Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Arctic ice melt changing global thermostat

(Images of Arctic sea ice thickness over the years from Flickr and climatesafety.org)

While many are skeptical the Earth is warming, the Arctic is one place where the change is very evident. But some say there could be advantages to melting summer ice there – ships can take a shorter route over the top of the globe, massive oil and gas reserves are more accessible. Maybe Arctic melting isn’t all bad, they say.

But does what happens in the Arctic stay in the Arctic?

Probably not, says NOAA. Melting sea ice there seems to be affecting weather patterns around the world, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s 4th annual Arctic Report Card.

Changes in the Arctic are “messing with the thermostat for the whole globe,” said Richard Spinrad, assistant administrator of NOAA. The report card compiles the work of 71 scientists in nine countries.

They found climate change was affecting the Arctic is many ways:
• Declining summer sea ice
• A shorter snow season
• Rising land temperatures
• Warming permafrost, which stores methane
• Changes in habitat and numbers of polar bears, walruses and seabirds.

Summer Arctic sea ice hit a historic low in 2007 and has come back a bit the last two summers, which has skeptics saying, “See. There’s no global warming.”

But what’s new and perhaps more important is the thinning of perennial ice, not just that which melts in the summer and then comes back in fall. The average thickness is down 2.2 feet between the 2004 and 2008.

The summer sea ice melt causes more open dark water, which absorbs heat and then sends it back into the atmosphere in fall. This cycle is sending land temps up, letting trees grow in the tundra farther north and affecting atmospheric circulation as far south as middle North America.

As old, thick sea ice goes away and is replaced by more fragile first-year-ice, new climate patterns are being set up, says oceanographer James Overland. “It changes everything,” he told ClimateWire.
• The ocean surface is warmer and less salty
• Greenland is melting
• Siberia has more runoff
• There’s less snow in North America

So, what happens in the Arctic won’t stay in the Arctic. We’d all better take notice.

To read more and see slideshow go to NOAA's Web site

(Sources: ClimateWire, NOAA)

Dog and cat carbon pawprints larger than autos?

(Photo of my BFF Princess Kitty)

Disturbing news. House pets like dogs and cats cause more CO2 emissions than driving a car. See why at Reuters PlanetArk .

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Protest today at ancient coal plant making Chicagoans sick; EPA and state sue owner

(Photo of Climate Action Day demonstration near Fisk coal plant in Chicago, by Earthling Angst. See more International Climate Action Day photos from around the world.)

A lump of coal in your stocking if you’ve been bad. That was the threat at Christmastime when I was a kid. Now we’re learning that coal was worse than we thought. It heats up the planet and makes people sick. It kills people.

So it was fitting that the Chicago protest today, on International Climate Action Day, was at the filthy, ancient Fisk coal-fired electric plant, which along with it’s sibling, Crawford, sits in the heart of Chicago’s mostly Hispanic neighborhoods. The final slap in the face is that it isn’t even supplying electricity to the area. It’s sending it out of state.

But Mayor Daley and the City Council seem oblivious to Fisk and Crawford while they try to maintain Chicago is one of the “cleanest, greenest” cities in the nation.

Health hazard
Fisk and Crawford are responsible for 2,800 asthma attacks, 550 emergency room visits, and 41 premature deaths a year, according to the Sierra Club.

A study of 9 coal-fired plants in Northern Illinois by Harvard’s School of Public Health says together they cause 21,500 asthma attacks each year. Chicago has twice the national rate of asthma, according to the Environmental Law and Policy Center. Asthma is a serious and sometimes fatal disease.

Fisk and Crawford, owned by Midwest Generation, were last upgraded in the 1950s, ELPC says. Midwest Generation also has plants in Peoria, Joliet, Waukegan, Pekin and Romeoville.

Lawsuit filed
A coalition of health and environmental organizations held a news conference at Fisk in late July, saying if the EPA did not act to stop repeated violations of the law, they would file suit against the company in 60 days. The main complaint was that the plants have been spewing excessive quantities of particulates (soot), far more than is allowable by law. Throughout the Bush years, the EPA gave the plants a free ride.

