through the contributors to the Times debate, H. Sterling Burnett is a timber industry hack and employee of the Heartland Institute who argues that more logging would solve our problems. Uh, no. Steven Pyne is an environmental historian of an older generation whose denigration of cultural history alienated me a long time ago; he calls for a middle ground between environmentalists and development makes more sense on a theoretical level than a practical one. In any case, saying more grazing is part of the answer raises a lot of red flags. On the other hand, I find myself agreeing on a certain level with libertarian Randal O’Toole for Christ’s sake (at least if you strip away all the anti-regulation howlers), who says that if you move to the edge of the forest, it’s your responsibility to save your own home. Obviously I don’t go that far, but he is right that these people who choose to live with national forests as their backyards have to understand that there could be consequences for that decision.

I am more comfortable with the arguments of the others. Carolyn Kousky points out that federal fire suppression efforts serve as a subsidy for rural development in high fire-risk zones, something that Mike Davis also pointed out in his seminal essay “The Case for Letting Malibu Burn.” Molly Mowery correctly notes that urban (or exurban I guess) planners need to center fire prevention in building codes. And Kevin Boston rightly calls for better forestry policy, which would solve a lot of problems but is also very expensive to implement given the state of the forests, a point also noted by Marc Johnson.

I don’t imagine I write anything that get less comments here than my posts on land management and forestry policy, but this stuff is extremely important. As we’ve seen in Colorado this year and Texas last year and who knows where next year (or later this summer), out of control forest fires cause immense human tragedy, are hugely expensive to taxpayers who subsidize federally declared disaster areas, and devastate parts of our beautiful nation in ways that traditional fires rarely did. Thinking about fire policy in conjunction with urban planning is part and parcel in thinking about how to run our nation intelligently.

Black Lung

[ 70 ] July 9, 2012 |

NPR, along with Ken Ward at Coal Tattoo, provide the day’s most powerful and disturbing story: the return of black lung disease to coal miners.

Despite the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969, which was groundbreaking workplace safety legislation, not only have coal miners been exposed to insane amounts of coal dust, but federal regulators and the coal industry have known about this for 20 years.

What has happened?

First, even though the total number of people employed by the coal industry has declined precipitiously, the average hours for coal miners still working has gone up by 11 hours a week over the last 30 years. That’s a terrible thing for many reasons, but, as the NPR story states, it exposes workers to 600 hours of additional coal dust exposure per year.

Second, new technology has vastly increased the amount of coal mined, putting more dust in the air and thus making workers’ lives more dangerous.

Probably the biggest issue is that the mine owners resist every move to test for black lung. Like industries around the country, the coal mining capitalists have attempted to take control of the regulatory process in order to roll back the protections miners have made. They are less successful during Democratic administrations, but quite successful when Republicans are president.

Ward also makes a big deal about labor rejection of black lung testing from Democratic administrations for being too weak, but I don’t see this as a big deal. Given how little Democrats listen to labor on every other issue, I don’t see much evidence that labor anger over lax testing systems would cause Democrats to abandon them. While Ward is usually quite good, his piece has a Both Sides Do It theme that is unwarranted here. The problem with black lung codes is not that the union cares about its members too much.

In any case, if the goal of industry is to return the United States to the Gilded Age, killing coal miners with black lung is a pretty good way to do it.


[ 201 ] July 2, 2012 |

Noted climate Maoist Bill Nye strikes CNN with his clearly partisan interest in “science” and “truth”

Science educator Bill Nye on Monday told CNN that they weren’t doing the public any favors by giving climate change deniers equal airtime because “the two sides aren’t equal.”

“There are a couple of things that you can’t really dispute,” Nye explained to CNN’s Carol Costello. “Sixteen of the last 17 years have been the hottest years on record. That’s just how it is.”

“I appreciate that we want to show two sides of the stories — there’s a tradition in journalism that goes back quite a ways, I guess — but the two sides aren’t equal here. You have tens of thousands of scientists who are very concerned and you have a few people who are in business of equating or drawing attention to the idea that uncertainty is the same as doubt. When you have a plus or minus percentage, that’s not the same thing as not believing the whole thing at all.”

But I thought both sides were responsible?

Colorado is the Future

[ 50 ] June 29, 2012 |

There’s no way to know whether the fires ravaging Colorado are caused by global warming per se. Similarly, there’s no way to know whether the all-time high temperatures expected to be set in cities in the Midwest and South over the next few days are caused by global warming. Or the all-time warm winter and spring many states experienced this year.

