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February 27, 2009

Reality Bites
There's been some amount of disgruntlement regarding President Obama's proposed carbon cap-and-trade system. Dave Roberts really doesn't like the way the administration proposes to handle proceeds from the auction of emissions permits. Brad Plumer objects both to the "timid" emissions cuts baked into the plan as well as to the low estimate for the price of carbon under the proposed system. Meanwhile, Kevin Drum wonders why the revenue estimates are so low.

But Ezra explains it all to you: "this really seems a case where the administration is on the cutting edge of the political conversation, but the political conversation is lagging far behind the severity of the crisis."

Exactly. And the "political conversation" isn't just betwen Democrats and the GOP. Or between coastal Green State Dems and midwestern Brown State Dems. Remember that Obama first had to negotiate the split between climate czar Carol Browner's support for cap-and-trade with economics advisor Larry Summers' and OMB head Peter Orzsag's support for a carbon tax. I'm not surprised that the budget stayed light on details.

What's most important are the set of basic assumptions the administration uses (and assumption is the right term since it's effectively Congress that designs the plan): an economy-wide carbon market. Check. Auctioning 100% of the permits (instead of giving some away to polluters). Check. Rebates for taxpayers. Check. Funding for renewable energy and efficiency. Check. Capping and then reducing emissions to well below 1990 levels by 2050? Check.

The fact is, it's just not wise for the administration to get too deep in the weeds on this. Ezra Klein has observed regarding health care that "the skeletal health plan outlined in [Obama]'s budget has been built to fit the work Congress is already doing on health care reform." Now I don't think you can say that there is quite the same "congressional consensus" on cap-and-trade that there is on health reform.

But at least among House Democrats (and hopefully among Democratic Senators) there is an emerging consensus regarding the elements Obama has included. Will Midwestern Dem Senators balk? Maybe. But the rebate provisions and potential for billions in R&D dollars to flow to the Midwest's "Saudi Arabia of wind" will probably start to look pretty good. And if Sen. Barbara Boxer, who chairs the Senate Environment Committee, follows through with her thought of using the budget reconciliation process for climate change legislation (which would avoid the threat of a filibuster) it may not even matter what Republicans think.

And personally I like the taxpayer rebate provisions - and I don't mind Obama's name for it: the "Making Work Pay" measure. I suspect that giving it an identity outside of its status as a "green" funding mechanism will accrue to its benefit. Meanwhile, as Dave Roberts explains, the provision will:
offset payroll taxes, [while] the credit itself is administered via the income tax. Those who pay payroll tax but no income tax will just receive an income tax credit -- a check. The payroll tax is the target but the income tax is the instrument.
The system "effectively raises one tax (an fossil energy tax) and lowers another. The idea is to get less of what you're taxing (fossil energy) and more of what you're taxing less (work)." If that sounds familiar, it's because Carol Browner's mentor, Al Gore, has been hawking this idea for a while now. He tied it to a carbon tax, but it works the same in a cap-and-trade system.

Finally, regarding the science: this one is tricky. Having just said goodbye to an administration that was barely willing to acknowledge global warming and spent a lot of time undercutting the research behind it, it may be too much to ask for Obama to incorporate the cutting-edge science in his budget. Yes, the the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's most recent report - the "Fourth Assessment" - released in 2007 and representing the benchmark for climate science, says that we need to get emissions to 20% below 1990 levels by 2020 (to which NASA agrees). And yes, those are steeper cuts that the budget includes. And yes, since the release of this report, warming has already outstripped the IPCC's estimates.

But the budget is a frame to hang numbers on. It shouldn't be confused with a legislative proposal. I don't think Congress will look at those numbers as the outer limit of what the President will support. If Obama had gotten too far out in front in his budget, he risked leaving the issue DOA.

So when all is said and done how much will the final cap-and-trade bill resemble Obama's blueprint? That's entirely up to Reps. Henry Waxman and Ed Markey who are writing cap-and-trade legislation as we speak (which I suspect will become the "controlling" version, i.e. stricter than the Senate version, more likely to include all the necessary provisions and thus the version that the Senate will ultimately have to vote on). With the sausage-making just getting underway, let's not start the hand-wringing, too.

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February 26, 2009

Direct Payments
Well, it's official. The budget document just released confirms that the President was referring specifically to the "direct payments" program. The good news (and better than I speculated at ObFo): Bam wants to eliminate direct payment for farmers with SALES greater than $500,000. That will affect a lot more farmers than using income as the basis for a limit. But before you start cheering, know that the administration fully expects the lost subsidy will be replaced by "alternate sources of income from emerging markets for environmental services, such as carbon sequestration, renewable energy production, and providing clean air, clean water, and wildlife habitat." So no worries, Big Ag! The money will continue to flow.

