Archive for the ‘Working green’ Category

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.

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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.

Back in the U.S.A.

November 14, 2008

1075772_the_metro2In the two years that we’ve been overseas, green has – finally – become hip in America.

The subway car that whisks me to work in the morning is sporting ads from Chevron, the oil and gas giant, that urge us to conserve. Close-up portraits of sober citizens proclaim: “I will leave the car at home more” and “I will use less energy.” Wow!

Public transportation ridership has soared in tandem with rising gasoline prices. Americans took 140 million more trips by bus or train during the spring than they did a year earlier, the American Public Transport Association reports. And as investments plummeted in a weakening economy, venture capitalists managed to pour a record $1 billion into renewable energy projects during the third quarter alone.

Change is definitely in the air.

At my workplace, we have blue recycling bins in the office and the lights automatically turn on and off when we come and go. But progress is uneven – or, should I say – half-hearted?

In September, as outdoor temperatures in Washington, D.C., dropped to a comfortable 80 degrees, I piled on sweaters and cranked up the electric space heater next to my desk because the air conditioning was turning my windowless office into an ice box. There was no way to turn it off, our maintenance man explained. I drank hot coffee to keep my fingers from going stiff.

Our fancy coffee maker, however, is another environmental concern. To brew a cup, you stick a small, sealed plastic container with coffee grains in the machine. When your cup has been filled, the now-empty container automatically falls into a trash bin. How much plastic do I go through in one week?

“And why are there only plastic forks in the kitchen drawer and paper cups for coffee?” I ask a co-worker. “Can’t we buy some cheap mugs and silverware at IKEA and just wash them after lunch?” That would never work, he replies. “People would just leave their dishes in the sink and we’d have a mess.”

papermug11At the take-out restaurant downstairs I’ve made a point of telling the woman at the cash register that I don’t need my wrapped sandwich stuck in a plastic bag. “I’ll just grab it like that,” I say, sounding green and chipper. “It’ll save you some plastic!” I get a blank stare in return. She has no idea what I’m getting at and couldn’t care less.

The printer at the office spits out paper all day long. How many trees did we consume in the past month? I soon learn that some of my colleagues print out reports and documents to read and edit on the train home in the evening. The workload is such that tasks can never be completed even if you log eight or nine solid hours in the office and eat lunch at your desk. Best to print it all out and bring with you.

I rarely see people working on their laptops while in transit and I have yet to hear any discussion about deducting such telecommuting time from the regular workday, as many Europeans do. There’s also, still, no wireless access on the trains that run in and out of D.C. So people do it the old way: On paper.

But hey, we’re making efforts where we can. Metro officials are scrambling to put in more bike racks outside the subway stations, because so many more people are biking rather than driving and parking the car there. That’s progress!