The Green Economy Starts at Home

February 12, 2012

I’m digging into our kitchen garbage can to recover items that someone threw into the wrong bin. It’s become a ritual of sorts.

I find eggshells from this morning’s breakfast, a paper cup, a couple of torn plastic bags and a banana peel.

My husband rolls his eyes and says “yes, yes” as I start my lecture about how every little action counts.

We live in a country that produces more municipal waste per capita than most nations, and where nearly 66 percent of the 250 million tons of garbage we generated in 2010 ended up in landfills.

This is bad news because garbage dumps are a major producer of methane gas in the United States and many other countries. Methane is that often-overlooked greenhouse gas that is 23 times more powerful than carbon dioxide and thus a major contributor to climate change.

(Anybody noticed some strange weather lately?)

Thankfully, I happen to live in a town where a recycling truck does rounds every week to pick up cardboard, plastics, tin cans and other items destined for a second life. Leaves and other yard waste is collected separately and composted into mulch that is later sold back to home owners.

More than 40 percent of my town’s waste was recycled in 2011 through these voluntary programs, which everybody I know participates in.

It makes us part of a rapidly growing, green economy that is generating millions of dollars in revenue for forward-looking businesses and thousands of new jobs that didn’t exist 10 years ago.

Our milk cartons, wine bottles, magazines, and empty cans are hauled to a nearby recycling sorting plant owned by Waste Management, one of the largest garbage collection and recycling companies in the United States.

The 85 million tons of trash that were recycled or composted in the U.S. in 2010 kept about 186 million metric tons of greenhouse gases from being released into the atmosphere. That is equivalent to taking 36 million cars off the road for a year.

What’s more, some of Waste Management’s workers who are not already busy recycling are now in the business of turning landfill methane gas into energy or fuel for trucks.

Of course, the less garbage we generate in the first place, the better off our communities and environment will be.

It’s becoming increasingly difficult to build landfills in our country and for good reason. In the past, many dumps were located in poor and rural areas where people didn’t have the resources or power to fight pollution.

Environmental regulations of such facilities have increased, but people’s willingness to live next-door to a garbage dump has not.

This is where America’s growing, $14-billion recycling industry comes in. Worldwide, this industry is now worth $200 billion, on par with the gross domestic product of countries such as Portugal and Malaysia, the Bureau of International Recycling reports.

Those banana peel and egg shells I dig out of our kitchen garbage have a job, too. They end up in a compost bin in our back yard where food scraps are slowly transformed into rich soil for the garden.

The compost bin is my very own, green economy.

A New Mission

May 19, 2010

The time has come to retire this occasional blog, at least for now.

I’m so lucky these days because I get to work on climate change all day long – and I get paid to do it!

I can thank Barack Obama for my new gig. He came to town and gave all federal agencies, including the one I recently started working for, a new and important mandate: Tackle global warming, build an international dialogue, and let the scientists do their jobs.

Remember, the previous president had marched the United States out of the Kyoto Protocol – the only existing global warming treaty enacted thus far – and made it clear to the world the the United States couldn’t care less about greenhouse gas emissions wreaking havoc on Earth.

Well, that’s all water under the bridge now. I’m having a blast writing about species going extinct, a Senate energy bill that just won’t move, climate change nay-sayers — and all the wonderful things that people are doing anyway because they believe in science and want to do the right thing for the environment.

I don’t see so many wannabes anymore. Seems to me, people are either in denial or trying to advance the cause any way they can.

It’s them and us. And right now, we’re in power.

Accuracy, accuracy, accuracy

February 16, 2010

More than a century ago, a legendary New York City newspaper man by name Joseph Pulitzer famously barked “Accuracy, accuracy, accuracy!” at his newsroom staff.

He knew that a single incorrect report could undermine his newspaper’s credibility, and that getting the story right was more important than getting it first.

Unfortunately, the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change did not adhere to Pulitzer’s golden rule when it published its landmark 2007  global warming report. At least two seemingly inadvertent and inconsequential, but sloppy, errors in the report have fueled climate-change skeptics and thrown up roadblocks for a historic effort to curb greenhouse gas emissions in the United States.