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Bicycles on Broadway
NYC's Mayor Bloomberg just announced that several large sections of Broadway - including Times Square and Herald Square - will be closed to vehicle traffic for the rest of the year. If the experiment works, the closure will be permanent. In the Bush years, we might have wondered if it was for security purposes. But no:

The plan calls for Broadway to be closed to vehicles from 47th Street to 42nd Street. Traffic would continue to flow through on crossing streets, but the areas between the streets would become pedestrian malls, with chairs, benches and cafe tables with umbrellas.

Seventh Avenue would be widened slightly within Times Square to accommodate the extra traffic diverted from Broadway.

Below 42nd Street, Broadway would be open to traffic, but then would shut down again at Herald Square, from 35th Street to 33rd Street. Then, below 33rd, it would open again.

The plan is the latest move by Mr. Bloomberg to change the way the city thinks of its streets, making them more friendly to pedestrians and cyclists and chipping away at the dominance of the automobile.
It comes on the heels of the "Broadway Boulevard" plan that expanded bike lanes and pedestrian areas in Times Square, pictured below.


But getting rid of cars entirely? That's just awesome. Next up - the 42nd St. surface rail - if Vision42 gets its way!


How cool would that be?

"Broadway Boulevard" photo by John Niedermeyer used under CC license
42nd St. tram photo courtesy Vision42

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February 25, 2009

Train-hating B@stards

This drives me nuts. In an article by the AP on the House's omnibus budget bill comes a reference to:
the money-losing Amtrak passenger rail system
Come on! How about the money-losing Interstate Highway System? Or the money-losing national parks? Or our money-losing VA Hospitals? Or the Mother of All Money-losers: the US Military?

I know this is a leftover from 30 years of effective Republican privatization messaging, but still. Just because a bunch of market-crazed freaks decided one day that our interstate rail system should make money doesn't mean we all have to drink the Kool-Aid. Just stop it, AP! Good thing Amtrak Joe has our backs.

Photo by reivax used under a CC license

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Obama to End Big Ag Subsidies?

Well, no. Not really. My guess is that he was referring to this element of the 2008 Farm Bill:
The 2008 Farm Bill reduced the limit for adjusted gross income from $2.5 million to a three-year average of $500,000 of non-farm income. After three years of non-farm income averaging above $500,000, a farmer or entity would lose eligibility for commodity or disaster payments. To qualify for direct payments, farmers or farm entities must also have a three-year average adjusted-gross income of $750,000 or less in farm income.
The old direct payment limit was much higher (and it's worth noting that the Senate version of the 2008 Farm Bill set the direct payment income limit at $250,000 - the level Obama claims to want). The sticky wicket here has to do with how you set eligibility and whether the new rules will apply to 2009's crop year - all of which is up to the USDA to determine. It's been a, shall we say, contentious rulemaking process. Vilsack previously announced he was extending the public comment period for the rule with industry lobbyists and Senators not lacking for suggestions.

My guess is that the President was sharing with his Ag Chief a little rhetorical love and not announcing a new policy. I'm not even sure if he could revisit subsidies outside the five-year Farm Bill window even if he wanted to.

Photo by Bern@t used under a CC license

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February 24, 2009

Antarctic Alps

File this (via the UK Guardian) under "way cool":
A mountain range as large as the European Alps is hidden under 2.5 miles of ice in the east of Antarctica, scientists have revealed. The range includes peaks up to 3,000m above sea level and raises questions over how the massive ice sheets on the continent formed.

Researchers constructed a map that revealed a mountain range at least 800km long and up to 400km wide, covering an area the same size as the Euopean Alps, at more than 200,000 square kilometres. Their survey also showed peaks of 3,000m above sea level and valleys down to 1,000m below sea level. The highest peak in the Alps, Mont Blanc, rises more than 4,800m above sea level but the valleys in this area are typically just 500m deep.

This vast range between the peaks and valleys surprised the scientists — such high mountains, which are normally the result of collisions between tectonic plates, should not exist in the centre of an ancient continent. "We're in the middle of an ancient pre-Cambrian craton, so we shouldn't have mountains there at all," said Ferraccioli.

The new maps also raise questions about how the ice sheets formed. The Gamburtsev mountains are thought to be the nucleus around which the vast 10m-square-kilometre East Antarctic ice sheet, the biggest mass of ice in the world, formed. If the ice grew slowly, the scientists would have expected to see a plateau under the sheet, with the moving ice and water having eroded the peaks of the mountains.

