It’s Not Easy Being Green: The Top Five Green Stories for 2012

This has been submitted to the Lake County Record-Bee

 It’s Not Easy Being Green: The Top Five Green Stories for 2012

Tis the season for looking back on the previous year; here are my picks for 2012’s top environmental stories plus a bonus story:

1. California’s Cap and Trade Program Begins.

Global Warming

Global Warming (Photo credit: mirjoran)

As U.S. CO2 emissions hit a 20 year low, the California Air Resources Board began its cap and trade program by auctioning off allowances of one metric ton of CO2 equivalent (greenhouse gas – GHG). The goal of the California Global Warming Solutions Act (AB32), signed by Governor Schwarzenegger in 2006, was to bring statewide emissions down to its 1990 levels by 2020. Depending on who spun the story, the first auction, which raised significantly less revenue, than projected, was a qualified success or a fool’s errand.
There are two more auctions to go, but the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office estimates that the state may expect less than one-third of lawmakers’ budget projections.

 2. California’s Proposition 37 Ballot Initiative to Label Food Developed Using Transgenic (Genetically Modified) Methods Defeated.

While Europe looks longingly at the U.S. for our lack of labels on genetically modified crops, a ballot measure was solidly defeated that would have legislated more stringent requirements than Europe. Still, groups continue to fight to have labels placed on food that the Food and Drug Administration maintains is virtually identical to food that was developed through crossbreeding methods.
In other news, in October, Syrian President, Bashar al-Assad whose regime has slaughtered more than 33,000 people, issued a ban on GM food “to preserve the health of human beings.”

3. Earth Summit – Rio + 20.

Some 50,000 people including world leaders, bureaucrats, non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs), and others converged on hedonistic Rio de Janeiro last June to consider how to “reduce poverty, advance social equity and ensure environmental protection on an ever more crowded planet to get to the future we want.”

Since the data show those things happening without them, they cancelled their trips and did things that were more productive. Not.

4. Italian Scientists Sentenced for Failing to Predict Earthquake.

Rubble on a car
The Italian courts sentenced six Italian scientists and a civil servant to six years in prison and $10 million in fines for failing to communicate the magnitude of risk before the 2009 L’Aquila earthquake that ultimately killed 309 people. The prosecution contended that people were ill prepared due to the seven downplaying earthquake risk following several minor tremors in the area.

Expect scientists and civil servants now to err with reports of direr consequences for any and all events. One-tenth inch of light rain predicted? Close all roads and evacuate the county. We cannot be too cautious now can we?

5. Extreme Weather Events.

From the U.S. drought to megastorm Sandy, it was a year of proofs in the media that catastrophic global warming is occurring due to our releasing carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere. BusinessWeek ran an article, “It’s Global Warming, Stupid.”
Time magazine had an article that said, “In Africa, drought continues for the sixth consecutive year, adding terribly to the toll of famine victims. [Recent] record rains in parts of the U.S., Pakistan and Japan caused some of the worst flooding in centuries.”
The Time article was written in 1974…about a coming Ice Age.
“Extreme events, like the recent U.S. drought, will continue to occur, with or without human causation,” John R. Christy, PhD, Alabama State Climatologist stated in testimony to congress. Roger Pielke Jr., professor of environmental studies, notes, “Flooding has not increased [in the United States] over the past century, nor have landfalling hurricanes.” Pielke adds that, even with this year’s drought, droughts have decreased over the past 100 years.

Because our climate and our earth’s weather have always been in flux, preparedness is our best strategy. Just like earthquakes, extreme weather events happen from time to time. We have seen them in the past; we will see them in the future.

6. Bonus story: December 21, 2012 – The Mayan Apocalypse.

The Mayan calendar ended on the winter solstice in 2012, which, naturally meant the world was ending then. Did you really think that a people who did not predict the conquistadors’ invasion could predict the end of the world?
See you next year.
Sources/Further Reading:

  • Is Weather More Extreme In A Warmer World? The Answer is in the Ice. (EnergyTribune.com)
  • The Birth of Carbon Pricing and Delivering California’s First ‘Climate Dividend’  (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/mike-sandler/california-carbon-pricing_b_2205089.html?ncid=edlinkusaolp00000003)
  • Today’s Tornado Outlook: High Risk of Global Warming Hype  http://www.drroyspencer.com/2011/05/todays-tornado-outlook-high-risk-of-global-warming-hype/
  • Guest Commentary: Climate spin is rampant – The Denver Post http://www.denverpost.com/opinion/ci_21752735/climate-spin-is-rampant#ixzz2FR3VI9aN
  • “Another Ice Age?” Time. June 24, 1974 http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,944914,00.html#ixzz2FhLcAdhM
  • “First cap-and-trade auction a bust for California budget.” November 21, 2012. http://blogs.sacbee.com/capitolalertlatest/2012/11/first-cap-and-trade-auction-a-bust-for-california-budget.html

 

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What the Frack? U.S. CO2 Output the Lowest in 20 years.

