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Sustainability and solutions

Nein Lives
Germany says auf Wiedersehen to nuclear power, guten Tag to renewables

Michael Levitin, Grist Magazine
For a people as addicted to order as the Germans, this country is floundering in uncertainty. The economy has sputtered to a post-World War II record 5 million unemployed. Chancellor Gerhard Schröder’s exhausted left-of-center coalition is close to coughing up the fall elections to conservatives. And soccer fans aren’t even sure if their team can defend the country’s pride when it hosts the World Cup next summer.

About the only thing most Germans are sure about right now is the dire need to abandon nuclear power, evidenced by the “Switch Off and Rethink” mantra stamped on billboards and in newspapers, buzzing from television sets, and crossing people’s lips throughout the nation. And tough policies enacted by the red-green government have laid an incredible groundwork for that move — not just for Europe’s wealthiest nation to become nuclear-free in the next 15 years, but for renewable-energy suppliers to double their output to provide one-fifth of Germany’s power within the same period. By mid-century, the country expects to derive more than half of its power from renewables.
(12 August 2005)

What We Don’t Eat: Revolting waste

Editorial, Seattle Post-Intelligencer
Here’s a little something that won’t do much for our image as a land of fat, wasteful morons: We waste about 40 percent of food grown here, tossing away about $100 billion a year into Dumpsters and landfills.

Think about the excruciating levels of famine and starvation in such countries as Niger, and then read the previous paragraph again.

Revolting, isn’t it?

Those numbers come from an eight-year study done at the University of Arizona, which found that Americans are clueless about the true value of food — the labor, fuel costs, etc.

Perhaps it’s our buy-in-bulk mentality, which reasons that if something seems cheap, then throwing it away isn’t a big deal. Stores and restaurants are just as guilty of wasting good food that only looks less than perfect. Even fast-food chains (where perfection is hardly the industry standard) trash 10 percent of their food.

“It’s staggering,” says Shelley Rotondo, executive director of Northwest Harvest, which operates a statewide food distribution network. “No one in our country should go hungry.”

And yet, they do. Washington state has been ranked 10th highest in hunger insecurity — a standard that measures our ability to access food. As it is, the organization distributes 18.5 million pounds of high-quality food — each year.

“We realize that 70 percent of the (donated) food we distribute is fresh produce … that would be otherwise going to waste,” says Rotondo. Imagine what they could do with another $100 billion.
(12 August 2005)
Similar articles have appeared recently about food waste in Great Britain and Australia.


Don’t blame the locusts
The crisis in Niger is not simply the result of swarming insects and drought

Jeevan Vasagar, Guardian
…This year, unusually, the shortfall in Niger has been devastating. The reason, analysts say, is not locusts or drought, which only dented last year’s harvest by about 11%. According to the Famine Early Warning System Network, a Washington-based group that tracks such crises, a major factor in Niger’s shortfall was the export of food to wealthier West African countries, driving prices in the market out of the reach of the poorest.

Subsistence farmers in Niger usually eat a great deal of the food they produce themselves. When they have surpluses, they sell some grain or goats to pay for weddings or to build themselves better homes.

And when their crop is hit by pests or lack of rain, they turn to the markets to buy extra food. This year, that option was denied them. Markets in towns like Tahoua are filled with sacks of rice and shiny piles of vegetables, but the prices are far beyond the wallets of the poor.

The Niger government offered food at subsidised prices, below market rates, but even this was too much for the very poor.

The medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres blames Niger’s pursuit of free market policies for escalating the crisis. The government refused to distribute free food in the worst-affected regions because they feared it would disrupt the markets, the charity says.

The comparison with Mali is instructive. Mali, which neighbours Niger, was also hit by locusts and drought after last year’s harvest. But the Mali government instantly handed out around 10,000 tonnes of millet, the staple crop, for free to the hardest hit. It has since organised the free distribution of a further 11,000 tonnes of millet.
(12 August 2005)

Errors found in analysis of data used to discount global warming

Andrew C. Revkin, New York Times via SF Chronicle
Some scientists who question whether human-caused global warming poses a threat have long pointed to records that showed the atmosphere’s lowest layer, the troposphere, had not warmed over the last two decades and had cooled in the tropics.

Now, two independent studies have found errors in the complicated calculations used to generate the old temperature records, which involved stitching together data from thousands of weather balloons lofted around the world and a series of short-lived weather satellites.

A third study shows that when the errors are taken into account, the troposphere actually got warmer. Moreover, that warming trend largely agrees with the warmer surface temperatures that have been recorded and conforms to predictions in recent computer models.

The three papers were published Thursday in the online edition of the journal Science.
(12 August 2005)

Crazy weather may be a sign of worse to come
In a possible preview of the future, the West’s weather turns topsy-turvy

John Krist, Tidepool
…Regardless of what the calendar says, meteorologically it’s April here in the mountains of Northern California. It’s not uncommon to encounter unsettled conditions in the Cascades and Sierra Nevada in early summer, but our trip south from Portland has provided ample evidence of a season more unsettled than usual.