"But the presence of peaks and valleys could suggest that the ice sheet formed quickly – we just don't know."
Meanwhile now they tell us that they know very little about how about how these ice sheets formed. Is it any surprise that we're just as confounded when they disappear?

Photo courtesy NOAA

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Not Helpful
NASA launched a satellite yesterday designed to monitor levels of atmospheric CO2 in far more detail and depth than ever before. Scientists consider the data to be gathered crucial to understanding 1) how much CO2 is really there and 2) how best to mitigate climate change.

But something has gone awry. According to NASA:
NASA's Orbiting Carbon Observatory satellite failed to reach orbit after its 4:55 a.m. EST liftoff Feb. 24 from California's Vandenberg Air Force Base.

Preliminary indications are that the fairing on the Taurus XL launch vehicle failed to separate. The fairing is a clamshell structure that encapsulates the satellite as it travels through the atmosphere.

The spacecraft did not reach orbit and likely landed in the Pacific Ocean near Antarctica, said John Brunschwyler, the program manager for the Taurus XL.

A Mishap Investigation Board is to determine the cause of the launch failure.
That sucks. Anybody have a spare Orbital Carbon Observatory sitting around?

Photo: NASA

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February 23, 2009

The Sustainable Second in Command
I guess this whole "activism" thing sometimes works. Tom Vilsack has named Kathleen Merrigan, one of Food Democracy Now's Sustainable Dozen, as Deputy Secretary of Agriculture - the agency's number two position. Merrigan, currently on faculty at Tufts, is the Clinton-era head of the Agricultural Marketing Service, the division in charge of all those fun USDA labels. Not only that but - according to Chews Wise's Samuel Fromartz - as an aide to Sen. Patrick Leahy, Merrigan actually drafted the USDA Organic labeling law. Say what you will about the USDA Organic program, having first written the law and later been in charge of enforcing it, there's no doubt that Merrigan is battle-tested.

In the comments to Fromartz's post, none other than Frank Kirschenmann (another Sustainable Dozener who I've written about here) gives Merrigan his hearty endorsement - and this was when folks thought she was in the running for a far more junior position.

And it appears that Merrigan didn't shy away from battles. A WaPo profile of her from 2000 (now behind a firewall but helpfully reproduced here), details the her conflicts with the various agricultural advisory committees - a bunch of guys who clearly lacked both social graces as well as a sense of humor:

After Merrigan was appointed in June, she immediately launched a controversial crusade to diversify those white-male-dominated advisory committees, forcing them to establish outreach plans to recruit women, minorities and disabled people. In many cases, she refused to forward their nomination slates to Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman until she was satisfied with their commitment to diversity.

After she blocked nominations to the Florida Tomato Committee, complaining that it hadn't made a "significant effort" to attract women and minorities, the Weekly Standard, a conservative magazine, lampooned her in an article titled "Attack of the Tomato Killers." The Packer, an agricultural publication, described her crusade as "Beltway Blindness." In a nasty letter to Glickman, committee manager Wayne Hawkins said he was resigning and going into business: "I plan to find a female Afro-American who is confined to a wheelchair to be my partner. This way I will meet all of the government diversification requirements."

I bet she'll get a few questions on that at her confirmation hearings. Of course, upsetting the old boy network is the least of her qualifications. Indeed one element on her cv that's worth noting is her involvement in the now defunct Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology. It was a project that:
spotlighted policy issues arising from [biotech related] discussions and served as a credible, honest broker, bringing together people with differing viewpoints to examine the opportunities and challenges of agricultural biotechnology.
It was apparently considered a moderate voice in the debate - usually suggesting neither a hostile or laissez-faire approach to GM crops. This should give us some sense of what kind of experience Vilsack wants in his deputy since both he and President Obama are supportive of biotech research. Even so, Merrigan's pick is a clear a win for progressives - though her selection does beg the question as to whether Chuck Hassebrook of the Center of Rural Affairs, and considered by some to be a leading candidate for Merrigan's job, jumped or was pushed from the shortlist. In fact, of the Sustainable Dozen members, Merrigan appears to be one of the lower profile figures - but that shouldn't come as a surprise. Sometimes reform has to creep rather than storm into the room. Regardless, I think we can now officially dispense with questions of Vilsack's commitment to reform. The only thing left to find out - can he deliver?

[Updated 2/25] Paula Crossfield at Civil Eats hints at an answer regarding Hassebrook - that it was House Ag Chairman (and enemy of reform) Rep. Collin Peterson who "pitched a fit" of obstruction rather than Sen. Kent Conrad, as previously rumored. Of course, fit pitching is a popular sport on the Hill so, as with the Murder on the Orient Express, Hassebrook's kaibosh probably has multiple fingerprints.