No, there’s no evidence that the Himalayan glacier will melt by 2035, the IPCC had to admit last month. Nor have scientists been able to determine that Africa’s crop yield will be cut in half by 2020 unless steps are taken to curb global warming, as the group reported in its 2007 report.

Some members of the Geneva-based group have acknowledged that procedures for reviewing and including data in IPCC reports must be tightened. But the damage had already been done.

Today, the state of Texas challenged the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s finding that greenhouse gases are a hazard to people, saying the agency’s December finding was based on flawed science.

“With billions of dollars at stake, EPA outsourced the scientific basis for its greenhouse gas regulation to a scandal-plagued international organization that cannot be considered objective or trustworthy,” Texas Attorney General Abbott said in a statement.

“Prominent climate scientists associated with the International Panel on Climate Change were engaged in an ongoing, orchestrated effort to violate freedom of information laws, exclude scientific research, and manipulate temperature data…so EPA should not rely upon it to reach a decision that will hurt small businesses, farmers, ranchers, and the larger Texas economy,” he charged.

Texas, a major emitter of greenhouse gases, would probably have sued anyway. But IPCC’s errors gave the state a convenient argument at the right time.

Also today, three large energy companies – Conoco, BP and Caterpillar – pulled out of a coalition of corporations and environmental groups that is pushing Congress to pass a climate-change bill.

Among their complaints: The bill doesn’t do enough to promote natural gas as an alternative to carbon-based energy, and it will hurt the nation’s transportation sector.

Whatever goodwill there was for energy legislation this year seems to have eroded in a matter of a few weeks. Opposition against the bill is gaining steam, and we can thank some sloppy reporting for turning the clock back on climate change policy.

Doing your share, and nothing more

January 15, 2010

A Swedish reader of this blog made an interesting, albeit misguided, observation yesterday. He was responding to a blog entry about Swedes who are opposing the country’s ambitious build-out of wind power.

Because Sweden doesn’t release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere when producing electricity, he wrote, “wind mills wouldn’t make a difference in Sweden.”

Indeed, Sweden could serve a poster child in the global warming debate. All, but 4 percent of the nation’s power supply is generated by hydro or nuclear power.

It’s true that Sweden is a leader in clean energy production. Nearly all, 96 percent, of the nation’s power supply is generated by hydro power or nuclear plants. Moreover, the country has switched to become a net exporter of energy. This year, Sweden was projected to export 11.1 tWh of electricity, according to a recent forecast by the Swedish Energy Agency.

Clearly, the country is doing more than its share. Conclusion: No need for Swedes to invest in additional renewable energy – at last not from a global warming perspective. (They still have the headache of nuclear waste to deal with.)

But with all that electricity being exported — by 2030 as much as a quarter of the electricity produced by the Nordic kingdom will be shipped abroad, government forecasters predict — it appears those wind power stations are really doing some good. They might even close down a Polish coal plant or two.

That’s what I call doing smart business while addressing a global problem. Now who’s looking smart?

Who paid the Climategate scientists to lie?

December 10, 2009

We’re  held in suspense as the Copenhagen climate talks continue this week. Will the leaked e-mails from the East Anglia’s Climatic Research Unit, a leading climate-change research center, undercut and derail the summit? At a minimum, “Climategate” is proving to be a distraction when the world’s leaders meet to try to reach carbon-cutting goals.

Lots of people have been weighing in recent days. Ex-Alaska Governor and vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin called for President Barack Obama to boycott the meeting in an op-ed piece in the Washington Post today.

The leaked Climategate e-mails “reveal that leading climate ‘experts’ deliberately destroyed records, manipulated data to ‘hide the decline’ in global temperatures, and tried to silence their critics by preventing them from publishing in peer-reviewed journals,” Palin wrote. “The last thing America needs is misguided legislation that will raise taxes and cost jobs – particularly when the push for such legislation rests on agenda-driven science.”

And here’s John Lott with FOXNews commenting on the scientists whose private e-mails were hacked and displayed for the world to see:

“They were brazenly discussing the destruction and hiding of data that did not support global warming claims,” Lott reported, adding, “The academics here also worked closely with the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.”

They were, asserted Rep. John Linder (R-Ga.), “fudging the data.”