Natural Gas Usage

Natural Gas Usage (Photo credit: drbrain)

“The best is the enemy of good.” – Voltaire

Good news travels slowly, if at all. Given headlines of the century you might think that good news does not exist. A newspaper will not stay in business without readers—and they need drama to get readers—so even good news often gets described as bad news.

At the risk of biting the hand that nourishes me, here is a pretend headline from real data to show you how it works: “Rate of cancer deaths no longer falling rapidly for women.” Note that the rate is still falling and certainly not rising; it just is not falling as fast for women as it is for men. (By the way, deaths from cancer are much lower for women.) The point is that news outlets do not make money on cheery stories.

Since good news gets downplayed you may have missed a story about a drop in carbon-dioxide outputs in the United States. Why is a lowered CO2 output good news? Because CO2 is a greenhouse gas that most climatologists agree contributes to the warming of the earth, lowering CO2 then is thought to lower the risk of catastrophically heating our planet.

Skeptical Environmentalist, Bjorn Lomborg wrote about the drop in CO2 output, “Carbon-dioxide emissions in the United States have dropped to their lowest level in 20 years….The reduction is even more impressive when one considers that 57 million additional energy consumers were added to the US population over the past two decades. Indeed, US carbon emissions have dropped some 20% per capita…”

To achieve a 20 percent drop in CO2 emissions, we must be using more energy produced by renewable resources, such as wind, solar, and hydro, and burning less fossil fuel right?

No, but given public discussion, it is easy to see why one might think that. After all, we hear that renewable energy is essential to preventing catastropic climate change.

“[T]he numbers clearly say otherwise,” wrote Lomborg. Renewables need backups because the wind does not always blow nor does the sun always shine. Consider “Denmark,” wrote energy expert Robert Bryce, “the poster child for wind energy boosters, more than doubled its production of wind energy between 1999 and 2007….[Yet] carbon dioxide emissions from electricity generation in 2007 were at about the same level as they were back in 1990, before the country began its frenzied construction of turbines.” And, Denmark’s population has not really increased, whereas the US population has grown 24 percent.

Not everyone cheers our achievement. Why not? Partly because we are still among the highest per capita emitters in the world and partly because of how we did it. We did it the old-fashioned way—we burned it.

The US is substituting cheaper natural gas instead of coal to generate electricity and some environmentalists have problems with that: 1) the way natural gas is extracted from the ground and 2) natural gas is still a fossil fuel.

First, the way natural gas is taken from the earth uses a process called hydraulic fracturing (also known as “fracking”). Fracking has been around for sixty years; but has become more sophisticated in the last ten years. Water and chemicals are forced at high pressure to break up rock formations that hold natural gas in the earth. In a few cases, hydraulic fracturing has contaminated groud water supplies.

Second, burning natural gas to power electric generators is not free of CO2 emissions, just fewer. Burning natural gas releases about half the carbon dioxide that coal does. Using natural gas instead of coal has lessened other pollution as well. By using natural gas we are NOT sending tons of radioactive substances along with mercury into the air that burning coal would.

Robert Bryce sums up the choice to burn fossil fuel this way: “(Our political leaders) want to replace high power density sources that are dispatchable, reliable, and relatively low cost with low power density sources that are not dispatchable, highly variable, and high cost. This makes no sense. I’d call it insane but it’d be an insult to crazy people.”

Remember, “The best is the enemy of good.” Natural gas may not be the best solution to our power needs. But, for the moment, it is certainly better than others and not crazy.

Bibliography

Bryce, R. (2010, April 25). Five myths about green energy. Retrieved April 25, 2010, from WashingtonPost.com: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/04/23/AR2010042302220.html

Hvistendahl, M. (2007, December 13). Coal Ash Is More Radioactive than Nuclear Waste. Retrieved Ocotber 19, 2012, from Scientific American: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=coal-ash-is-more-radioactive-than-nuclear-waste

Lomborg, B. (2012, September 13). A Fracking Good Story. Retrieved September 13, 2012, from project-syndicate.org: http://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/a-fracking-good-story-by-bj-rn-lomborg

National Cancer Institute. (2012, March 28). National Cancer Institute. Retrieved October 19, 2012, from Report to the nation finds continuing declines in cancer death rates since the early 1990s: http://www.cancer.gov/newscenter/newsfromnci/2012/ReportNationRelease2012

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Biofuel: Exacerbating the Food Crisis

The percentage of deaths related to malnutrition have declined over the past 40 years. In 1970, approximately 33% of the developing world was malnourished. In 2010, approximately 20% of the developing world is poorly nourished. If we were to put our concern toward micro and macro nutrition and less emphasis on greenhouse gas output, the improvement might even be greater. Dithering over GhGs with schemes such as biofuel ends up hurting those it is supposedly meant to help. Biofuel production steals from food production.

About 5 per cent of the world’s grain production is now going to make motor fuel rather than food, with the result that rich farmers like me get better prices, but poor Africans pay more for food. Yet that 5 per cent of world grain has displaced just 0.6 per cent of world oil use, so biofuel is hurting the patient without even stopping the nosebleed.- Matt Ridley, The Tourniquet Theory

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