We were stunned and saddened last week by the loss of our friend and colleague Jim Stephenson, lobbyist and policy analyst for the NC Coastal Federation. We’ll miss his quiet and effective lobbying; we’ll also miss his ironic sense of humor, his passion for good public policy, and his fine taste in beer. Our thoughts and prayers are with Jim’s wife and his colleagues at the NC Coastal Federation, which released this statement last week. Jack Betts, environmental editorial writer for the Charlotte Observer, posted a lovely tribute on his blog, describing him so aptly as ‘a good man in a tough business.’
Jim was a good friend, a very effective advocate and voice for NC’s coast, and a fine Board member. We will miss him.
On Tuesday, President Obama signed into law the stimulus bill (see our blog post), the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The bill has an estimated $6.1 billion for North Carolina. Journalists, state legislators, and wonks have immediately started teasing out what’s available for environmental and other projects. Still, the monies coming to North Carolina will not fill the hole in the state’s budget shortfall, and Gov. Perdue has announced she’ll be looking for more cuts in this year’s state spending. The General Assembly will have to tackle the 2009-2010 budget later this Spring.
Meanwhile, at the federal level, crafting a 2010 budget won’t be easy either. To that end, 25 of the largest environmental and conservation organizations in the country have just released the Green Budget for fiscal year 2010. The report outlines priorities for federal spending on lands and wildlife, energy, environment and public health, oceans, transportation and other programs.
You can download the full report at: www.saveourenvironment.org.
A key recommendation of the report is repair of the federal EPA’s capacity to enforce environmental laws. That capacity was systematically dismantled over the last eight years, and we need it to back up and support our state enforcement efforts. At the press conference [mp3 audio file] presenting the budget, North Carolina’s own Peter Raabe, from American Rivers, also called for increased federal spending on pollution control and steps to protect public health in the face of climate change. The budget also outlines areas where federal investment can generate green jobs and help shift us towards a sustainable economy.
As our state lawmakers prepare to write next year’s state budget, it’s increasingly clear that we desperately need a stronger federal budget and active federal presence to supplement and undergird our state program. Every useful environmental program funded by Congress gives our state legislators a little breathing room to focus state funds on the biggest threats to public health and our environment. Let’s hope both federal and state lawmakers are paying close attention to the priorities outlined in the Green Budget.
The NC General Assembly wrapped up its 2007-2008 biennium today.
It sometimes take a while to get a perspective on a legislative session, but at this point, it looks like the legislature did decently by water this year.
One of bills receiving final approval today is H2499, Drought/ Water Management Recommendations, which will help strengthen North Carolina’s drought response – a good thing, since drought conditions this week are already worse than they were a year ago, and we’re not into August yet.
Another bill approved this week is S1967, Improve Coastal Stormwater Management, a compromise bill that strengthens coastal stormwater rules over currently law.
Three bad ideas – hardened structures on our beaches, indefinite reconstruction of hog lagoons, and promotion of offshore oil drilling – all died in committee at the end of session.
All good reasons to celebrate the end of session!
A few months ago, I read a fascinating (and troubling) report from a panel of American transportation professionals who visited China in September 2007. While there, they met with Chinese national, regional, and local officials and business leaders, and toured a number of ports and other facilities to see how goods are being transported (and exported) in the Chinese economy. The report is available from the Transportation Research Board.
Some of the American panel’s conclusions include: that China expects to continue growing rapidly; that China has a national strategy for the transportation, including freight; and that China’s highly centralized state power has made it easier for the nation to build projects rapidly, without getting derailed by such concerns as environmental impacts.
Travel can broaden the mind; it can also reinforce what one was predisposed to believe. In that regard, one of the panel’s most telling comments is this statement:
"There was a strong perception that the United States lacks the political will to invest in infrastructure and could not deliver needed investments in infrastructure in a timely manner even if desired. China is viewed as being very proactive with respect to infrastructure provision by building for the future and clearly stating in their strategic plans what will be built and when; the United States is perceived as being very reactive."
