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Solutions and Sustainability

Heaven Help Bus
A visit to Iceland spurs dreams of a hydrogen future

Bill McKibben, Grist

I have seen the future, and it works.

The 111 bus rolls quietly up to the Mjodd terminal in eastern Reykjavik at 11:19 a.m., and I climb aboard. For 45 minutes, we cruise through the suburbs and then to the central square downtown, picking up and discharging eight passengers along the way. Fuel cells that would have filled the space of several passenger seats five years ago are now small enough to fit in the roof panels. And out the exhaust pipe: a trickle of water.

…You think: maybe this is doable. Maybe there really are some silver bullets out there that will help us wean ourselves off fossil fuels before it’s too late.

And then you think some more.

For one thing, hydrogen makes enormous sense — in Iceland. Because Iceland is, in essence, a nation-sized science-fair project. Everything is steaming, puffing, erupting, geysering. This means there’s an almost inconceivable amount of renewable energy waiting to be tapped.

…in most of the rest of the world, people who talk about a hydrogen economy are talking about using some hydrocarbon — natural gas, usually — as their feedstock. Better than driving around on oil, but not incredibly better.

You can imagine renewable systems elsewhere — the solar panel on your roof, the windmill on the ridge — making the clean electricity needed to produce hydrogen, but for a long time to come that clean electricity will be needed simply to displace the dirty electricity we’re already making.

…Will China and India and the rest of the developing world tilt toward a European mix of public and private, or toward the American denigration of everything communal, be it buses or medical care? If there were technological silver bullets, it might not matter — if we all had vast geothermal reserves to cleanly provide as much energy as we wanted, then it’s possible to imagine an SUV future. But since we don’t, culture will matter as much as technology.
(19 July 2005)

Don’t Get Fresh With Me!

Julie Powell, NY Times (Op-ed)

SOME are depressed by the sun deprivation of winter; my anxiety peaks instead at the height of summer. This isn’t some sort of seasonal affective disorder-in-reverse. My worsening temper can be calibrated precisely not to the longer days but rather to another unrelenting symbol of the season: the blossoming farmers’ market I walk through in Manhattan’s Union Square. I confess that half an hour browsing in that utopia of produce – or the new Whole Foods Market at the square’s south end – often leaves me longing for the antiseptic but nonjudgmental aisles of low-end supermarkets like Key Food or Western Beef.

Don’t get me wrong: I love a big, ugly tomato as much as the next girl. I buy my fair share of pencil-thin asparagus and micro-greens, and I’m sure if ever I were to stand in an orchard and taste a peach picked during one of its two days of succulent perfection, I would find it one of life’s greatest joys. Perhaps one day I will – if I move to California, where life is apparently just one great organic cornucopia. But even in that exceedingly unlikely event, I’ll remain a bit suspicious of this cult of garden-freshness.

…The key principle of the movement is to “treat fine ingredients with respect.” A worthy goal, surely, as is providing healthful food for children and resistance to genetic engineering, antibiotics and hormones. It seems churlish and wrong-headed to mock this dedication; it’s like sneering at puppies or true love or democracy. And yet, as admirable as these efforts are, there remains buried in this philosophy two things that just get my hackles up.

The first and most dangerous aspect is the temptation of economic elitism….

Cooking is one of the few actions that verifiably separates us from other animals, and its universality brings us together. This is a sentiment that’s been treasured since the dawn of cuisine by people who value the art of eating. And it’s not only the ingredients – be they delicate heirloom tomatoes or the stalwart hothouse kind – that we share when we eat well together. There is also the love and creativity and work we combine them with – those human qualities that transform food into cuisine, and eating into a pleasure.
(22 July 2005)

Will quantifying industrial symbiosis improve the world?

Kellyn S. Betts, Environmental Science and Technology Online

Over the past decade, the notion that industries can function like biological ecosystems has gained an increasing amount of serious attention. Central to the growing discipline of industrial ecology is the idea that one business’s waste can become another’s “food”-and that increasing the cycling of materials, water, and energy puts businesses on the path to sustainable development. But industrial ecology suffers from a lack of hard data on the advantages of the mutually beneficial exchanges that have become known as industrial symbiosis.