Also, Ezra found Marion Nestle to be surprisingly nonplussed by Merrigan's nomination - for reasons I touched on above. Simply put, she doesn't like Merrigan's stance on transgenics. That's definitely one area to keep on eye on.

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Miracle Liquid
No, I'm not talking about coffee - though you can drink it. And clean with it. And disinfect food with it. And enjoy an "odor-free" Japanese taxi because of it. That's right. I'm talking about electrolyzed water (via the LAT):
...a simple mixture of table salt and tap water whose ions have been scrambled with an electric current... Some hotel workers are calling it el liquido milagroso -- the miracle liquid.

That's as good a name as any for a substance that scientists say is powerful enough to kill anthrax spores without harming people or the environment.

Used as a sanitizer for decades in Russia and Japan, it's slowly winning acceptance in the United States. A New York poultry processor uses it to kill salmonella on chicken carcasses. Minnesota grocery clerks spray sticky conveyors in the checkout lanes. Michigan jailers mop with electrolyzed water to keep potentially lethal cleaners out of the hands of inmates.
This is just too cool. Anything that replaces bleach and other cleaning products is great. But to find one that costs "less than a penny a gallon?" Not to mention the health benefits to the janitors and hotel housecleaners who are exposed to toxic chemicals all day everyday. The only downside is that it's not shelf-stable and the equipment to make it costs a few thousand dollars - which is why it's been an industrial solution to this point. No doubt someone will come up with a consumer product soon enough - and given how much most of us spend on cleaning products it likely will be a money-saver down the road. But the really fascinating bit is this:
Minnesota food scientist Joellen Feirtag... installed an electrolysis unit in her laboratory and began researching the technology. She found that the acid water killed E. coli, salmonella, listeria and other nasty pathogens. Yet it was gentle enough to soothe her children's sunburns and acne.

She's now encouraging food processors to take a look at electrolyzed water to help combat the disease outbreaks that have roiled the industry.
Quick! Someone call Bill Marler. I'm only half-kidding. Pop quiz: which would you rather use on your food? Water or Cobalt-60? This is not a trick question.

This is one ball that needs to start rolling ASAP.

As for the Japanese taxi thing. Read on (stop if you're about to eat):
Sanyo is bent on cleaning up Japan's taxis with a tiny air purifier that fits into a car's cup holder. The device uses electrolyzed water to shield passengers from an unwelcome byproduct of Japan's binge-drinking business culture: vomit.

"There was some concern about the spreading of viruses and bacteria via the taxi, not to mention the . . . stinky smells," Sanyo spokesman Aaron Fowles said.
I don't make this stuff up.

Photo courtesy NBC. Idea for photo courtesy LAT.

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February 22, 2009

Soft Serve

With HFCS recently off the hook as the proximate cause of obesity, we're left to wonder why so many in the developed world are getting so fat so quickly. Maybe it's because the food isn't working our jaws enough. Harvard doctor Richard Wrangham presented a paper at the recent American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting whose central assertion was that cooked food is more easily digested than raw. But he also found that something as simple as eating softened food caused significant weight gain (in rats). Via the Economist (and ObFo):
[T]he experimenters ground up food pellets and then recompacted them to make them softer. Rats fed on the softer pellets weighed 30% more after 26 weeks than those fed the same weight of standard pellets. The difference was because of the lower cost of digestion. Indeed, Dr Wrangham suspects the main cause of the modern epidemic of obesity is not overeating (which the evidence suggests--in America, at least--is a myth) but the rise of processed foods. These are softer, because that is what people prefer. Indeed, the nerves from the taste buds meet in a part of the brain called the amygdala with nerves that convey information on the softness of food. It is only after these two qualities have been compared that the brain assesses how pleasant a mouthful actually is.
So, yes, we're eating more calories, but it may really be the processing that's done us in. As a result, efficiency is at an all time high in precisely the area we don't want it: our digestion. I think I'll stick to the hard stuff.

Photo by randomduck used under CC license

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The Photo-Op that Ate the USDA
Obamafoodorama (blissfully abbreviated as ObFo) has an amusing and edifying (and lengthy) disquisition on Tom Vilsack's in progress "People's Garden." When Vilsack took a jackhammer to a slab of concrete in front of USDA headquarters in honor of Lincoln's Birthday (the USDA was founded under Lincoln and referred to by him as "the People's Department"), he thought he was demonstrating the USDA's commitment to sustainable landscaping. But he did it without, it appears, much in the way of forethought.