But scenarios like what we are seeing in Colorado are precisely what scientists expect to happen quite frequently in the near future:

Scorching heat, high winds and bone-dry conditions are fueling catastrophic wildfires in the US west that offer a preview of the kind of disasters that human-caused climate change could bring, a trio of scientists said on Thursday.

“What we’re seeing is a window into what global warming really looks like,” said Princeton University’s Michael Oppenheimer, a lead author for the UN’s climate science panel. “It looks like heat, it looks like fires, it looks like this kind of environmental disaster … This provides vivid images of what we can expect to see more of in the future.”

H/t Inside Climate News


[ 10 ] June 23, 2012 |

Not surprisingly given the world’s collective decision to do nothing of value to fight climate change, the Rio+20 conference was a complete flop. Given the almost nonexistent media coverage, it seems everyone assumed this would be the outcome from the beginning.

A Problem with GDP as a Measure of Growth

[ 39 ] June 22, 2012 |

Connie Hedegaard, the EU Commissioner for Climate Action, had a piece in the Guardian a few days ago on the urgent need to combat climate change. She’s completely right of course but basically nobody cares enough to really do much about it. Still, I want to focus on one particular aspect of her argument:

The traditional way of measuring economic growth based on GDP alone is not sufficient. GDP is nothing more than a measure of production. It takes no account of human wellbeing or natural wealth.

For example, GDP gives no value to a forest until it is chopped down and turned into timber. Likewise, natural disasters that kill people and destroy infrastructure and cultural heritage are positive for GDP because the reconstruction works that follow boost economic activity.

Putting a price on environmental pollution is also crucial to building a sustainable model for global growth. The cost of production cannot be the only factor determining the price of a product. The true cost of its environmental impact also needs to be factored into the price if people are to have an incentive to buy the least harmful and resource-intensive products available.

That is why the Global Sustainability Panel report recommends that, by 2020, all governments establish price signals that value sustainability. This would help guide the consumption and investment decisions of households, businesses and the public sector in a more sustainable direction.

This makes a lot of sense to me. I feel like statistics like GDP or housing starts (another pet peeve of mine) are the RBIs of economic statistics. They measure something useful, but they are hardly the best way to understand the economic health of a society. They measure immediate and short-term gains fairly well but fail miserably at understanding the long-term effects of economic decision making.

Take housing starts for example. Seeing housing starts as a key measure of economic growth does effectively measure short-term employment because construction can employ a lot of people. But is a robust housing market good for our economy in the long-term? This statistic does not measure the enormous investments in roads and other infrastructure needed to sustain suburban communities where most housing starts take place. It doesn’t measure the pollution outputs that drag down the economy through health problems. It doesn’t take into consideration the wasted time commuting to a job. Moreover, it doesn’t even begin to ask the question of whether more housing is a good thing or even necessary.

For similar reasons, I approve of Hedegaard questioning the value of GDP in a world where we need to worry about climate change, which will have massive negative economic effects.

Jay Rockefeller Calls Out the Coal Industry

[ 38 ] June 20, 2012 |

Jay Rockefeller deserves major kudos for finally calling out the coal industry for lying to workers and the state that the EPA and environmentalists are costing coal jobs:

This EPA rule – two decades in the making – also moves utility companies ahead on employing technologies that will help guarantee coal jobs well into the future. Some utilities, including some in West Virginia, already have invested in technology and are ready to comply with the rule.

But across our state, there also are smaller, older and less efficient coal-fired plants slated for closure, not because of EPA regulations alone, but – as corporate boards decided long ago and companies themselves will tell you – because they are no longer economical as compared to low-emission, cheaper natural gas plants.

I remain deeply concerned about job losses. And I believe we need not only an immediate plan for job transition opportunities, but also a renewed and collective focus on the future – on the jobs that will come with new manufacturing and next generation technology.

In West Virginia, we need allies – not adversaries. But coal operators have yet to step up as strong allies and partners ready to lead, innovate and fight for the future.

Instead of moving the conversation on coal forward, some in the industry have demanded all-or-nothing, time and again, for the ill-sighted purpose of a sound bite or flashy billboard. These efforts make no progress, they don’t pursue attainable policy change, and they certainly don’t create or save jobs.

