Archive for the ‘Environment’ Category

The Ash Cloud

Friday, April 16th, 2010

I know thousands of people have had travel plans disrupted. I know airline flights have been cancelled across the globe. I know there will be an economic hit.

But putting that aside for a moment: there is something sublime in the huge high-altitude volcanic ash plume spreading across Europe; something the makes you stop, and take a breath, and think about things a little bit differently.

Here we are in 2010, surrounded by jaw-dropping technology that would have seemed Jetsonian just a few years ago. Our cars talk to us and tell us where to go.  Our phones link us to the farthest reaches of the planet in seconds. Manned space travel? Ho hum. We just built a machine that is smashing atoms together at an energy of 7 trillion electron volts per particle, so that we can get a bead on how our universe came to be.

And, yet, for the past 48 hours, tens of thousands of people across several continents have been stopped in their tracks by a small, cantankerous Icelandic volcano that’s been around since the Ice Age.

This is only the fourth time the volcano has erupted in the last 1,100 years; the first time was in 900 A.D. The resulting cloud of minute silicon particles has lit sunsets on fire across a half -dozen countries.

Say it with me: Eyjafjallajokull. That’s right. Eyjafjallajokull. For the record, it’s pronounced EYE-a-fyat-la-jo-kutl. Sounds like something you’d get at a Greek restaurant, over rice, or maybe a new marketing campaign by Volkswagen.

These days, we regularly bend nature to our will. We send airplanes into the eyes of hurricanes to monitor wind speeds. We chase tornadoes. We hike the highest mountains and traverse the oceans and deserts. Our surfers seek waves that blot out the sun.

We live in houses that protect us from harsh elements in four seasons, and when bugs come in, we call the exterminator. (Or, if your house is like mine, you stop what you are doing and gather round to ooh and ahh, and then your kids demand you catch the critter in a Dixie cup — yes, even during dinner — and set it free outside.)

And then a volano erupts, and one after the other, all the great airports of Europe shut down. Heathrow. De Gaulle. Frederic Chopin. Closed. Closed. Closed.

In the end, perhaps, reminding us that despite what we might think, we’re not really in control. Reminding us that still today, the most powerful, the most terrible, the most beautiful forces driving our lives were here long before us, and will be here long after we’re gone.

The Grinch Who Stole Cash for Clunkers?

Tuesday, August 4th, 2009

Here in the heartland, we were greeted with headlines this morning, the likes of which we haven’t seen since aught seven.

“Clunkers’ restarts auto sales; some makers have best month,” trumpeted the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

The Akron Beacon Journal announced: “July auto sales on the rise as program draws buyers.”

The federal “Cash for clunkers” program, as most people know, offers rebates of between $3,500 and $4,500 to people who trade in old cars for newer cars with higher fuel economy. The old cars have to get 18 miles per gallon or less. The rebate size depends on the fuel economy of the replacement car.

Congress initially appropriated $1 billion for the bill.

Funny thing happened on the way to the car dealership. People love this government program. It helps automakers (Ford last month posted its first sales increase since late 2007), car dealerships, and consumers — spurring the beleaguered economy, all while helping the environment. As the NY Times reports:

Dealers estimated that they moved a quarter-million cars with the rebate money. The Transportation Department reported that of 120,000 rebate applications processed so far, the average gas mileage of cars being bought was 28.3 miles per gallon, for SUV’s 21.9 miles per gallon, and for trucks, 16.3 miles per gallon, all significantly higher than required to get a rebate.

The House last week, with true bipartisan support, passed a bill to extend the program, authorizing another $2 billion worth of rebates.

Enter Senate Republicans.

Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky says cash for clunkers is an example of botched execution by the Obama administration. With people lining up to purchase new, environmentally friendlier cars from economically strapped dealers, Sen. John McCain is reportedly expected to lead a filibuster against the additional funds. Said Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina: “This is crazy to try to rush this thing through again while they’re trying to rush through health care. We’ve got to slow this thing down.” He called cash for clunkers an example of the “stupidity coming out of Washington right now.”

Actually — and this is what many Republicans simple cannot abide — it’s an example of a spectacularly popular government program that works.

Do they seriously mean to tell us with a straight face that because Congress underestimated the popularity of the program, it’s an example of government ineptitude? Would they say the same thing about Apple, which initially could not keep up with demand for iPod minis or Shuffles? Would they castigate, for initially failing to make enough Kindles? Would they hurl bromides about the stupidity coming out of Silicon Valley?

Republicans, having made the specious argument that this program’s popularity proves the government is too inept to manage health care, cannot now afford to let new funding go through. By their own logic, it would show that government can and does work for the people. And it would hand Obama a huge and visible victory as he makes the case this August that government can and will manage health care reform.