The planning process seems to have consisted of one step: "Dig a hole." There's no design for an actual garden to go in its place - and it certainly was not intended, as many have presumed and now demanded, to be a food garden. The landscape plan that Vilsack brandished in a USDA photo was, according to USDA/Natural Resources Conservation Service spokesman Terry Bish, a prop. When ObFo asked about it, Bish said "Oh, that's old. Those are the plans from when [former Ag] Secretary Schafer was planting a tree in the ornamental garden to honor a USDA employee who was killed in Iraq."

In fact, the whole thing was a photo op that got out of hand.
But the goal of the garden changed when it became apparent that there was a groundswell of public interest in a food garden at USDA headquarters.

"Suddenly there was all this interest from the public about vegetables," Mr. Bish said. "It was a sleeper. Sometimes we do these things, and they get really big." He repeated: "There's actually no timeline for the garden. It was all about the Bicentennial. But now we have to come up with ways of maintaining it and to see how we can use it...."
But will the garden include the rumored (via USDA press release) "wide variety of garden activities including Embassy window boxes, tree planting, and field office plots...[with a] landscaping and building design to retain water and reduce runoff; roof gardens for energy efficiency; utilizing native plantings... [meant to] return the landscape to grass... [that] will showcase conservation practices... and pollinator-friendly plantings"? Not so much.

When pressed on that point by ObFo, Bish repeated that, "Yes. There will be fruits and vegetables." The people will be getting what they want. I guess they'll have to find a new home for that historic Magnolia sapling from the White House lawn that the First Lady popped by to donate.

It's worth reading the whole of the post to understand what ad hoc bureaucracy looks like. It ain't pretty. And with a public groundswell on the side of fruits and vegetables, it's a good thing Big Ag didn't get wind of all this. Given the political dynamic surrounding food, they probably would've forced old Tom to pour the replacement concrete himself. Still, I'll say this - Tom Vilsack clearly threw an ossified bureaucracy for a loop with his jackhammering hijinks. Maybe the "optics," as the political operatives say, aren't so bad after all...

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February 20, 2009

Transgenic Trouble

The pressure for governments and consumers to embrace transgenic crops is growing higher by the day. Our biotech overlords Companies like Monsanto, Dupont, Dow and Syngenta (the product of a merger between the ag-tech divisions of two pharmaceutical giants) would like nothing more than to be given the keys to the agricultural castle.

Sadly, it's clear at this point that transgenic crops are going to play a role going forward - the powers arrayed in support of these companies are simply too great and so much of the stuff is out there already. It's also true that there may be some crop diseases (like stem rust, currently destroying African wheat and coming soon to a wheat field near you) that will resist anything but a transgenic solution - although early indications are that stem rust, for one, is winning the fight.

And if one of these companies came up with the magic seed that could double, triple or quadruple yields, it would be hard to balance health risks against the coming global famine. But of course, the magic seed doesn't exist. Naturally, the biotech companies do everything they can to keep the dream of the magic seed alive - it's the ultimate sales pitch. But with transgenic seeds managing only minimal, if any, yield benefits (and given that there is now research indicating that the higher a food crop's yield, the lower its nutritional content), it's unclear how they'll help except at the margins. In fact, an aspect of this debate that isn't discussed enough is that transgenic seeds mostly just represent conventional agriculture, only louder. These engineered crops won't die from massive applications of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides. This is the future of farming?

Another unheralded issue with transgenics is the biotech companies' current attempts to keep scientists' prying eyes and brains away from these seeds. According to the NYT:
Biotechnology companies are keeping university scientists from fully researching the effectiveness and environmental impact of the industry's genetically modified crops, according to an unusual complaint issued by a group of those scientists.

The problem, the scientists say, is that farmers and other buyers of genetically engineered seeds have to sign an agreement meant to ensure that growers honor company patent rights and environmental regulations. But the agreements also prohibit growing the crops for research purposes.

So while university scientists can freely buy pesticides or conventional seeds for their research, they cannot do that with genetically engineered seeds. Instead, they must seek permission from the seed companies. And sometimes that permission is denied or the company insists on reviewing any findings before they can be published, they say.
Imagine if those rules applied to drug testing. Or chemical testing. We can barely overcome industry meddling as it is. So, yes, let's put these companies in control of the research into the safety and effects of growing transgenic crops. I'm sure they'll only do what's in our best interests. Isn't that what Big Business is all about?

Photo by mknowles used under CC license

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February 19, 2009

Hopeful Signs in China

Looks like Hillary's decision to focus efforts on China is leading in the right direction.
China said Thursday it was willing to work with the United States on addressing climate change, saying such efforts were vital to fighting global warming.

"Strengthening cooperation on climate change is in the interest of the two countries and conducive to our two nations contributing to international climate change cooperation," foreign ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said.