However, the current EPA director Lisa Jackson and Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan responded by suing Midwest Generation themselves.

Environmental groups have long wanted to shut the plants down. One Chicago alderman said at the rally he will introduce an ordinance at the City Council to do just that. Meanwhile people who live near the plants continue to get sick.

(Sources: Sierra Club, Environmental Law and Policy Center)

Monday, October 19, 2009

Better learn what EV is. You may be in one soon.

(Photo of Chevy Volt from Flickr and Passion84Photos/Robert Heese.)

EV … PHV … These terms may soon be as familiar as SUV. Also, Volt, Leaf, Tesla and Fisker. This is the fast-approaching world of electric cars and plug-in electric hybrids.

Just about every auto company is working on one … or two, including some entrepreneurs. With government incentives, they expect a surge in sales, perhaps enough to meet Obama’s campaign goal of 1 million on the road by 2015. A Berkeley study shows that with a nationwide battery lease and swap program, EVs and PHVs could be 86% of the new-car market by 2030.

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act provided $2.4B to develop plug-ins and advanced batteries. There will be a $7,500 tax credit for the first 200,000 sold. DOE so far has loaned $529M to U.S. entrepreneur Fisker to develop 2 plug-ins, and $8B to Tesla (also U.S.), Ford and Nissan North America.

Coming to market soon
* GM’s Chevy Volt, Fisker’s Karma, Mitsubishi’s i-MiEV and China’s BYD EV should be for sale here by late next year.
* Ford’s all-electric Focus and Tesla’s Model S are looking at 2011.
* Nissan-Renault’s Leaf, Toyota’s plug-in Prius and electric iQ, and all-electric Smart car are due in 2012.

Tesla has already sold 700 of its pricey 2-seater Roadster and is working on a 4-seat luxury car and a delivery van. India’s Reva NXR begins production next year but it’s unclear when it might be available here.

Problems to overcome
The main hurdles are cost, range and infrastructure. And they’re related. At this point the lithium-ion batteries make the cars expensive. Most of the cars include a battery though some are planning on a leasing process.

Chevy Volt, Karma and China’s BYD EV are priced at about $40,000. Renault says its Fluence will be the cheapest because its Better Place batteries will be separate (at a cost of about 250 euros a year). Tesla’s $100,000 Roadster is being driven by movie stars and the like. China’s BYD F3DM, already being mass produced, sells there for $22,000. American investor Warren Buffet has a stake in BYD. Most car-makers are being cagey about prices.

Charge it, please
Range is an issue to balance against cost. Nissan would like Leaf to have a 100-mile range, Volt can go 40 miles without gasoline kicking in, and Toyota sees a range of 10-15 miles for its Prius plug-in, to keep the size of the battery down and cut the cost.

While many of the cars can be plugged in at home overnight, people in apartment buildings don’t have the same access, so charging networks need to be set up. Better Place is leading that fledgling industry and setting up networks in the San Francisco Bay Area, Hawaii, Denmark, Israel and Australia.

Around the world
Iceland is putting up its own nationwide charging network, hoping its entire population (310,000) will go electric by 2012. France has the same aim and will invest $2.8B. They’ll buy 50,000 EV fleet cars by 2015, and expect 100,000 on the road that year.

Germany is investing $750M and wants to have a million cars on the road by 2020. And Denmark expects about 50 charging stations in Copenhagen in time for the climate summit this December. Delegates will have access to some Renault EVs. And not to worry. Electric cars park for free.

To see more of the cars and learn more about EVs see Plug In America and it’s electric vehicle tracker.

(Sources: ClimateWire, PlanetArk, Greenwire, Guardian, LA Times, dailygreen.com, Bloomberg, Business Week, E&E Daily.)

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Will Kerry-Graham pact weaken climate bill?

(Photo of Capitol lost in smoke from Flickr and Capitol Climate Action)

Is the Kerry-Graham alliance a “game changer” in the hunt for 60 votes to pass a climate bill, or does it mean a watered-down bill that will have little impact on climate change?