For that reason, research published today on ES&T’s Research ASAP website (es050050+) is significant because it comprehensively documents both the environmental and economic benefits of a nascent symbiotic network. For example, corresponding author Marian Chertow and her colleague Rachel Lombardi of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies quantify the benefits that accrue because a Chevron Phillips Chemical Co. petrochemical refinery in Guayama, Puerto Rico, purchases steam from a nearby coal-fired power plant-rather than generating it via old oil-burning boilers. This study also raises questions about how governments can actively encourage industrial symbiosis.
(19 July 2005)

Bringing organic farming down to earth

Deborah K. Rich, SF Chronicle

Liza Buckner runs the gardening program at St. Anthony’s Farm, a residential treatment facility for recovering drug and alcohol addicts outside Petaluma.

She and a host of other graduates of a six-month apprenticeship program on the farm and in the gardens of UC Santa Cruz have a commitment to sustainable agriculture and gardening.

Over the nearly 40-year history of the Santa Cruz program, apprentices have come from all parts of California, from across the country and from overseas (though fewer come from abroad now that visas are more difficult to obtain after Sept. 11). All different ages, with advanced degrees and no degrees, but with a very clear idea of why they paid more than $3,000 to serve as an apprentice.

…UC Santa Cruz’s Apprenticeship in Environmental Horticulture evolved from student interest in the 3-acre garden installed on campus by Alan Chadwick in the late 1960s. Using only hand tools and organic soil amendments, Chadwick molded a steep hillside near what was then the center of campus into a highly productive vegetable, fruit and flower garden.

UC Santa Cruz students were drawn to Chadwick — recalled by those who knew him as an inspiring and mercurial figure — and to his garden, which was organic and filled with heirloom plants long before most understood the significance of the terms. Volunteering to work alongside Chadwick, some students began to spend more time learning how to double-dig flowerbeds than with their formal studies elsewhere on campus. These volunteers became the nucleus for the formal apprenticeship program that would take shape over the next five to six years and expand to include a 25-acre organic farm on campus.

Today, the apprenticeship program provides an opportunity for students to work with a handful of organic horticulture and sustainable agriculture masters.
(16 July 2005)

Horse-and-Plow Farming Making a Comeback

Joseph B. Frazier, Associated Press via Yahoo! News

SISTERS, Ore. – To some, the thought of a farmer patiently working the field behind a horse and plow might evoke pangs of nostalgia for the early days of agriculture. But in fact, the practice is making a comeback.

Ol’ Dobbin hasn’t run the tractors out of the fields yet. But increasingly, small farmers are finding horse-powered agriculture a workable alternative to mechanization.

…Horse farming was common until the end of World War II, when the government and manufacturers started promoting mechanization to soak up the surplus industrial capacity, Miller said.
(22 July 2005)

Students Flock to Campus Organic Farms

Julia Silverman, Associated Press via Common Dreams

CORVALLIS, Ore — Plenty of college kids still subsist on a steady diet of ramen noodles, cold cereal and beer to wash it all down. Not Nate France. The crop and soil sciences major at Oregon State University here wouldn’t dream of following the well-beaten path to the local Carl Jr.’s for cheap, mammoth burgers.

Instead, every Thursday afternoon until the sun sets, France helps till and tend to a pocket-sized, student-run organic farm on a couple of soil-rich acres just outside this western Oregon college town.

“I sowed some corn while it was raining, and then I tamped down the soil too much — it caked up, hard as a brick, and the corn plants couldn’t come up,” said France, 27, who dreams out loud about farming his own land someday. “This next time, I know to mix manure in. This is like a trial by fire, a way to make mistakes before it matters too much.”

In the last decade or so, student-run farms have cropped up across the country, at almost 60 schools in 27 states. Foodies call it the latest sign of the seasonal, regional food movement’s influence, even on a collegiate landscape that’s virtually paved with Hot Pockets, Pop Tarts and leftover pizza.
(22 July 2005)


Scientist testifies on global warming

John Heilprin, Associated Press via ENN

WASHINGTON – Global warming is caused primarily by humans and “nearly all climate scientists today” agree with that viewpoint, the new head of the National Academy of Sciences – a climate scientist himself – said Wednesday.