Ouch. Seems the world’s leading climate experts may have made it all up and even gotten the United Nations snowed. No wonder the e-mails have been labeled a scandal.

Except, why would the scientists concoct a story about climate change if it wasn’t true? Who paid those professors who spent months and years poring over climate data to cook their numbers?

Why would they conspire to try to fool the world?

We know and understand where the opponents to climate legislation come from. Unlike the professors, they have economic reasons for fighting cap and trade legislation, or any other government effort to curb emissions.

Large corporations that are forced to clean up their act have shareholders to answer to when profits decline. Switching to greener technologies will cause economic upheaval and  job losses. And rising energy prices will hurt – at least until we downsize our homes and cars.

But those scientists? Are climate theories bringing them fame and riches?  Let’s not fool ourselves here.

What’s wrong with these people?

November 4, 2009

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Less than a month after President Obama accepted the Nobel Peace Prize by noting that it was “an affirmation of American leadership on behalf of aspirations held by people in all nations,” Republicans have once again reminded the rest of the world why the United States is anything but a leader.

If it wasn’t so sad, it would almost be funny.

All but one Republicans boycotted the Senate hearings on a landmark climate change bill yesterday. The legislation would, finally, place the United States in sync with the European Union and other countries that long ago began addressing global warming.

Only one.

And Ohio Senator George Voinovich only showed up briefly to urge the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee to hold off on its hearings until the Environmental Protection Agency has finished its assessment of the legislation, CNN reported. This was, of course, just a stalling tactic since the committee was already planning to consult with the EPA before sending the bill to the full Senate.

I ran into a former neighbor at the bus stop the other day. He happens to working on climate change issues for the EPA, and believes that the Senate legislation will go nowhere, unfortunately. Why?

“Because this bill would require Americans to make some real changes to their way of life. And they’re just not ready to do so yet,” he said.

“But not doing anything about global warming will change our lifestyles, too,” I tried.

“Yes,” my former neighbor said, “but it will not affect us, it will affect our children — or their children.”

At Obama’s inauguration that frigid morning in January, anything seemed possible. The United States had finally gotten its act together and the Republicans — well, they seemed to have gone away. Or so we hoped.

Now they are back in full force, it seems, to stop progress wherever it surfaces. Because uniting for a worthy cause is just not something we do in the United States. That’s how pathetic we are.

 

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The great American divide

October 24, 2009

Some sobering news came out of the The Pew Research Center for the People & the Press this week. Fewer and fewer Americans believe in global warming. Only 57 percent of people polled say there’s solid evidence the Earth is warming, down from 71 percent in April of 2008.

With less than two months to go before the big international climate conference in Copenhagen and with historic cap-and-trade bills pending in Congress, only one in three Americans now believe global warming is a serious problem.

What’s going on? Well, just take a spin through those all-American towns and you’ll find out.

JudyAlaska“I think the timing of this bill is an absolute and total disaster,” says Judy from Alaska about the American Clean Energy and Security Act that the U.S. House passed in June. “Our economy is so fragile and is just now starting to show some signs of recovery. If this legislation passed, it’s like taking us out at our knees.”

Richard, owner of a small business in New Mexico, says the historic climate-change legislation will kill his company. “We’ve got to maintain our gasd2146e769e161ca40b9c8394e314aa3e0735ede7 prices where they are, or even lower ‘em to be able to maintain our workforce,” he says. “If we don’t stand up…we’re all just going to be in the unemployment line.”

Energy Citizens, an organization funded by industry, chambers of commerce and the likes, uses multimedia and economic scare tactics to try to kill the climate-change legislation. The group’s Web site is crammed with testimonials from regular, hardworking citizens who somehow know that the cap-and-trade provisions will deepen the economic recession.

The propaganda seems to have worked.

The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency have both concluded that the climate-change bills would cost households less than $200 a year, or $16 a month. (Less than a monthly family outing to McDonald’s or a nice bottle of wine.)

Like anybody cares. This is not about science, facts, economics or reason. It’s about the cultural war that has turned the United States into a politically stymied nation that puzzles and frustrates the rest of the world. It’s about the divide between liberals and conservatives, urbanites and rurals,  agnostics and religious, educated and ignorant, intellectuals and mainstream America.