In case you missed it, Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), in a New York Times op-ed piece this week, touted cap-and-trade along with more nuclear power, offshore drilling and “low-carbon coal,” as if there is such a thing.

I know we may have to toss a bone to the fence-sitters to get anything passed, but do we have to give them the whole cow?

I’m conflicted about nuclear power in the climate change debate. The fact that I’ve lived with it uneventfully in Illinois for decades may have something to do with it. But mainly, it doesn’t emit CO2. So I see it as the lesser of evils, compared with fossil fuels.

I know there are fearsome environmental concerns. But so are there with coal (ash, air and water pollutants, mountain-top removal) and with off-shore drilling (spills endangering coasts and wildlife). And sequestered CO2 from coal, if it’s feasible, has the risk of bubbling up and killing people.

Natural gas isn’t half bad (literally – it produces 50% of the CO2 in coal) and so is preferable among the fossil fuels.

Future is solar and wind
But we must keep our eye on the future, which is wind and solar (and things not yet in play). We need to get there as quickly as possible.

Nuclear should not be classified as a “renewable energy” as some moderates Dems want, and included in a renewable electricity standard (RES). If the final bill tosses a bone to the oil patch and coal interests to get passed, it should be insignificant compared with curbs on GHG, efficiency and incentives for true renewable energy.

Why do we need more oil anyway, if demand in the industrialize world peaked 4 years ago, as a research report revealed this week? The oil companies want to sell it to developing countries where the need is growing. But that means the U.S. public won’t benefit, just the multinational oil firms. Besides, Boxer notes, oil companies have leases they aren’t even using.

And lest we forget, a 2006 law already expanded drilling off 4 gulf states.

Hearings to begin
Barbara Boxer, chair of the Senate Environment Committee, begins hearings Oct. 27 on the Kerry-Boxer bill (not to be confused with the more conservative Kerry-Graham non-bill). That bill can probably pass out of committee with no drilling provision because it is heavily Democrat. We need to let Sen. Kerry know we much prefer Kerry-Boxer. He seems to have abandoned it already.

One bone of contention will be the so-called “border tax” – a tariff on imported items made under less stringent environmental conditions. Several Midwest senators, led by Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), are intent on protecting the manufacturing base in their states, and jobs. That’s a bloc of about 10 votes, Brown says. He also wants help for manufacturers to retool, as the House bill has.

On the opposite side of the trade issue is Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) who says he won’t accept a bill with a border-tax.

This battle is far from over. It's just beginning.

(Sources: ClimateWire, Greenwire, E&E New PM)

Today is Blog Action Day for climate change.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

States see linked wind farms along East Coast

(Photo of offshore wind farm built in 2000 off Denmark from Flickr and United Nations photos.

I spent many days swimming and fishing on East Coast as I was growing up – summers in Rhode Island, occasional trips to Long Island or Fire Island, N.Y., and visits to grandparents in Florida. I still make frequent trips back to what feels like home. I love the Atlantic seaboard.

Fast-forward and envision a chain of interconnected offshore wind farms up and down the coast supplying much-needed power to the New England and Mid-Atlantic states. A source of electricity that doesn't release greenhouse gases.

I would much rather live with offshore wind turbines than offshore drilling platforms or belching coal plants. I saw the graceful, slow-turning turbines off Denmark a few years back – didn’t even know what they were, but they didn’t seem like an eyesore. And the vision is that these farms will be so far offshore you'll scarcely be able to see them, if at all.

Given the need for clean energy, I’ve been rooting for Cape Wind off Nantucket during it’s 8-year battle for approval, which is still going on. (Even Ted Kennedy said “not in my backyard.")

Wave of the future
So I was happy to see in September that some East Coast states, from Maine to Maryland, are joining together to develop a vibrant wind industry off their coastline. They have formed what they call the U.S. Offshore Wind Collaborative.

One goal is to get R&D funding to develop floating turbines that can function in rough seas and deep water far off the coast – beyond the horizon. That could take time.

Meanwhile the states are motivated to cooperate rather than compete, and to come up with a network of windfarms connected on the ocean floor by a shared grid that goes to onshore substations near cities needing power.

