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  Sierra Magazine
  January/February 2008
Table of Contents
Can They Get Along?
Keep Your Eye on the Globe
Big Debate Over the Big Box
Chilling Lessons
It's Global Warming, Stupid!
Power Hungry
Editor's Note
Ways & Means
One Small Step
Lay of the Land
Good Going
The Green Life
Hey Mr. Green
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Sierra Magazine
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Lay of the Land
January/February 2008

(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Gore, and Global Warming? | WWatch |
Last-Place Finish | Fore Wilderness! | Bold Strokes | Magic Ponies | Hating the Sin | We Love to Fly, and It Warms | As The World Warms

(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Gore, and Global Warming?
How climate change spurs global insecurity

The Norwegian Nobel Committee's decision to award its 2007 peace prize to Al Gore and the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change had many of the former vice president's critics scoffing about "Ozone Man" last October. How, they wondered, were global warming and world peace connected?

What planet are they from?

To understand the links, let's start with Sudan. Though the media generally frame Darfur's genocide as ethnic, its roots are ecological. Black farmers once welcomed Arab herders on their home soil, but the hospitality ended when the rains stopped. With water scarce, farmers fenced their land, and the herders became hostile. Similar water conflicts loom in hot spots worldwide, including the arid Middle East.

Drought is only one way that climate change puts peace at risk. Consider, for example, the specter of vast displaced populations. As refugees spill from regions hard-hit by rising seas, intense storms, and failing crops, armed conflict seems inevitable. The U.N. estimates that in the next ten years desertification alone could displace some 50 million people.

Other climate-related changes, too, could rile the dogs of war. Probably no place has been freer of strife than the Arctic, but that was before rising temperatures began opening sea channels and laying minerals bare. When the crew from a Russian submersible planted a flag on the Arctic seafloor last summer, it gave new meaning to the term cold war.

The Pentagon takes such threats seriously. In 2003 it commissioned a study whose worst-case scenario concluded: "Disruption and conflict will be endemic features of life." More recently, the International Institute for Strategic Studies stated that the effects of unchecked climate change on global security would be "on the level of nuclear war."

The Nobel committee said it honored Gore and the U.N. scientists for their efforts "to protect the world's future climate, and thereby to reduce the threat to the security of mankind." The committee stressed the need for immediate action, "before climate change moves beyond man's control."

In his will, Alfred Nobel declared that the peace prize should go to someone who has "done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations." Finding ways to keep us from killing each other over resources is a pretty good start. —Pat Joseph

Keeping Tabs on Washington

IF IT SEEMS TO GOOD TO BE TRUE ... Yippee! The EPA has settled a lawsuit with American Electric Power, the nation's largest industrial emitter of carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and sulfur dioxide, over the company's failure to install the newest pollution controls when it expanded its power plants. The utility agreed to cut 813,000 tons of air pollutants annually at an estimated cost of more than $4.6 billion. Oh, wait--a tiny paragraph assures the utility that the EPA won't pursue any enforcement actions against it until at least 2018.

THE TOXIC TOUCH Last October, the EPA approved a highly toxic soil fumigant used in strawberry and tomato fields, despite the protests of 5 Nobel laureates and 49 other scientists. The chemical, methyl iodide, is a potent neurotoxin and carcinogen that can seep from fields into groundwater and drift into neighborhoods. Commercial strawberry growers lobbied for its approval after an international treaty banned another toxic fumigant, methyl bromide, which depletes the ozone layer. The EPA approved the use of the new fumigant for one year, with restrictions such as preventing farmworkers from entering a field for five days after the pesticide, known as "Midas," has been applied.

SNEAK ATTACK California and 11 other states want to slash tailpipe emissions by nearly 30 percent by 2016 to curb global warming. The Bush administration prefers they didn't and tried to drum up opposition to the legislation from auto-friendly governors and congressional representatives. California needs a waiver from the EPA to put its rule into effect. But rather than fight the two-year-old waiver request overtly, in mid-2007 Transportation Secretary Mary Peters asked staffers to find politicians who would tell the EPA they oppose "piecemeal regulation." At least that's what the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform's investigation determined. Last November, California filed suit in the U.S. district court in Washington, D.C., to force the EPA to make a decision. "We're not waiting for Washington," Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger (R-Calif.) said. —Dashka Slater

Last-Place Finish

Source: International Council on Clean Transportation (The various international standards and procedures were converted to one consistent formula.)

A world leader? When it comes to fuel-economy standards, the United States lags far behind Europe, Japan, and even China.

The average fuel economy of new U.S. cars is 27.5 miles per gallon and 22.2 mpg for SUVs, minivans, and pickups ("light trucks"), figures that have been stagnant for two decades. Under a Bush administration rule announced in 2006--and rejected by a federal court last November--the fuel economy of light trucks would inch forward to about 24 mpg by 2011. That's not much to wave a checkered flag at: In 2006 new vehicles sold in Europe and Japan had achieved an estimated 40 mpg and will improve as goals are met for 2012 and 2015, respectively.

