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  Sierra Magazine
  November/December 2005
Table of Contents
Interview: Robert Bullard
92 Ways of Looking at a Tree
Decoder: Crocodile Tears
Reduce, Reuse, Rejoice
Let a Billion Flowers Bloom
Recycling Resurrected
Think Outside the Bin
Down in the Dumpster
Ways & Means
One Small Step
Lay of the Land
The Green Life
Hey Mr. Green
Good Going
Sierra Club Bulletin
Sierra Archives
About Sierra
Internships at Sierra
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Lay of the Land

Climate Control | Big Green Apple | WWatch | Oil's Well | Hijacking the Parks | Bold Strokes | As the World Warms | A Clear-Cut View

Climate Control
U.S. mayors take the lead on global warming
Four months before Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast, New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin warned that his was "the North American city most vulnerable to the effects of climate change." The thought had long been on the minds of officials in the low-lying metropolis: Since 1998, they have inventoried greenhouse-gas emissions produced by local agencies, improved city-owned heating and air-conditioning systems, replaced high-wattage streetlight bulbs, started planting 4,000 trees, and initiated a plan to purchase hybrid transit buses. But New Orleans knew the problem was bigger than one burg, so in 2001 the city council passed a resolution urging federal action on global warming.

That was right after the Bush administration backed out of the Kyoto Protocol on climate change. The president said that the treaty—which would have required the United States to reduce its greenhouse-gas emissions to 7 percent below 1990 levels by 2012—would hurt the U.S. economy, costing nearly $400 billion. Jump to 2005, and the Gulf region is cleaning up after a powerful hurricane and flood that are expected to cost the nation $200 billion. Whether Katrina's impacts can be attributed to global warming is debatable, but a key ingredient of intensified hurricanes—warmer water in the Gulf of Mexico—is already in play. And many cities aren't willing to wait to find out who's next in line for a "natural" disaster. As of September, 178 mayors in 37 states had signed the U.S. Mayors Climate Protection Agreement, vowing to meet or beat the Kyoto goals. Hurricanes, floods, droughts, and killer heat waves all have major economic consequences, which explains why cities as varied as Topeka, Las Vegas, and, yes, New Orleans have promised to reduce greenhouse gases by curbing sprawl and investing in clean energy.

The effort was spearheaded by Seattle mayor Greg Nickels, whose city is on track to eliminate its net greenhouse-gas emissions from municipal operations by 2006. In March, Nickels and nine other mayors sent letters to 400 of their peers, asking them to take concrete steps to slow climate change. And in June, the U.S. Conference of Mayors urged Congress to act. That still leaves the United States on a slow storm track, ratifying Kyoto one city at a time. But as John Rayson, mayor of Pompano Beach, Florida, puts it: "If the U.S. government continues to ignore the rest of the world on energy, then it's time for local leaders to speak out."
Dashka Slater

To help the Sierra Club's efforts to ensure that Gulf Coast communities are rebuilt with environmental safeguards, go to

Big Green Apple
Hybrid taxis come to Manhattan's concrete canyons
The New York City Council was worried about residents' lungs, while other officials, their legs. The council was implementing a plan to turn some of Manhattan's famed yellow cabs green by requiring that 9 percent of newly issued taxicab permits be reserved for hybrid cars. But the city's Taxi and Limousine Commission insisted that no fuel-sipping vehicle was spacious enough to meet its strict standards for legroom. When the buyers of those permits found themselves unable to use them, the conflict seemed headed for the courts. But after public uproar and pressure from the mayor, in July the commission capitulated, approving six hybrid models for the streets of the Big Apple.

Three hybrid SUVs (the Ford Escape, Toyota Highlander, and Lexus RX400h) and three sedans (the Toyota Prius and Honda's Accord and Civic) have been OK'd. None offers the 45-plus inches of legroom found in the standard New York taxicab, the hulking Ford Crown Victoria. But the hybrids easily outclass the 18-mpg Crown Vic in fuel efficiency: The Escape doubles that figure in city driving, while the Prius leaves a conventional cab at the curb, getting 60 mpg in EPA tests.