Many reasons to do it
There are, of course, practical reasons for these states to work together:
• They import most of their power from the Midwest.
• The population is too dense to put windfarms on land.
• By working together they can reduce costs, cut through red tape and have an influential national voice.
• They can develop a strong offshore wind industry for the U.S., after ceding the onshore business to Europe years ago.
• They can, hopefully, speed things up so they can meet their self-imposed goals for renewable energy.
• The strongest, most reliable wind is offshore and the supply is endless.
(A curious difference about Europe’s offshore wind business versus ours. Their water is shallower so they’ve been able to adapt land towers for the sea, while we will need deeper water turbines if we want to place them some distance off the coast.)

Meeting last week
At the Clean Energy Summit in New Jersey last week, the states continued their talks. They will lobby together for an extension of the wind production tax credit beyond 2012. They will share public financing, technology and transmission lines. They'll work together to minimize environmental impact. (Yes there could be an impact on birds and marine life, but weigh it against the damage acidification from CO2 is causing oceans right now.) The states are even exploring the idea of making utilities buy a portion of their energy from offshore wind farms.

They said they will be able to save on costs and provide green jobs sooner than if each state proceeded on its own.

Many have already selected sites that meet state criteria. But the approval process involving the federal government is a complex one they hope to fast track, by agreeing among themselves.

Already underway

Several individual projects are already in the works:
• Cape Wind’s planned 130 turbines
• Delaware’s 450mw Bluewater Wind Co. project
• New Jersey’s work with several developers to produce 350mw
• Maine’s plan to test deep-water technology at 5 sites.
Rhode Island, Maryland and New York also are working on plans.

States have the right to put turbines up to 3 miles offshore, but the states want the federal government to begin issuing ocean floor leases for wind development beyond the 3-mile limit. Far better than issuing oil and gas leases.

(Sources: ClimateWire, usowc.org, NY Times.)

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Thursday, October 08, 2009

Civilian Conservation Corps could help our National Parks fight ravages of climate change

(Photo of endangered pika in Canadian Rockies from Flickr and photographers Lara and Chris Pawluk.)

It’s time to create a new Civilian Conservation Corps to work in our understaffed, underfunded National Parks. The CCC of Franklin Roosevelt’s time put hundreds of thousands of young unemployed men to work in the parks. It’s unlikely we could do anything on that scale, but with unemployment high and the parks threatened by everything from climate change to careless use and lack of maintenance, they could do a lot of good – both for the parks and for themselves.

Climate change is the greatest threat to the parks and it's already having an impact. Warmer temperatures, erratic weather and water shortages are taking their toll on glaciers, trees, wildlife and plants. Ecosystems are changing and big adjustments must be made to fight invasive pests and help wildlife migrate away from the Equator.

Parks are in danger
A new report from the Rocky Mountain Climate Organization and Natural Resources Defense Council tallies current disruptions and threats for the future:

• Beetle infestations to whiteback pines in Yellowstone have put grizzly bears back on the Endangered Species list because they feed on nuts from those trees.
• Joshua Tree National Park is losing its Joshua trees.
• Glacier Park is losing its glaciers (they’ll be gone in about a dozen years), as are Mt. Rainier, Yosemite and others.
• In Rocky Mountain National Park nearly all mature lodgepole pines have been killed by beetles.
• The pika, a cute little animal that lives at cool, high elevations, is nearly extinct, while sea turtles, Florida panthers, bighorn sheep and salmon are among threatened species.
• 1,000 trout succumbed to heat in a Yellowstone river in 2007.
• 50% of the coral in Virgin Islands National Park have died since 2006.
• Low-lying and coastal parks and monuments, such as Acadia, the Everglades, Biscayne and Dry Tortugas are threatened by rising seas. So are Ellis Island and even the Statue of Liberty.
• And parks in the Southwest are forecast to eventually have 100+ days over 100 degrees each summer – including Big Bend, Joshua Tree, Lake Mead and Saguaro. That alone would keep the visitors away, aside from the damage it wreaks on the landscape.