After a topsy-turvy winter, in which a vagrant jet stream funneled moisture-heavy storms directly into Central and Southern California rather than along their usual course through Oregon and Washington, the West Coast finds itself greeting an unusual summer: no snowpack in the Pacific Northwest, twice the usual snowpack along California’s mountainous spine.

Short-term weather patterns should not be confused with long-term climate trends. Yet it’s worth thinking about the odd pattern of precipitation that marked this past winter and spring along the West Coast, for it is a reminder of how even a technologically sophisticated civilization relies on nature for essential resources. It’s a reminder, as well, of how fickle nature can be, with potentially far-reaching consequences for those dependent upon its gifts.
(5 August 2005)

The Right to be Cold
Ice is not all that’s going to disappear as the climate warms

Sheila Watt-Cloutier, Orion
…This Inuit hunting culture faces possible oblivion. It is changing rapidly as a result of globalization and insatiable worldwide demand for energy and minerals. Inuit are working hard to find our rightful place in this new world order, a place that affords us self-respect and security and in which we contribute solutions to a world seeking a balance between development and sustainability. We don’t want to be saved; we attempt at all times to work from a position of strength, and refuse to be or to act as powerless victims.

Our struggle to thrive in the harshest of environments has given us what we need to survive in the modern world; our struggle now with environmental degradation leads us to address monumental challenges that threaten our way of life. In the 2001 Stockholm Convention, we persuaded nations to ban the generation and use of persistent organic pollutants, such as DDT and PCBs, that contaminate the Arctic food web. We are pressing now for an amendment to the United Nations Climate Change Convention to acknowledge the vulnerability of the Arctic.

The Arctic is more affected than other portions of the globe by climate change. Last year a path-breaking assessment of Arctic change, published by the eight-nation Arctic Council, concluded that summer sea-ice likely will virtually disappear by the mid- to late-twenty-first century. Polar bear, walrus, and some seals and marine birds face extinction. Already, as warming weakens sea ice, hunters face a growing risk of falling through and drowning.
Sheila Watt-Cloutier is chair of the
Inuit Circumpolar Conference, which represents 155,000 Inuit in Canada, Greenland, Alaska, and the Russian Far East.

(July-August 2005 issue)

Ranking of Top Corporate Air Polluters: Toxic 100 Index

Staff, Environmental News Network
AMHERST, Massachusetts — Researchers at the Political Economy Research Institute at the University of Massachusetts (PERI) announced that their ranking of top corporate air polluters will now be called the Toxic 100.

The complete list can be found here: Toxic 100.
“The Toxic 100 informs consumers and shareholders which US corporations release the most toxic pollutants into our air,” says James K. Boyce, director of PERI’s environment program. “We measure not just how many pounds of pollutants are released, but which are the most toxic and how many people are at risk. People have a right to know about toxic hazards to which they are exposed. Legislators need to understand the effects of pollution on their constituents.”

The Toxic 100 index is based on air releases of hundreds of toxic chemicals from industrial facilities across the United States. The rankings take into account not only the quantity of releases, but also the relative toxicity of different chemicals, nearby population, and other factors such as prevailing winds and height of smokestacks. The Toxic 100 index identifies the top air polluters among all corporations that appear in the Fortune 500, Forbes 500, and Standard & Poor’s 500 lists of the country’s largest firms. The Toxic 100’s top five are GE, Georgia-Pacific, Eastman Kodak, Boeing, and US Steel. …
(12 August 2005)

W. Nile’s toll on birds is soaring (US)
The yellow-billed magpie could disappear as virus spreads in north state.

Deb Kollars, Sacramento Bee
As West Nile virus has moved into Sacramento County with a vengeance, it has killed thousands of birds and left wildlife experts worried about the survival of one of Northern California’s more striking and clever birds: the yellow-billed magpie. …

The emerging concerns about birds came as mosquito control experts prepared for a second night of aerial spraying in southern Sacramento County. They also announced that infected mosquito counts were rising in Yolo County and may require insecticide treatments in populated areas in future days – most likely with ground rigs on city streets. …

The district is doing the treatments to stop the spread of West Nile, which is passed by infected mosquitoes. …

This summer, the mosquito control district has been using ground rigs to control mosquitoes in cemeteries and parks in various Yolo County locations, as well as the fairgrounds in Woodland. Agricultural areas of Yolo County have been receiving regular aerial sprayings, as they do every year, Brown said.

As of Friday morning, the district had spent about $400,000 on plane and materials costs for four nights of spraying. The district has about $1 million in reserves to cover all spraying costs. …
(13 August 2005)