Ralph Cicerone’s views contrasted with Bush administration officials’ emphasis on uncertainty about how much carbon dioxide and other industrial gases warm the atmosphere like a greenhouse.

…Last month, the National Academy of Sciences — an independent organization chartered by Congress to advise the government on scientific matters — joined with similar groups from 10 other nations in calling for prompt action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Those nations were Brazil, Britain, Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Italy, Japan and Russia.
(21 July 2005)

Warming Up to a New Task

Sam Howe Verhovek, LA Times

A frigid Alaska village, formerly a Cold War listening post, is now a research hub on climate change. Here, the effects come ‘fastest and first.’
BARROW, Alaska — It is an unlikely hub, this Inupiat Eskimo village at the northernmost tip of Alaska, 330 miles above the Arctic Circle.

Wind-swept Barrow, where houses are anchored on pilings driven into the permafrost and polar bears roam its fringes, is unreachable by road. From the air, it seems almost a mirage, a small, defiant human imprint flanked on one side by endless pancake-flat tundra and on the other by the vast Chukchi Sea.

But twice a day, at least when the weather is not too severe, an Alaska Airlines Boeing 737 drops down to the lone airstrip. As the jet disgorges one carefully wrapped scientific instrument after another from the cargo hold, the Wiley Post-Will Rogers Memorial Airport takes on the air of a bazaar, one whose currency is scientific knowledge.

Inside the cramped, bustling terminal, experts coming and going hail one another and trade notes on their projects, which measure changing carbon levels, melting ice, rising temperatures and a host of other striking physical changes here.

…For Alaskans, warming is a fact on the ground and in the sea. They see it in things such as the sagging ground above the permafrost — the frozen subsoil on which their homes and water pipes stand — and the breakaway sea ice from which seal and bowhead whale hunters have sometimes had to radio for a rescue.

Average temperatures in Barrow are up 4 degrees over the last 50 years, and as much as 7 degrees in other parts of the Arctic, according to the multinational Arctic Climate Impact Assessment. The average rise across the globe is 1.5 degrees.

“There’s no question something is going on,” says Warren Matumeak, 77, an Inupiat elder.
(22 July 2005)
Long article.

A Bid to Chill Thinking
Behind Joe Barton’s Assault on Climate Scientists

David Ignatius, Washington Post

In today’s partisan political climate, science has inevitably become a political football. But I can’t remember anything quite as nasty — or as politically skewed — as Rep. Joe Barton’s recent attack on scientists whose views on global warming he doesn’t like.

Barton, an 11-term Republican from Texas, is chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee and one of the oil lobby’s best friends on Capitol Hill. Late last month he fired off letters to professor Michael Mann of the University of Virginia and two other scientists demanding information about what he claimed were “methodological flaws and data errors” in their studies of global warming.

Barton’s letters to the scientists had a peremptory, when-did-you-stop-beating-your-wife tone. Mann was told that within less than three weeks, he must list “all financial support you have received related to your research,” provide “the location of all data archives relating to each published study for which you were an author,” “provide all agreements relating to . . . underlying grants or funding,” and deliver similarly detailed information in five other categories.

The scientists’ offense was that they had authored a controversial study that reported a sharp rise in global temperatures during the 20th century, based on an analysis of tree rings, glacial ice and coral layers. The study was an important source for a 2001 report by the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that argued the 1990s had been the hottest decade in 1,000 years. A graph summarizing the sharp upturn last century after hundreds of years of flat temperatures became known as the “hockey stick,” and it has been derided ever since by skeptics.
(22 July 2005)
Does anybody remember Lysenkoism in the USSR during Stalin’s era? Political pressures on science set Soviet biology back decades. -BA

Let the Real Climate Debate Begin

Peter H. Gleick, Environmental News Network
The global warming debate is over – the Earth is warming because of human activities. So say 11 National Academies of Science from around the world together with virtually all of the world’s climate scientists, California Governor Schwarzenegger, and even most of major oil companies. And the American people, by an overwhelming majority, believe it’s time to take action.

For most climate scientists, this particular debate was over many years ago. The climate experienced by our children and grandchildren will be substantially different than it is today. Indeed, the next generations will see a climate unlike any since the rise of Homo sapiens.