With the hybrid plan, residents are trading knee space for breathing room. Manhattan has the highest asthma- mortality rate in the United States: One out of eight New Yorkers suffers from it. With 13,000 cabs on the city's streets, each traveling as many as 70,000 miles per year, hybrids can make a big difference in air quality.

New York won't be the first North American city to have hybrid hacks—it joins San Francisco, Boston, and Vancouver, British Columbia—but it's still a bellwether. "A lot of people across the world watch what we do," explains Bob Muldoon of the Sierra Club's New York City field office. "It's great to have hybrids front and center."
Dashka Slater

Keeping Tabs on Washington
WHITEOUT The EPA's draft strategic plan on environmental justice has seemingly found a way to make the problems of poor communities vanish. "Environmental justice," the agency says, means applying environmental policies fairly, "regardless of race, color, national origin, or income." It sounds great, but the revision ignores the fact that the poor and people of color are disproportionately affected by issues like air pollution and hazardous waste—which was acknowledged in an executive order issued by President Bill Clinton in 1994. The EPA denies that the new plan violates the order. But the agency's color-blind approach suggests it will have a hard time identifying inequalities in low-income communities now that it's decided not to look for them.

BLM STAFFERS HAVE A COW Two years ago, scientists at the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and the Fish and Wildlife Service found that a new set of proposed rules would make it harder to limit grazing on overused land, harming wildlife, vegetation, and endangered species. But after higher-ups finished with the report, the warnings disappeared. An environmental impact statement released this summer concludes that the rules might even be beneficial for wildlife. Two BLM scientists have since resigned over the issue. Says one, "The Bush administration is just rolling back any advances made in the last 30 years." —D.S.

Oil's Well
In August, George W. Bush signed an $85 billion energy bill that showers more than $2 billion in tax breaks and direct spending on oil and gas companies over the next ten years. But do these guys really need the taxpayers' help? After all, they're used to making that kind of money in a matter of weeks: Oil and gas companies rolled out robust quarterly earnings reports on July 29, the same day Congress sent the energy bill to Bush for his signature. As an energy analyst for Oppenheimer & Co. put it, "It was a good day for oil."

Hijacking the Parks
Why bother protecting Yellowstone and other national parks? The question sounds absurd—but it turns dangerous when the people asking it work for the Interior Department, the federal agency responsible for managing 84.4 million acres of national parkland. In suggested policy revisions that were leaked in August, Paul Hoffman, a former congressional aide to Dick Cheney who's now the department's deputy assistant secretary, proposed eliminating the National Park Service's core mission to keep lands "unimpaired" for future generations. Hoffman's alternative: Simply prevent "irreversible damage." According to the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees, the plan would open the door to snowmobiles, Jet Skis, and cell-phone towers, as well as logging, mining, and oil and gas exploration. At press time, officials had not released final draft rules for public comment. If they maintain Hoffman's language, Yellowstone's bison won't be the only ones bellowing. For more information, go to
Reed McManus

Bold Strokes
Red-Hot Chili Pachyderms
If you've ever felt the burn of too much chili pepper on your food, you know what the elephants of Zambia and Zimbabwe experience when they try to raid crops. Only a fifth of the animals' range in Africa is protected, so conflicts with rural farmers are common. A new program called the Elephant Pepper Development Trust helps farmers plant chilies to deter the pachyderms from feeding on their primary crops of corn, sorghum, and millet. Not only are the peppers cheaper than destroyed crops, they also offer a humane alternative to barbed wire, electric fences, and guns. As a bonus, the chilies provide additional products for farmers to market: Elephant Chili hot sauce, jam, and relish.