"We would like to work with the US to make concrete progress on this issue."

In this Reuters account, Jiang also stated that the economy won't be a scapegoat for inaction:

"Although we have been affected by the global economic crisis, the Chinese government's resolve to tackle climate change has not changed, and our actions have not weakened."

And finally:

"We are willing to work together with international society to push the Copenhagen talks forward and make sure they have a positive outcome."

You gotta start somewhere.

Photo by xiaming used under CC license

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February 18, 2009

The End of Grass-Fed Beef?

Via Mark Bittman (and a Grist tweet), a study released at the recent American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting claimed that grass-fed beef has a higher carbon footprint than feedlot beef. The study's lead author, Nathan Pelletier of Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia explains:
"It's related to the much higher volumes of feed throughput and associated methane and nitrous-oxide [GHG] emissions." He added that most pastures were highly managed, and subject to "periodic renovations and also fertilization." Finally, with grass-fed cattle "there is also a high [grass] trampling rate. So the actual land area that you need to maintain magnifies that [GHG] difference," Pelletier said.
Look, meat won't scale to allow everyone to eat over 200 lbs of the stuff a year like we do now, despite what China is trying to do. We're going to have to eat less - certainly a lot less beef. But I have to say that I'm somewhat skeptical of this result. Without knowing its methodology, you can conceive of all sorts of potential flaws. Firstly, we don't know what types of agriculture the study examined - there's no indication, for example, that they compared conventional feedlot to organic grass-fed. And beyond organic, there are many ways to pasture cows (and to grow feed) - the researchers may have looked at the most GHG intensive styles.

It's also not clear if they looked at emissions on a per animal or per facility basis - feedlots would probably come out better in the former than the latter. Finally, you need to look at net land use - the land used to grow feed would likely not lie fallow, but would instead grow something else, which would have its own carbon footprint, which might be lower than the corn. The same goes for the pasture (which could go in the other direction). And of course, they left out potential mitigation techniques such as biogas digesters that might provide more or less of an advantage to factory farms or pastures. It's not at all clear how you account for all that and to what extent they did. I'm not ruling out the possibility that these results might be accurate. But I'm by no means convinced.

Photo by Special used under CC license

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Scary Economic Indicators

When desalination startups start to make news and attract VC capital, I think we can say Peak Water is here:
Desalination start-up Oasys Water is banking on the fact that water will shortly be the new oil.

Flagship Ventures, Advanced Technology Ventures (ATV), and Draper Fisher Jurvetson (DFJ) seem to agree as the three invested a total of $10 million in Series A funding.

Sounds like this group is pretty far from shipping product. But I'm sure folks in Los Angeles are interested in getting on the waiting list.

Photo by Hypergurl used under CC license

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February 17, 2009

Moratorium on the Moratorium Moratorium
Alternate title: Jackson Strikes Back

In what will not, I hope, be the last strikethrough of Bush administration EPA rules, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson effectively re-instated a ban on new coal-fired power plants. In the waning days of the Bush era, then EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson refused to allow the EPA to regulate carbon emissions as a pollutant from coal-fired power plants claiming that a ruling of law on the matter was merely a "suggestion." Jackson, as expected, disagreed and has now kicked off a new rule-making process for carbon from coal plants. As Grist observes, this may be the starting point for the EPA to regulate carbon more generally under the Clean Air Act. And as the Sierra Club's chief climate counsel David Bookbinder points out, the uncertainly surrounding the regulation will likely freeze financing for investments in coal. Good times.

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February 16, 2009

Killing King Coal
In what may be a watershed, the NYT broached the subject of the death of coal. Who ever thought you'd read this kind of thing in a paper of record any time soon:
The coal industry, which powered the industrial revolution and supplied America with much of its electricity for more than 60 years, is in a fight for its survival.

With concerns over climate change intensifying, electricity generation from coal, once reliably cheap, looks increasingly expensive in the face of the all-but-certain prospect of regulations that would impose significant costs on companies that emit large amounts of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.
The article goes on to describe the obstacles to implementing so-called "clean coal" - like the idea that rock in many parts of the South is too porous for carbon capture and sequestration technology to work: the carbon gas would just leak out. And the likelihood that coal will stay in our energy mix for a long time - mostly because of the 600 legacy coal-fired power plants still running.

But the article misses a couple of important points. A lot of attention is given to the costs for coal power associated with climate change legislation in terms of a market price for carbon as well as the costs to incorporate carbon capture (which will likely run into the billions per coal plant). But that ignores the fact that, even now, when coal plants are proposed that use the best available anti-pollution technologies for mercury, nitrous oxide and sulfur dioxide, they turn out to be more expensive (and take longer to build) than cleaner alternatives. Now that the Obama EPA re-writing mercury emissions regulations, the coal industry will have trouble just complying with those. It's easy to see why states are losing interest in coal-fired power plants having nothing to do with carbon capture.