What to do about it
The report recommends expanding the parks, opening new ones and creating migration corridors to let plants and animals adapt to changing conditions. Each park should have a specific plan to protect at-risk resources. Air quality in the parks should be better protected; with more heat, ground-level ozone will be a health hazard. Some endangered parks should charge an entrance fee to help pay for adaptation. And all parks should be carbon neutral to do their part toward fighting climate change, following the lead of the Pacific Northwest.

Certainly a group of bright, unemployed men and women could help with the planning and labor. Let’s put them to work and kill two birds with one stone. (An unfortunate metaphor. But you know what I mean.)

(Sources: rockymountainclimate.org, ClimateWire)

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Pollution is bad; cap-and-trade is ... confusing

(Photo of Wyoming power plant from Flickr and photographer Kenneth Hynek.)

In a stroke of genius Sen. Kerry (that’s John, D-Mass.) switched out the term “cap-and-trade” for “pollution” in the Senate climate bill unveiled this week.

Everyone recognizes pollution is bad (except maybe some who produce it). You can see pollution and smell it – though maybe not the kind of pollution we’re talking about. But the association is there in most minds – pollution casts a cloud over cities, causes asthma and heart attacks, makes water undrinkable and unswimmable.

Greenhouse gases are as dangerous as other types of pollution, but you can’t see, smell or taste them and that’s a problem. Plus, who but the financial traders really understand cap-and-trade?

We need to forget "global warming" and "climate change" and call it what it is – pollution – so that people will care. Because we’ll need a lot of public support to balance out the special interests whose oxen are being gored.

Clean Energy Jobs and American Power Act
Kerry and Senate Environment Chair Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) unveiled their bill Wednesday to start Senate debate. It’s a little different from the House-passed bill in several respects:
• It calls for 20% reduction in GHG in 2020 (as opposed to 17%).
• It offers incentives for natural gas, the least hazardous of the fossil fuels, and more loan guarantees for nuclear.
• It allows states and regions to continue their own cap-and-trade until after the federal law is implemented.
• It doesn’t interfere with the EPA’s regulation of carbon dioxide in power plants and heavy industry, as the House bill did. But Kerry has already admitted that might be used to get fence-sitters to fall on their side.

On the fence
Speaking of fence-sitters, there are about 21. They include Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who has gone all mavericky on what he used to espouse. His pal and former climate co-sponsor Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) said this bill has to be changed (read: weakened) to get 60 votes. (60 is the new 51.)

The Kerry-Boxer bill isn’t going anywhere fast, which is more than too bad. That will hurt the possibility of reaching international agreement in Copenhagen. Which means we are stopping the whole world from fighting GHG pollution.

Maddening Max and Blanche
The bill now has to wait for the Finance Committee to figure out how to dole out allowances. (Unlike the House, the Senate bill left that part blank.) And we all know Finance Chair Max Baucus (D-Mont.) knows how to drag his feet. He’s already said this is likely to wait till next year.

And then there’s new Agriculture Chair Blanche Lincoln (R-Ark.), who will have at it too. She doesn’t have very nice things to say about cap-and-trade and is the one of the bluest of the Blue Dog Democrats. In the House, the Ag chairman was able to hold up that bill and almost kill it getting concessions his rural constituents wanted. How did Lincoln get to be Ag chair anyway? When Ted Kennedy died, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) moved over to head the Health committee and I guess Lincoln was next in line. Too bad.

We’re still embroiled in health care reform and, unlike the president, the Congress – especially the Senate – doesn’t seem able to walk and chew gum and the same time. So it’s likely that the bill will be slow walked until the year is ended, Copenhagen over, and 2010 elections on the horizon.

We need to push hard now. Call your senators. Tell them to fight pollution by passing a strong climate bill by the end of the year.

(Sources: ClimateWire, Sierra Club, Reuters Planet Ark, League of Conservation Voters)

Why is Europe so much greener than the U.S.?

(Photo of Copenhagen from Flickr and photographer Adamina. Denmark has one-third our per capita CO2 emissions.

I can't improve on the Reuters Planet Ark story so I'll just link you. .