The dad of a girl in my daughter’s dance class told me this morning that well-to-do parents of kids in the conservative Catholic school that his girl attends are openly questioning his work.

He’s an engineering professor on loan from a New York university to conduct climate-related research at a prominent, liberal Washington think tank for a year. He recently got a long letter from one parent who informed him that global warming is just a scientific theory with no basis in reality.

1095169_a_silhouette_of_the_pope_2Why, on Earth, would Catholics oppose the idea of climate change?

It’s simple, the professor told me. It has to do with their anti-abortion platform. There’s a feeling among religious conservatives that environmentalists are pushing population control to reduce human impact on the environment. Population control, in their view, equals abortion which they vehemently oppose.

Well, support for free abortion is waning too, Pew tells us. There’s been  a backlash against our pro-choice president, which makes perfect sense. For in the United States of America, unity is a rare thing.

In the safety of my car

September 9, 2009

1022488_heavy_trafficLast night, burning down I-495 in heavy traffic with my entire family in the car, I wondered if we’d all soon be dead. It would take only one aggressive D.C. driver weaving for a moment at 70 miles an hour, and we could all have been history.

“What if,” I thought to myself, “We could have taken a train to the beach instead. How much nicer that would have been. And safer.”

Fast forward 10 hours: Morning commute on the Red Line heading toward downtown Washington. My train car is full, a common scene since that horrible subway collision in June near my home station that claimed nine lives. Repairs to the subway system have left us with delays and overfilled trains ever since.

But I’ve managed to get a seat (after confirming that no elderly or pregnant person is in sight) and settle in. I’m reading the news on my phone when I hear commotion farther down the car. Somebody is yelling and cursing and creating a scene.

And now this person is elbowing and pushing his way through the packed car while barking in a threatening voice: “Where are my enemies, my enemies. I need to know where my enemies are. Are you my enemy? Where is my enemy?”

Nobody is saying anything but everybody’s thinking the same thing. What if he has a gun or a knife and decides to take out an enemy or two? We’d be defenseless.

The train stands still as the conductor tries to get the attention of security. Meanwhile, the man paces back and forth, visibly upset and rambling on about his enemies.

I think about the privacy and safety afforded those who right now move through traffic in their own cars58870_hanging_on__2 with all doors locked from the inside. Riding public transportation, there’s no such thing as privacy or private space and – when it comes down to it – very little safety.

Who needs this? A lunatic with who-knows-what in his pocket making hundreds of hardworking office workers, nurses and federal employees feel vulnerable – and late for work. I think of the many Americans who value and enjoy their private space in their private car and who – if they were on my train right now – would feel mighty snug about their transportation choices in life.

But guess what? Security did show up and removed the bad guy. And I was only 10 minutes later for work than expected, after exchanging smiles with the woman who sat next to me the whole trip.

As far as survival goes, one only needs to consult the
latest data from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics to know that your odds of living increase greatly when you ride a subway train through run-down innercity neighborhoods, compared with braving the expressway that circles around the city.

Of the 43,032 Americans who died in transportation accidents in 2007, 41,059 – 95 percent – died in highway accidents. Fewer than 2 percent, 845 people, died in train-related accidents.

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Wind power? Not in my backyard.

August 26, 2009

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Turns out, Swedes may not be as green as I thought. Or perhaps they’re simply no different than the rest of us gasoline-guzzling, environmentally ignorant consumers who care more about our immediate comfort and convenience than the future of coming generations.

Overheard in the kitchen of immediate Swedish family members just the other day:

“I was so angry hearing this farmer on the island talk about the profits he was making from the wind power he was producing,” my mother bristled. “He had gotten together with some neighbors to construct and operate a wind mill in his back yard, and was making a small fortune. I told him, ‘Don’t you realize that you’re profiting from Swedish tax dollars? You’re making money off the backs of all the rest of us who must pay for this expensive wind power!’

“But he just looked at me and said, ‘But the money I make comes from the wind!’” she continued. “It made me so mad that people don’t understand who’s paying for all this construction of wind mills left and right. We are!”