Change is upon us – from finite coal reserves and aging power plants, to the rise of natural gas and the very real shift to a lower-carbon economy.

Denying these factors and insisting that the EPA alone is going to make or break coal is dishonest and futile. Feeding fears with insular views and divergent motivations will leave our communities in the dust.

West Virginians deserve better.

Damn right they do.

Pittsburgh, 1940

[ 65 ] June 4, 2012 |

In 1941, Pittsburgh passed a smoke control ordinance. Retronaut has a good collection of photographs suggesting why it was needed.

Of course, this is also the Republican vision for our future air quality.

This smoke was no joke. It could be fatal, especially given the mountains and valleys of western Pennsylvania that trapped the smog. The most notorious incident was the Donora Fog of 1948, which killed 20 people in a mill town outside of Pittsburgh.


California Fracking

[ 126 ] May 31, 2012 |

The California Senate has rejected a fracking bill that seems like common sense:

Under Pavley’s bill, oil companies would be required to give 30 days notice to land owners whose property line or residence is within 300 feet of a fracking operation. The firms would also have to notify local governments and water boards. The state’s oil and gas agency would then post the information on its website.

Does anything about this seem onerous to you, even if you support lightly regulated production of energy in a manner that has unknown consequences? All the companies would have to do is tell property owners and local governments what they are going to do.

Oh hell no.

Republicans characterized the bill as a job-killing regulation for an industry that employs many Californians. “This bill is nothing more than to slow down oil and gas production in California,” said state Sen. Jean Fuller (R-Bakersfield).

I suspect the issue of public knowledge is the real heart of the opposition. If people know where fracking is taking place, they can monitor it. And the gas industry certainly doesn’t want that.

The Last Days of Appalachian Coal

[ 10 ] May 31, 2012 |

Eric Lipton’s feature on the decline of coal in Kentucky is interesting, though flawed. He tells a heartbreaking story for these coal miners, helping us understand just how deeply people in eastern Kentucky believe in coal. Even if other economic opportunities appeared in the region, a lot of people just don’t want to imagine a world not dominated by coal. Of course, the fact that the coal industry has ruled this area as a feudal domain for a century doesn’t help.

Both Lipton and the Kentucky coal operators are giving environmentalists too much power. The idea that environmentalists can set policy in 2012 is pretty laughable and flies in the face of a huge amount of evidence. Environmentalists can be a useful ally if more powerful players want something to happen. New York and Chicago are moving away from supplying power through coal because Bloomberg and Emanuel want it to happen. Sierra Club lobbying might be making a difference but they are hardly, say, passing national legislation or even state-level legislation on these matters. Environmentalists are an easy target. And by including pollution controls on new coal-fired plants, they have raised the cost of doing business. But environmentalists are an easy target that ignores what’s really going on.

And that’s fracking. The economics of natural gas just make a lot more sense. And for as horrible as fracking can be (and for all the problems we have ignored while just plowing ahead), it is almost certainly better for everyone with a stake in energy than coal, except for the coal miners themselves. Natural gas is tremendously efficient for home heating. It’s less dirty than coal. It doesn’t change the climate as quickly. And it’s just a lot cheaper at the present time. Even if you don’t have the pollution controls on new plants, coal can’t compete with natural gas right now.

And one issue the article elides is the fact that Americans are still mining enormous amounts of coal–but it is increasingly in Wyoming instead of Kentucky and West Virginia. Lipton mentions the overseas market for coal, especially in Asia. But high-quality coal seams are disappearing in Appalachia; after over a century, it is finally drying up. So the ability of Appalachia to transition to an overseas market is limited. The companies know this and they are invested whole hog in western coal.

Ideally, the government would step in here like Bill Clinton did during the spotted owl crisis. Settling the issue more or less in favor of environmentalists, as needed to happen, Clinton also ensured significant federal aid and job retraining programs to people who lost their jobs. But there’s no way that is going to happen in 2012. Loggers in 1993 weren’t any much pro-Democratic president than coal miners are today. But Oregon and Washington also had huge local constituencies who wanted to see old-growth logging on federal lands end and there’s just not that local community in Kentucky and West Virginia lobbying for the end of coal. It’s even more of an insider-outsider paradigm than the ancient forest campaigns proved to be. Even more important is the shrinkage of the welfare state and the overt hostility today to helping even white people, as opposed to the 90s when subsidies for poor white loggers were OK but welfare for black mothers was repealed.

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