Yes, we know. More car rebates will add to the national debt. Just like all those war-time tax cuts Republican senators voted for during the Bush years.

Meanwhile, consumers line up in an ailing economy, hoping the Senate will come through, and they will be able to buy newer cars with better fuel economy.

You’re a mean one, Mr. Grinch.

Whales and Forgiveness

Sunday, July 12th, 2009

There is a moving, terrible, strange, sublime cover story by Charles Siebert in the New York Times Magazine today. The headline, “Watching Whales Watching Us,” doesn’t quite get to the heart of it.

The main point of the article is startling: Despite all that humans have done to whales in the last two centuries — hunted, destroyed and decimated entire species — whales have learned to trust us again.

What grabs you by the throat and forces you to pay attention, first and foremost, is the prose:

Eighteen feet of boat on open seas is in almost any circumstance a tenuous alignment. But to suddenly find yourself in that same small vessel above a fleet, 40-foot-long midsea mastodon — one whose fluke alone could, with a cursory flip, send you and your boat soaring skyward — is to know the pure, wonderfully edgeless fear of complete acquiescence. I watched, wide-eyed, the soundless slide of that “moving land,” as Milton once described whales, everywhere beneath our boat, and suddenly felt the whole of myself wanting to go away with her; to hop on for a long ride downward toward some dimly remembered, primordial home.

Siebert is a contributing writer for the magazine. According to the blog, which tracks animals in popular culture, Siebert is known for his “searing analysis of human-animal relationships.” He’s written about chimpanzees, animal shelters and elephant culture. His book Angus: A Novel, is written from the perspective of a Jack Russell terrier.  He’s on familiar terrain.

For this article, he set out for the open waters of Baja California Sur, in Mexico, in search of gray whales. He surveys some of the violent, bloody history of our relationship with whales (“By the middle of the 20th century, worldwide stocks of nearly all the earth’s whale species had been … depleted”), then poses the question: “Why [would] present-day gray-whale mothers, some of whom still bear harpoon scars … take to seeking us out and gently shepherding their young into our arms?”

 If an article like this can have a nut, here it comes:

A combination of anecdotal evidence and recent scientific research into whale biology and behavior suggests that there may something far more compelling going on in the lagoons of Baja each winter and spring. Something, let’s say, along the lines of that time-worn plot conceit behind many a film, in which the peaceable greetings of alien visitors are tragically rebuffed by human fear and ignorance. Except that in this particular rendition, the aliens keep coming back, trying, perhaps, to give us another chance. To let us, of all species, off the hook.

To put a fine point on it: the whales — creatures known to mourn their own dead, teach, learn, scheme, cooperate, grieve, dream, and recognize their friends — are trying to let us know they forgive us.

Toni Frohoff, a marine mammal behavioralist, tells Siebert: “There are reasons why something like forgiveness is a possibility … There’s something very potent occurring here from a behavioral and biological perspective.”

What Siebert doesn’t answer, directly, is why this matters. And not just matters. Why the soaring prose? Why the artwork, accompanying the piece, instead of photos? Why remind readers of the floating factories used by whalers in the early 1900s, that allowed for “immediate on-board flensing and refinement of the carcass”?

There’s a clue in his final anecdote, I think, about a female humpback whale that, in 2005, became hopelessly entangled in a vast crab-trap net off the coast of San Francisco. A rescue team arrived, and, with the whale near death, divers risked their lives to cut the net.

When the whale was finally freed, the divers said, she swam around them for a time in what appeared to be joyous circles. She then came back and visited with each one of them, nudging them all gently, as if in thanks. The divers said it was the most beautiful experience they ever had. As for the diver who cut free the rope that was entangled in the whale’s mouth, her huge eye was following him the entire time, and he said that he will never be the same.

We live in a culture, in a political moment, when anti-environmentalism is not only alive, it’s celebrated. Remember, Sarah Palin fought tooth and nail against putting not just polar bears, but beluga whales, on the endangered species list (so as not to restrict off-shore oil and gas development), and, if Frank Rich is to believed, she is still the standard-bearer for a huge swath of the Republican party. And don’t think it’s just the fringes. When the Supreme Court recently overturned two lower court rulings that restricted the Navy’s use of sonar devices having a murderous effect on whales, Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for the majority, sniffed: “For the plaintiffs, the most serious possible injury would be harm to an unknown number of marine animals that they study and observe.”

The whales are trying to let us know they forgive us, but we have navies to run, shipping lanes to fill, crabs to trap. Which may explain why we’re too busy to notice.

How do those alien movies end, again?

Republicans and Hot Air

Sunday, June 28th, 2009

Remember during the election, when conservatives mocked Obama for this line in his stump speech: “I am absolutely certain that generations from now, we will be able to look back and tell our children … this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal”?