Yet the facts about the sound science of climate change have been obfuscated by a tiny band of determined, vocal, and well-funded contrarians, with oil company support, the help of political editors of scientific reports inside the White House, and now politicians meddling with independent science. …
Stop playing politics with climate science. It is time for the real climate debate to begin. If politicians want to get involved in the debate – as they should – they should be asking: How bad are global climate changes going to be, what should be done about them, who should do it, and who should pay? Lots of science needs to be done, but the difficult challenges are social, economic, and political, are not scientific. …
Dr. Peter H. Gleick is a 2003 MacArthur Fellow, member of the US National Academy of Sciences Water Science and Technology Board, a lifetime member of the International Water Academy in Oslo, Norway, and President of the Pacific Institute, Oakland.
(21 July 2005)

US Senate Panel Begins Work on Greenhouse Gas Cuts

Chris Baltimore, Reuters via Planet Ark

WASHINGTON – A senior Senate Republican said on Thursday he will pursue legislation that may eventually require US industry to cut gases linked to global warming, a view sharply at odds with the White House and many other Republicans.

However, crafting legislation that would reduce emissions without being too costly to the US economy will not be easy, said Pete Domenici, chairman of the Senate Energy Committee.

The United States is the biggest emitter of carbon dioxide, one of several greenhouse gases blamed for melting glaciers and rising sea levels.

The New Mexico Republican said he believes temperatures are rising because of human activities. But Domenici faces an uphill battle with the White House and many fellow Republicans, who warn that mandatory caps on emissions could stunt US economic growth.
(22 July 2005)

Green groups target ExxonMobil in change of tactics

Bill Straub, Scripps Howard News Service via

Environmental groups, repeatedly finding themselves on the outside looking in on the Bush administration and chilled at the prospect of oil drilling in an Alaska wildlife refuge, are switching tactics and exerting pressure on ExxonMobil, the formidable oil giant they accuse of feeding the White House agenda.

The 12-member coalition, working under the umbrella campaign ExxposeExxon, is calling for a boycott of Exxon products and is urging people to reject job offers from a company that, the coalition asserts, is pushing for oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and seeking to discredit research into global warming.
(19 July 2005)

Alaska preserve hangs in the balance

Sabrina Eaton, Cleveland Plain Dealer

Record-breaking oil prices are adding fuel to a long-simmering debate on whether ANWR drilling would destroy priceless animal habitats for a relatively skimpy amount of oil or play a meaningful part in satisfying the nation’s energy needs. …
The oil industry predicts wells in ANWR’s coastal plain would produce more than 1.3 million barrels daily at their peak, an amount that exceeds Texas’ current output and approaches the amount of oil the U.S. imports each day from Saudi Arabia. The United States currently consumes about 20 million barrels a day. …
Drilling could be confined to 2,000 acres, advocates say.
But environmental groups like the National Wildlife Federation predict even the most advanced drilling techniques would rip up the tundra, disturb animal nesting sites and risk oil spills. They say the 2,000-acre figure is deceptive because drilling platforms would be spread throughout the 1.5 million-acre coastal plain, linked by roads, pipelines and processing facilities.

“Drilling proponents have compared the footprint oil development would have in the Arctic Refuge coastal plain to the size of a toaster in a four-room house,” says a National Wildlife Federation report. “A truer analogy is that it would look like spaghetti and meatballs splattered on the carpet.” …
(14 July 2005)

World Bank to Take Lead in New Climate Change Plan

Lesley Wroughton, Reuters via Planet Ark

WASHINGTON – The World Bank wants to bring together nations split over the Kyoto Protocol to work out a new plan that would remain effective long beyond the 2012 expiration of the climate change treaty.

Ian Johnson, the World Bank’s top environment official, said global divisions over climate change offer an opportunity for the bank to take a more prominent role on international policies.

Long a behind-the-scenes operator on such politically sensitive issues, the World Bank can assume a leading role on climate change because of how global warming will affect its biggest clients in the developing world, Johnson, vice president for Environmentally and Socially Sustainable Development, told Reuters in an interview on Wednesday.

…Johnson said the bank will serve as a global mediator on climate change, bridging the huge differences in approach between the developed and emerging countries, including India and China.
(21 July 2005)