Ice Rights
Linking human rights and climate change, the Canadian Inuit are bringing a case against the U.S. government for its role in global warming. Their culture depends on cold-weather animals and on sea ice thick enough that hunters don't fall through. As the ice melts, the Inuit Circumpolar Conference (ICC)—an organization representing 150,000 Inuit in the Arctic areas of Alaska, Canada, Greenland, and Russia—blames the United States, the planet's largest contributor of greenhouse gases. The case before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, part of the Organization of American States, could take two or more years to decide. It will rely on the testimony of Inuit elders as well as data from the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment, a study that involved 300 scientists from eight nations and indigenous experts from six tribes. "Our homeland is the world's barometer of climate change," says Sheila Watt-Cloutier, chair of the ICC. "And Inuit are the mercury in that barometer."

Vive la France!
Thanks to the efforts of President Jacques Chirac, the French constitution now has an "environmental charter" whose ten articles spell out the green rights of citizens from Normandy to Provence. According to Chirac, who had taken on the document as a pet project, it demonstrates that his country "wishes to assume its responsibilities with respect to future generations." Most important, the charter mandates that French officials employ the "precautionary principle," minimizing risks when they face potentially serious and irreversible environmental damage. France is the most recent of 117 nations to include the environment in its principal organizing document.
Clare Baldwin

As the World Warms
Signs of a changing planet
Greenland's enormous Kangerdlugssuaq glacier, which contains four times as much water as the Great Lakes, is rushing toward the sea, becoming one of the fastest-moving glaciers in the world. Measurements taken nine years ago showed the ice mass, on Greenland's east coast, moving at a rate of three miles per year. Last summer, scientists aboard the Greenpeace ship Arctic Sunrise clocked it at nine miles per year. Unlike seasonal sea ice, melting glacial ice can raise the world's sea level.

The British Environment Agency is rethinking storing more radioactive waste at Drigg, on the coast of Cumbria, because of its vulnerability to sea-level rise and coastal erosion. The dump lies on low ground only a third of a mile from the Irish Sea and holds one million cubic meters of low-level radioactive waste. According to the magazine New Scientist, the agency even wants to explore digging out and removing some of the waste already buried at the site. "Present-day risks are very low," says nuclear regulator Ian Streatfield, "but the long-term risks are high."

Spring has arrived an average of ten days earlier in the past 30 years, reports the National Academy of Sciences. But the ability of species to keep up with the changing dates is uncertain. Yellow-bellied marmots, for example, are emerging from their burrows a month earlier than in the past. Instead of spring forage, however, they find only still-deep snowpacks, causing many to starve.

Warming in the Siberian Arctic has dried up or greatly reduced more than 1,000 large lakes since the early 1970s—11 percent of the region's total. Ground temperatures in the Arctic are rising twice as fast as elsewhere, and the lakes are apparently seeping into the melting permafrost. In addition to providing freshwater for the Native peoples of the region, they serve as important habitat for migratory birds.

With summer sea-ice levels in the Arctic Ocean 6 percent below average, the ice pack appears headed for a new record low. Previous lows were set in 2002, 2003, and 2004.

While no individual storm can be conclusively linked to global warming, the savagery of Hurricane Katrina was consistent with climate-change models, which predict more violent hurricanes as ocean temperatures rise. In the past ten years, unprecedented temperatures have coincided with record storm seasons, and the Gulf waters where Katrina grew to a Category 5 monster were nearly 6 degrees warmer than usual. A study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology reports that in the past half century, hurricanes in both the Atlantic and Pacific have increased in intensity and duration by 50 percent.
Paul Rauber

A Clear-Cut View




The extent of Amazon deforestation can be seen from space in these satellite images of the state of Rond™nia, Brazil, taken in 1975, 1989, and 2001. The systematic cutting of vegetation started along newly carved roads and has spread in a dramatic "fish bone" pattern. More than 10,000 square miles of forest were lost in 2004 alone in Brazil, home to almost a third of the world's tropical forests. For more bird's-eye views of the earth, check out the United Nations Environment Programme's "One Planet, Many People: Atlas of Our Changing Environment," at

Oil's Well illustration: Lloyd Dangle; Elephant illustration: Thorina Rose; Clear-Cut photos: UNEP

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