(On June 4, 2008, to refresh your memory with just one example, Commentary’s blog ran this headline as Alarming News: “Obama to lower ocean levels and heal planet. No, really.”)

Well, don’t look now. On Friday, we woke to the news that for the first time in history, the U.S. House of Representatives, thanks to Obama’s leadership, passed a bill that would seriously begin to address global warming.

As the New York Times writes:

The vote was the first time either house of Congress had approved a bill meant to curb the heat-trapping gases scientists have linked to climate change. The legislation … could lead to profound changes in many sectors of the economy, including electric power generation, agriculture, manufacturing and construction.

It’s a large, complicated bill, but here’s the nut: The bill would set up a “cap and trade” system, setting a cap on overall emissions of heat-trapping gases in the U.S.; industries would have to buy permits, allowing them to pay $13 per ton of carbon dioxide emitted; manufacturers and utilities would then trade these carbon allowances among themselves. Essentially, they would pay to pollute. It would be phased in over time (the bill requires a 20 percent CO2 cut by 2020, a 42 percent cut by 2030, and an 83 percent cut by 2050), forcing manufacturers to come up with cleaner methods of production.

Slate writes that the 219-212 vote was one brief shining moment for the environment:

The bill would transform the U.S. economy in four decades, replacing the vast majority of American’s carbon dioxide emissions and fossil fuel consumption with a clean energy economy built around energy efficiency and renewable energy.

[It] would push tremendous amounts of low-carbon energy into the electric sector. Obama’s stimulus bill had already directed $90 billion toward clean energy, dramatically boosting projections of wind and solar and biomass energy penetration in the near term.

It doesn’t go as far as we need to — but it’s a start. And, best of all, to facilitate the program, the average American household would pay only $175 a year extra in energy costs by 2020. That amounts, as Slate writes, to “about a postage stamp a day.”

Still, Republicans predict it will devastate the economy. And word is it’s going to take a huge effort from Obama and his White House to get it through the Senate.

“No matter how you doctor it or tailor it,” Representative Joe Pitts, Republican of Pennsylvania, told the Times in a typical critique, “it is a tax.”

To which I would respond with a midrash, or interpretation, from last week’s Torah portion, about Korah’s failed rebellion against Moses and Aaron.

One tradition pictures Korah complaining about the tithes and offerings Moses demanded of the people, saying “You lay a heavier burden on us than the Egyptians did.” Korah, in this midrash, never mentions that these taxes were designed to help the poor, to maintain the sanctuary, and to give the Israelites ways of expressing their gratitude to God and their dependence on God.

To maintain the sanctuary.

No matter how you doctor it or tailor it, if we fail to address global warming, we are facing massive sea-level rise, widespread desertification, and a 10-degree fahrenheit rise over much of the inland U.S.

Would somebody mind telling me a single thing that this current crop of G.O.P. lawmakers is for?

Mine, Baby, Mine!

Thursday, October 23rd, 2008

First the polar bears. Then the beluga whales. Now this, from yesterday’s NY Times:

As governor, Ms. Palin has helped ease the way for a proposed copper and gold mine of near-mythic proportions at the headwaters of Bristol Bay, the world’s greatest spawning ground for wild salmon.

If state regulators give their approval, mining companies plan to carve an open pit that would rival the world’s largest mines, descending half a mile and taking as much energy to operate daily as the city of Anchorage …

Scientists and former state and federal biologists warn that toxic residue from the project, known as Pebble Mine, would irreparably harm a centuries-old salmon fishing industry that employs 17,000 and hauls in $100 million annually …

Ms. Palin has remained officially neutral, saying that the state will evaluate the project when it receives a formal permit application. But she has embraced resource extraction in ways that are likely to help Pebble. On the presidential campaign trail in coal country this month, she led supporters in chants of “Mine, baby, mine!”

Oh, and this:

Other moves by the Palin administration could also help Pebble. It plans to use a $7 million federal earmark — a practice she criticizes on the campaign trail — for a major upgrade of a road through the snow-capped Chigmit range, records show. There are no villages along this route, but it would form the first leg of a proposed 200-mile thoroughfare between Pebble Mine and the Pacific Ocean.

And, finally, this:

The environmental challenges to mining there are formidable.

“It is one giant wetland, and no one really understands how it works,” said Carol Ann Woody, a biologist who served on the Pebble advisory team for the United States Geological Survey and views the mine as a threat.