So the only question that matters, it seems to me, is how you get rid of those 600 legacy plants. And the answer is: energy efficiency. The Rocky Mountain Institute recently published a study on what they called the "efficiency gap." They determined that if all 50 states were as energy efficient as the top ten most efficient states then "more than 60 percent of coal-fired generation could be displaced" - as in shut down. That's 360 coal-fired power plants right there.

It's also crucial to allow what's called "decoupling" so that utilities can adjust rates more freely in order to reward customers for energy efficiency (most utilities currently have the perverse incentive to encourage energy use among their customers since they are only allowed to make money by selling more electricity). California currently practices this (as Joe Romm explains in detail) which is part of the reason why their energy use per capita has remained at 1990 levels. Rep. Henry Waxman attempted (and, I believe, failed) to insert a decoupling provision in the stimulus.

If we focus on those two things, we'll have a lot more luck getting rid of coal than if we throw billions of dollars and years of effort on carbon capture. Which is why I'm much happier when Steven Chu agrees with me, than when he doesn't.

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February 13, 2009

Wherever You Go, There's BPA

Enviroblog flagged this deeply disturbing article from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on the results of new bisphenol-A studies. I'd heard that BPA hangs around in our bodies longer than earlier believed, but this brought me up short:

The research indicates for the first time that people are either constantly being bombarded with bisphenol A from non-food sources, such as receipts and plastic water piping, or they are storing the chemical in fat cells, unable to get rid of it as quickly as scientists have believed.

"It provides evidence that we are being exposed to more BPA than we think - and that contaminated food and beverages may not even be the main source" of our BPA exposure, said Patricia Hunt, a professor at Washington State University who pioneered studies linking BPA to cancer. "Scary, huh?"

I think I now know how to answer the question, "Would you like your receipt, sir?" Um. No. And water pipes?! Raise your hand if you have PVC plumbing. I count about 100 million of you. And let me also observe that it makes me really unhappy when scientists use words like "scary" to talk about the presence of certain chemicals in our bodies. Leave it to Enviroblog to bring the hammer down, risk-wise:

An estimated 6 billion pounds of BPA are produced globally annually, generating about $6 billion in sales. In addition to food containers, BPA is an additive in many other consumer products, some like plastic water pipes and municipal water storage tanks may also leach BPA directly into the drinking water. Let us also consider the other side of BPA lifecycle: What happens to those 6 billion pounds every year once they are released into the environment? They do not just disappear; on the contrary, BPA accumulates in the freshwater and marine environment, where it could damage wildlife reproduction. In 2007, an interdisciplinary team of scientists from seven different research institutions, found aquatic animals and aquatic ecosystems to be at great risk for BPA-caused endocrine disruption.

Water pollution with BPA is not just a risk to wildlife, as demonstrated by another research finding, this time from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). Tucked away among long data tables of a recent USGS report is a startling observation that BPA is 1 of the 5 most frequently detected chemical contaminants in groundwater sites analyzed by USGS. 30% of the samples tested by USGS scientists contained BPA. In many communities nationwide, groundwater is the main source of drinking water, and people in some communities might be continuously exposed to BPA simply from the water they drink. Water utilities have not been testing tap water for potential BPA contamination so we don't know how many people may be ingesting BPA with tap water. But just think about it: with 6 billion pounds of BPA produced every year, the purity of our water supplies may very well be at risk.

So much for chucking all those water bottles and cutting back on canned food. Enviroblog wants you to read this and then sign their petition in support of the KidSafe Chemicals Act. But before we go to all the trouble of passing a law, can we just ban the stuff? Pretty please?

Photo by Aper3Caper used under a CC license

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A Plague of Wal-Marts
Watching this gripping animation (h/t Ezra Klein) that charts the spread of Wal-Marts across the country got me thinking. I felt like I was really watching the spread of wage stagnation across the country. I'm not suggesting there's any clarity as to which came first - Wal-Mart or the grinding halt in middle-class wage growth. But Wal-Mart's accelerated growth in the 80s tracks this chart on wage inequality nicely (note the bottom two lines).


It's a pointless chicken and egg debate at a certain level. You can't blame Sam Walton (much less Sebastian Kresge or James Sinegal) for the fact that discounters that thrive on downward price pressure represent the only means most Americans have of maintaining the illusion of a rising standard of living.