The International Council on Clean Transportation, a coalition of air-quality and transportation experts, converted the disparate fuel-economy rules and targets used worldwide to familiar EPA testing formulas. Its findings: The United States runs dead last. —Reed McManus

Fore Wilderness!

Who says wilderness doesn't go with plaid golf pants? Some of the steep canyons, silent deserts, twisted rock formations, and lush fan-palm oases that surround the snowbird getaway of Palm Springs, California, will receive federal wilderness protection if Congress approves a bill cosponsored by Senator Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Representative Mary Bono (R-Calif.). The California Desert and Mountain Heritage Act would bestow the nation's highest level of protection on 191,000 acres of land about 100 miles east of Los Angeles, adding 40,000 acres to Joshua Tree National Park and establishing four new wilderness areas and four new wild and scenic rivers.

When Congress passed the California Desert Protection Act in 1994, opponents worried that wilderness protection would hurt local economies. But this time around, the bill has the support of four chambers of commerce and six municipalities. The difference, says California Desert and Mountain Wilderness Campaign coordinator Shane Walton, is that communities have realized that desert lovers wearing Vibram soles spend the same dollars as duffers wearing spiked shoes. Every 550 acres of wilderness creates one new job's worth of economic activity, he says. —Dashka Slater

Bold Strokes

Tapped Out
Bottled water sales are growing 10 percent a year, resulting in a pileup of 4 billion discarded plastic bottles and 2.5 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions annually. But tap water is making a comeback thanks to efforts like the "Think Outside the Bottle" campaign, a project of the watchdog group Corporate Accountability International. Boston, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Salt Lake City, and San Francisco have pledged to stop buying bottled water; high-end restaurants across the nation are serving municipal water; and the city of Chicago is considering a ten-cent tax on every bottle of water sold within its borders.

Thou Shalt Not Pollute
The Good Book just got better. Last October, Thomas Nelson Incorporated published the world's first green Bible, on custom-made ecofriendly paper certified by the Forest Stewardship Council. Says CEO Michael S. Hyatt: "Our team is excited to be taking some important steps forward in protecting the resources God has given us." More than 140 U.S. publishers have committed to greening their paper supplies.

Britannia Rules the Wind
The breezy waters off the coast of Kent in southeastern England will be home to the world's largest offshore wind farm, a 90-square-mile spread capable of powering a quarter of London's homes by 2010. The London Array wind farm's 341 turbines are part of the United Kingdom's efforts to obtain 20 percent of its power from renewable sources by 2020.

Lawn Shot
Twenty-seven million people trample the grass of the National Mall in Washington, D.C., each year--tough treatment for any lawn. Now more than four acres of that sod will be maintained for two years by the SafeLawns Foundation, a coalition promoting organic grass. The group's organic methods include soil treatment using a liquid compost "tea." The National Park Service and the EPA will monitor the green acres and compare them with traditionally maintained areas. SafeLawns hopes to prove that an inviting place for Frisbee tossing, picnics, and mass demonstrations can be had without using dangerous chemicals. —Dashka Slater

Magic Ponies
Everyone wants an easy solution

A useful import from the blogosphere is the concept of the magic pony. Originating in an old Calvin and Hobbes strip (Suzie wishes Calvin were nicer and for a pony too), the magic pony is a miraculous but not-yet-extant solution to a problem--a solution so awesome that it would be foolish to waste one's time with partial, more immediate fixes.

Such steeds run wild in the fields of environmentalism. In their recent book Break Through, for example, critics Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger argue that doom-and-gloom environmentalists are wasting their time trying to regulate carbon dioxide and that our only hope is to pour money into clean-energy technology in hopes of finding a complete replacement for coal and oil. A pony!

When affecting concern for the environment, President George W. Bush finds magic ponies irresistible. Rather than promote higher fuel-economy standards for cars and trucks, for instance, Bush decided to pursue still-elusive hydrogen-fuel-cell vehicles. A pony! Fueling these cells, in Bush's plan, would be largely as-yet-unproven "clean coal." Another pony! And how would that clean coal be burned? In plants using not-ready-for-prime-time carbon sequestration. His plan, in effect, is the Triple Crown of magic ponies.

The profusion of magic-pony plans prompted Grist's David Roberts to lay down a challenge: "Unless you also describe practical steps for how we can achieve your Magical Pony Plan ... then you are not, in fact, arguing on behalf of the Magical Pony Plan. You are arguing that we should reject the incremental advance in favor of doing nothing."

For our part, the Sierra Club is calling for a 2 percent reduction in carbon emissions every year. Lacking a magic pony, we're left with the advice a veteran Alaska bush pilot gave to a visitor worried about what to do if approached by a grizzly: "Son, do the best you can." —Paul Rauber

Hating the Sin
Why not just tax CO2?