The panel report also offers some practical insights – the US has a strong advantage in our rail network; US port capacity, rather than foreign port capacity, is the key drag on volume of imports into the US; widening of the Panama Canal is likely to increase pressure on already strained East Coast ports.
Largely overlooked by the panel is the enormous price China is paying – in ecological and human health and social instability – for prioritizing engagement in global markets above sustainability. The report omits any discussion of the likely impacts of climate change regulation. That’s a striking gap, since the massive increases in truck, rail, and shipping imagined by the panel aren’t reconcilable with the reality of massive carbon reductions. It seems to us that there’s a strong argument for United States to adopt a coherent national freight transportation strategy – it will take a proactive strategy to keep the current level of goods moving at much lower levels of greenhouse gas emissions – but the vision of rapidly ever-expanding volumes of freight, with bigger cargo ships, busier ports, more diesel trucks, and many more roads, is nuts.
Today’s New York Times has an interesting article on the challenge of greening America’s suburbs.
The core question the article asks – through the proxy of “many environmentalists” – is whether car-dependent suburbs can be green, even if residents want to reduce carbon emissions and live sustainably. The article doesn’t imply an answer – it seems content with posing the question, and doesn’t provide much basis for evaluating how green is green enough.
But it’s worth thinking through what changes it would take to make suburban living sustainable. My list includes:
- rainwater capture to restore natural patterns of runoff;
- distributed generation of electricity from renewable sources;
- greater energy and water use efficiency within the home;
- addition of neighborhood bike and pedestrian routes, where possible;
- encouragement of mixed land use, where possible;
- reduction in application of pesticides and fertilizers to lawns and landscaping.
That’s probably an incomplete list, but it’s a start. It’s not clear to me what kind of density is necessary to support various commercial land uses – a grocery store, for example. That gets to the basic flaw of the car-centric suburb: it’s just energy inefficient, any way you cut it.
What would you put on your ‘greening the suburbs’ list?
Sadly, this year we weren’t able to make the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, where the world’s muckety-mucks meet to discuss major economic, environmental, and social challenges facing the globe. So, we missed UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s speech urging world leaders to put better water management near the top of their policy agendas for 2008. Fortunately, DowJones has reported on the session for those of us who had other commitments:
"Water is running out….We need to adapt to this reality, just as we do to climate change," he said. "There is still enough water for all of us - but only so long as we can keep it clean, use it more wisely, and share it fairly."
This perspective isn’t just Ki-Moon’s; the article also quotes Andrew Liveris, the CEO of Dow Chemical: "Water is today's issue…It is the oil of this century, not a question."
It’s an insight that also applies here at home in North Carolina: we can continue to live very well if we acknowledge the limits of supply, use it wisely, and share it fairly. Take action today and urge your legislators to require efficient use of water, link growth decisions to water supplies, and update our water laws for the 21st century.
You can also click here for the full text of Ki-Moon’s short speech.
Yesterday’s Vancouver Sun has an article about a group of scientists who are petitioning the International Union of Geological Science to declare that, thanks to human activities, we’ve recently entered a new geological era. The scientists want to call the new era the “Anthropocene”, reflecting human (anthro-) impacts.
According to the article, the scientists will make their case in the February cover story of GSA Today. Marks of the new conditions include higher concentrations of atmospheric carbon and traces of radioactivity from atomic weapons testing.
I’m wondering if a layer of plastic bits across the sea-floor counts as a sign.
On the brighter side: looking for information on plastic in the oceans led me to this wonderful site at the Institute for Figuring. When you visit, don’t miss Inga Hamilton’s stunning jellyfish, part of the Chicago exhibition.
Just past the top of a roller coaster, as you start down the steep slope, there’s a an exhilarating and terrifying instant when you’re not moving fast yet but you can feel yourself accelerating and know the plunge is inevitable, and you just have to hope you’ll stay on the rails when you reach the bottom.