According to the Swedish Energy Agency, wind power cooperatives such as the one formed by this ignorant Swedish farmer will add another 70 gigawatt-hours of electricity to the grid during fiscal year 2009-2010. In all, 24,000 people will be members in such cooperatives and boost their share of Swedish wind power production by 20 percent, the agency estimates

The Swedish government wants to grow total wind power production to 30 terrawatt hours annually – up from 2 tWh today. Wind currently accounts for just 1 percent of the nation’s electricity, compared with neighboring Denmark, which gets 20 percent of its power from wind power. (The U.S., the world’s leading wind power nation in terms of capacity, is at close to 2 percent.)

The Swedish government is using energy certificates subsidized by tax dollars to support the wind energy build-out, investments it says must be made to meet tough European Union carbon-dioxide reduction goals.

But some Swedes believe the cost of wind is just too high, especially when the machines pop up along pristine coast lines and in pastoral landscapes where Swedes want to enjoy their lengthy vacations away from the troubles of global warming and energy crises.

Indeed, in my family, the bad-mouthing of wind power stations began when news broke that the spinning turbine blades would soon obscure views from an island in the Baltic that, in my mom’s opinion, was too beautiful and unique for wind mills. (A section of it was, after all, inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List.)

A movement is afoot to stop the build-out of wind power in the country praised, over and and over again, for being one of the world’s greenest. Grassroots organizations with names such as “Fair Wind” and “Save the Coast” are sprouting up to protest plans by property owners to take advantage of government incentives and erect new wind turbines.

What does all this mean? That people are people, plain and simple. And that nobody is more green than the other when it comes to their own backyard.

Pussstuga

It’s summer – bundle up!

June 30, 2009

It’s 90 degrees outside and we’re freezing.

coldhandsThere’s my co-worker J., shuffling past my office door draped in a heavy red wool blanket. Down the hallway sits B., wrapped in her blue poncho. Both brave the chilly office temperatures and wear summer dresses to work. (It’s June, after all.) But they also drink hot tea and coffee to warm their stiff fingers.

Even our tanned 20-something intern is cold. Every morning I watch her pull a cardigan from her bag before she even turns on her computer.

Air conditioning opened up the American South to northerners half a century ago and turned backward, sleepy cities such as Atlanta into metropolitan boom towns. 171-0609104401-phoenix_postcardIt transformed Singapore into an international business hub, made Phoenix livable, and millions of workers worldwide more productive.

Air conditioning also gobbles up 5 percent of all electricity produced in the United States, accounting for as much as 15 percent of energy consumption in homes and one-fifth or more of energy used in commercial buildings, depending on latitude. And here’s the sobering part: The commercial sector – schools, office buildings, malls, movie theaters and so on – are accountable for an ever-growing share of energy-related carbon dioxide emissions as their consumption of energy from dirty power plants continues to grow.

coal plant_0In the United States, 87 percent of our greenhouse gas emissions are related to our energy consumption, with the commercial sector’s emissions growing faster than any other sector’s. So you’d think that somebody would suggest that we cancel the warm sweaters and blankets and turn up the thermostat a few degrees.

It’s not only about saving the Earth, by the way. Raising the indoor temperature from 73 to 76 degrees can shave nearly one-third off your air-conditioning bill during the summer months, according to Duke Energy, the Charlotte-based energy giant.

But, oh, no. When our office air conditioning system malfunctioned a few weeks ago, some people – mostly men in suits – complained that it was “sooo hot.” The truth is, as a society, we’ve become addicted to cool spaces.

Today, more than half of all home owners in the United States run their air conditioner all summer long, up from one-third of homes in 1981.

Even in Minnesota, they’ve gone crazy with air conditioning. Twenty years ago, one-quarter of homes in this northern state had no AC. Today, fewer than 10 percent do and peak energy demand has shifted from winter to summer. Hear Minnesota Public Radio’s report from the North Star State!

Sounds to me like we need to look to China for some leadership. Fshanghaiaced with energy shortages a few years ago, the city of Shanghai ordered office buildings not to set their thermostat below 26 degrees Celcius, or 79 degrees Fahrenheit.

Of course, in a democracy like ours where everybody has a say and very little gets accomplished policy-wise, you can forget 79 degrees.


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