Rain falls in torrents, winter temperatures hit 50 below and a geologic fault — capable of producing catastrophic earthquakes — sits 30 miles away. The proposed mine could produce seven billion tons of toxic waste rock; even traces of copper can disable a salmon’s ability to navigate.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that Palin, a hero of the far right, is such a rabid anti-environmentalist. What’s truly alarming, though, is the insidious nature of Palin’s assault. Consider that she said this, nearly two years ago, in the tiny village of Ekwok, Alaska:

“I am a commercial fisherman; my daughter’s name is Bristol,” said Ms. Palin, then a candidate for governor. “I could not support a project that risks one resource that we know is a given, and that is the world’s richest spawning grounds, over another resource.”

Verlyn Klinenborg put a fine point on Palin’s dangerous approach in an article in yesterday’s Times. He noted that Palin doesn’t argue against environmental protections; she argues, for instance, that it is “premature” to place beluga whales on the endangered species list. (See blog post: “Kill the Whales.”) He writes:

Palin can be a skillful politician. “Premature” is such a subtle, reassuring word. It implies that she won’t always be opposed to protecting belugas, just not right now.

By “premature,” Ms. Palin might mean that scientific studies of the beluga whale population are incomplete. It is hard to see her as a proponent of exacting science; some of the studies her aides cited to justify her earlier opposition to listing the polar bear as endangered flatly ignored the threats posed by climate change and were financed by the oil industry. There is little doubt that her real concern is protecting Alaska’s gas-and-oil development.

Presumably, the time for listing the belugas will be mature when the gas-and-oil infrastructure in Cook Inlet is in place and the shipping lanes are running full and the fishing industry is going gangbusters. After humans have gotten everything they want out of those waters, then it will be time.

The problem, of course, is that by that time, the whales will be gone. Writes Klinkenborg:

What makes Ms. Palin an especially effective anti-environmentalist is that she comes from Alaska. She touches the expansionist chord, the ancestral American feeling that there will always be enough nature, although it is already clear that the systemic balance of nature is beginning to break down over much of the globe. I picture Governor Palin as an old-time buffalo hunter, wielding a Sharps buffalo rifle as skillfully as she wields a misstatement. “There will,” she says, “be time” — BOOM — “to protect those buffalo there, but at the moment” — BOOM — “it is premature.”

The environment hasn’t gotten much play in an election cycle dominated first by Iraq and then by the economy. But in an era of global warming and declining biodiversity (See post: “My Debate Question“), can we really afford to have such an avid anti-environmentalist a heartbeat away?

Kill the Whales

Saturday, October 18th, 2008

It’s a bad time to be an endangered species in Alaska.

The federal government on Friday moved to put beluga whales that live in Alaska’s Cook Inlet on the endangered species list. This, despite the best efforts of Gov. Sarah Palin, who fought them tooth and nail.

Here’s the nut, from today’s New York Times:

The relatively small, whitish whales, sometimes visible from downtown Anchorage, declined by almost 50 percent in the late 1990s, and federal scientists say they have not rebounded despite a series of protections, including a halt to subsistence hunting by Alaska Natives. …

As with the polar bear, Ms. Palin’s administration opposed the beluga listing in part because of its potential to restrict coastal and offshore oil and gas development. The beluga listing could also affect other projects, including the expansion of the Port of Anchorage and a proposed bridge over Knik Arm that would connect Anchorage to the Matanuska-Susitna Valley and Ms. Palin’s hometown, Wasilla.

“I am especially concerned,” the governor said in a written statement in August 2007, when her administration submitted documents to fight the listing, “that an unnecessary federal listing and designation of critical habitat would do serious long-term damage to the vibrant economy of the Cook Inlet area.”

At least she’s clear about her priorities. Build the bridge over Knik Arm, beluga be damned.

My Debate Question

Wednesday, October 15th, 2008

Here’s a question that hasn’t been raised, to my knoweldge, in any of the debates. And yet it may be one of the single most pressing issues of our time. It took shape for me this morning when I read Verlyn Klinkenborg’s column in the New York Times. Here’s the nut:

The financial markets will eventually come back, but not the species we are squandering.

Last week in Barcelona, Spain, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature released results of a global survey of mammal populations. It concluded that at least a quarter of mammal species are headed toward extinction in the near future. Don’t think of this as an across-the-board culling of mammals, of everything from elephants to the minutest of shrews. The first ones to go will be the big ones. And among the big ones, the first to go will be primates, which are already grievously threatened. Nearly 80 percent of the primate species in southern and southeastern Asia are immediately threatened.

The causes are almost all directly related to human activity, including, for marine mammals, the growing threat of ocean acidification, as the oceans absorb the carbon dioxide we emit.

He goes on to discuss the perils facing reptiles, fish, and birds.

Question for Sens. McCain and Obama: Would it be important, in your administration, to try to address the problems of mass extinction? If so, how would you approach the issue strategically? How would you directly address the human activities that are destroying the biodiversity of the Earth?