In recent weeks, there’s been a fair amount of media coverage of Arctic ice melting. A bunch of the comments by scientists have sounded like a slow-motion version of that roller-coaster feeling – last summer and this winter, we’re seeing events in the Arctic that are ‘shocking’ and ‘disturbing’. An article in today’s Vancouver Province notes that sea ice in the Beaufort Sea has developed unusually large cracks this winter, some over 60 miles wide. (The Canada Ice Service has posted a remarkable day by day animation, constructed from NOAA images, that shows splits in the ice from December 7 through this week).
The inevitability part comes from the fact that sunlight falling on open water (as opposed to ice) creates a positive feedback loop:
"Arctic ice reflects close to the 95 per cent of solar radiation that hits it. Once the ice melts away, seawater absorbs the heat instead, later releasing it back to the atmosphere, a process that will speed global warming….The phenomenon is already at play in the Beaufort…..[T]he extra heat absorbed by the sea water last summer delayed the formation of new ice last fall by many weeks."
With a roller coaster, thanks to safety inspections, you can be pretty sure that, in fact, the cars will stay on the tracks. That’s not true with climate. It’s pretty clear that actions we take in the next few years to reduce carbon emissions can still have a significant impact on total warming, but it sure looks like a chain of inevitable consequences has already been set in motion in the Arctic.
[For your sake, we didn't post this in Comic Sans.]
There’s a great article in Monday’s New York Times on product design. Author and designer Allison Arieff laments to the current tendency of some designers of tech gadgets and appliances to add function at the expense of both utility and environmental impact. It’s a thoughtful, meandering discussion, and it’s prompted some terrific reader comments, as well.
Several of the comments urge producer responsibility – in particular, mandates that manufacturers take back their products at the end of those products’ useful lives. It’s hard to beat producer responsibility (for waste disposal) as a tool to help manufacturers make socially efficiency choices in designing new products. An ultimate effect of producer responsibility policies is to inspire manufacturers to shift towards William McDonough’s concept of cradle-to-cradle design, where the natural and inorganic components follow two parallel, seamless cycles of materials moving from product to product to product, without having to be thrown away and buried in a landfill forever. As the European Union has found, it’s also a great way to reduce packaging waste.
There’s no single take away message from the article and comments, but if you’ve got 15 minutes to read and mull them over, it will be well worth the time. Finally, opponents of Comic Sans will appreciate comment #51.
Most environmentalists start with sustainability as a first principle. We recognize that our economy, laws, and social structures can take all sots of forms, but – bottom line – they ultimately must respect ecological reality or they won’t last. Within this worldview, the question of whether we can afford to stabilize carbon emissions and curb climate change is bizarre – we can’t afford not to. We shouldn’t cut emissions in a way that is needlessly disruptive or costly, but the first priority needs to be to get off the self-destructive path we’re on (and to make the transition in a way that doesn’t shaft our poor or marginalized neighbors, here at home or around the world).
Still, fear of the costs of curbing emissions still remains an obstacle for some folks – if they admit the science and the need for action, they are afraid they will confront massive costs, and so they simply refuse to acknowledge the reality of climate change.
An article in this week’s Business Week offers a helpful way for think about this, reviewing different approaches to calculating the costs of limiting carbon emissions:
"If you listen to opponents of action against climate change, the American economy will be brought to its knees by such efforts….Yet a new analysis from McKinsey & Co. not only pegs the price tag for making substantial cuts at just a few billion dollars, it also shows that at least 40% of the reductions bring actual savings to the economy, not costs."
The article also quotes Stephen Schneider, a climatologist from Stanford University, exploring what one of the harshest estimates of costs -- $20 trillion – really means when spread over the next 100 years:
"Schneider ran the numbers, assuming the economy grows at about 2% per year. The seemingly huge $20 trillion price tag works out to "a one-year delay in being 500% richer," he says. In other words, paying the price to reduce climate change would mean Americans would have to wait until 2101 to be as rich as they otherwise would have been in 2100. To Schneider, that's a minuscule price to pay for saving the planet from the dangers of global warming. "Are you out of your mind? Who wouldn't take that?" he says."
So, next time you run into a climate change denier – and you get the sense that it’s because they just can’t deal with the implications of climate change being real – share this news: yes, we have to change; yes, it will cost a lot; but no, it doesn’t have to be crushing.