Smoking's bad for you, so many states slap on a hefty cigarette tax--$2.57 per pack in New Jersey, for example. The feds charge $13.50 per gallon of spirits. These are the so-called sin taxes--and what greater sin is there than overheating our planet? That's why Al Gore, Paul Volcker, Thomas Friedman, and bucketloads of economists advocate a tax on carbon dioxide emissions as the simplest, most straightforward approach to reducing global warming.

Theoretically there's a lot to like. As opposed to a complicated cap-and-trade system involving emission ceilings and tradable permits, a carbon tax could be relatively simple to apply. The revenues could go to support alternative-energy programs or to reduce or replace payroll taxes like social security and unemployment. "Instead of discouraging businesses from hiring more employees," says Gore, "it would discourage business from producing more pollution."

In practice, conventional wisdom holds that any politician advocating a tax on gasoline and heating oil might just as well resign. (See "It's Global Warming, Stupid!") That's why last fall, when Representative John Dingell (D-Mich.) proposed a $50-per-ton tax on carbon, many environmentalists saw it as a cynical attempt to suck the air out of tougher fuel-economy standards, which the Michigan auto industry is dead set against. (That view was supported by Dingell's frank admission that "a carbon tax is going to carry with it a lot of pain.")

In addition, though polls show growing public support for a carbon tax, cautious politicians haven't forgotten the punishing defeat of then-president Bill Clinton's so-called Btu tax in 1993--a factor many believe contributed to the Democrats losing their majority in the House of Representatives the following year. For politicians, the biggest sin of all is losing. —Paul Rauber

We Love to Fly, and It Warms
Can new fuel-efficient planes keep up with climate change?

Last summer, when Boeing unveiled its new 787 Dreamliner, 15,000 people gathered in front of the hangar near Seattle to marvel at the lightweight carbon-fiber-composite jetliner. Boeing claims that the airplane will use 20 percent less fuel than its contemporaries, which makes the cash-strapped aviation industry--reeling from the steep rise in fuel prices--as happy as it does environmentalists.

But while airline executives were cooing over the Dreamliner's dreaminess, protestors in the United Kingdom were setting up tents at Heathrow Airport. Called Camp for Climate Action, the weeklong protest sought to draw attention to aviation's impact on global warming.

The problem is not just fuel use--each airline passenger uses somewhat less fuel per mile than he or she would driving. But the mix of gases emitted by planes, and the altitude at which they are emitted, means that the same fuel consumption produces about twice the global-warming pollution.

The European Union has proposed that all airlines flying within, and in and out of, the 27-nation community join in emissions-trading arrangements starting in 2011. Virgin Airlines CEO Richard Branson says his industry could cut emissions by 25 percent in two years. But in the United States, the issue has mainly flown under the radar. The federal government has been planning for an expected tripling of U.S. air traffic but has been silent on the question of how this expansion will affect climate change.

Activists from the U.K. group Plane Stupid looked at government predictions that air travel could soar by 2030 and came up with a solution that's as obvious as it is unpopular: Fly less. Or, as the polar-bear-festooned signs at Camp for Climate Action warned, "You Fly, They Die." —Dashka Slater

As The World Warms
Quick thinking before we slowly fry

DROP THE BALL, RAISE THE BAR On New Year's Eve, the brilliantly lit ball that descends in Times Square at midnight to signal the start of a new year will also signal the start of a new, more energy-efficient era. The 2007 orb uses 9,576 LED bulbs, making it twice as bright as the previous year's model while using half the energy.

LIGHTS OUT Incandescent lightbulbs are heading for the history books, at least in China, Australia, and the European Union. China, which manufactures 70 percent of the world's lightbulbs, has agreed to phase out the inefficient bulbs over the next ten years, a move that should lower the price of compact fluorescents worldwide. (CFLs last ten times longer than incandescents but retail for about four times as much.) Australia will eliminate the old bulbs by 2010, and the E.U. by 2009.

DELOVELY DECOUPLE In 2007, 13 states adopted or were considering plans to reward utilities that promote conservation. Most power plants make more money when they produce--and sell--more electricity. But under a scheme called "decoupling," state regulators pay utilities for fixed costs like plants and equipment and then pile on incentives for power companies that help their customers become more energy-efficient. California pioneered decoupling 25 years ago; today the Golden State uses less electricity per person than any other state.

COALED SHOULDER Last October, the Kansas Department of Health and the Environment rejected an air-permit application for a pair of coal-fired power plants on the grounds that the 11 million tons of carbon dioxide the plants would spew each year would contribute to global warming. That makes a total of 18 coal-fired plants scrapped in 2007 for environmental or economic reasons.

ICE OVER Shrinking glaciers are changing Greenlanders' daily life. The good news: Potatoes and broccoli can be grown at home rather than imported, halibut are plentiful in the warmer waters, and the ice melt can power hydroelectric plants. The bad news: Lack of sea ice is decimating subsistence hunters, and the extraction industry is rushing in to claim whatever oil, diamonds, gold, and zinc lie beneath increasingly ice-free tundra. —Dashka Slater

Illustrations, from top: Joshua Gorchov, Debbie Drechsler, Ryan Burke, and Josef Gast; used with permission.

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