As it happens, that same lack of wage growth locked in the necessity of a food system that could produce calories for as little as possible. And it's the fact that Americans' real wages have been flat or falling during the Age of Wal-Mart that makes fixing the food system so implacably hard. Tom Philpott touched on this a little while back, identifying the Achilles Heel in any Pollan-esque remaking of the food system.
The ability to buy plenty of tasty calories on a low-wage salary actually lies at the heart of our economic system. For 30 years, our system has maintained corporate profits through a steady attack on wages. One of the major reasons workers have accepted stagnate wages is, I think, that food prices as a percentage of income have fallen steadily since the 1970s, a trend which went into reverse only last year. (The other is the ready availability of cheap consumer goods made by even-lower-paid workers in China).

Given that reality, it makes little sense to talk about transforming the food system and revaluing food without transforming the economic system and revaluing labor. Pollan never gets too far into those topics.
Any solution that involves the statement, "food needs to be more expensive" is going to be what the experts call a political non-starter. How to restart middle-class wage growth is, of course, the gajillion dollar question - although I agree with Kevin Drum's prescription: More Unions!

But short of that, we're faced with maintaining agricultural subsidies in some form. Right now, all Americans effectively receive food stamps - it's just that for most of us those payments go directly to corn and soy farmers. We can rail against the wastefulness of subsidies all we want. But given that the alternative is higher prices at the grocery store, I agree with Tom Philpott that our focus should be on better rather than smaller subsidies. Exactly how we structure that isn't at all clear, but unless Wal-Mart and its ilk start giving their employees big annual raises, the government is going to have to work to keep food, preferably real food, affordable.

Chart by Ezra Klein

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February 12, 2009

SUPERTRAIN to Hell

I've been very curious about the mysterious High Speed Rail provision that was inserted into the stimulus bill by the Senate. On the one hand, no one talked much about it - it wasn't clear whose idea it was or even who put it in. On the other hand, even after multiple GOP hissy fits over spending, it was never pulled out. In fact, HSR money got upped. We have now learned who the big fan of the SUPERTRAIN is. And you'll never guess where most of it's going to be spent.
Another late addition was a quadrupling to $8 billion, at the behest of Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., of money to construct high-speed rail lines. Reid's office issued a statement noting that a proposed Los Angeles-to-Las Vegas rail could get a big chunk of the money.
Vegas. You must be frakking kidding.

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We've Got the Firefighters

The first responders speak:
Firefighters called on the Australian government on Thursday to take a tougher stance against climate change in an effort to avoid more deadly bushfires like those that killed 181 people this week.

In their letter to Rudd, the firefighters cited Australian scientists forecasting a "low global warming scenario" would see catastrophic fire events in Victoria every five to seven years by 2020, and by 2050, a doubling of extreme danger fire days.

"Given the federal government's dismal greenhouse gas emissions cut of 5 percent, the science suggests we are well on the way to guaranteeing that somewhere in the country there will be an almost annual repeat of the recent disaster," they said.

And the dots are connected.

Photo by bernardoh used under a CC license

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February 11, 2009

The Robot Menace

A commenter on a post of mine at Grist speculated that:
Elimination of GMO crops, pesticides and herbicides is going to take robotic organic farming, it's just too hard to grow grain and soybeans on an industrial ag scale with human labor.
So I thought I'd look into it. And yes, according to Wired, it's real.
Vision Robotics, a San Diego company, is working on a pair of robots that would trundle through orchards plucking oranges, apples or other fruit from the trees. In a few years, troops of these machines could perform the tedious and labor-intensive task of fruit picking that currently employs thousands of migrant workers each season.
Someone claims to have a tomato picking robot, but I can't find any video. This is all just so wrong. First they pick our apples and oranges. And then they enslave us. Mark my words.

Photo: Vision Robotics

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Economics Cat* Blogging

I will happily admit that economics isn't exactly my bag. But with other Toms getting into the act, I figure it's open season. Ezra Klein found a pithy characterization of the current state of the world financial system in Politico's Playbook. If this "oft-quoted investment banker" is to be believed, we now have a Schrödinger's Cat economy:
The problem is there are no sellers; that is, the banks won't sell. Because to sell is to book a loss on what you have sold and what remains. And to do that is to die. That's what it means to be insolvent.
So. As long as we don't open the box, we're okay. Trying to "fix" the system will invariably involve opening the box and you know what that means for the cat. I guess that's why they call it a paradox. No wonder Geithner punted.

*Not my cat
Photo by Hannibal Poenaru used under CC license

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February 10, 2009

Bye, Bob

Bob "climate change is a crock of sh*t" Lutz is retiring from GM. He designed nice cars, I guess. And yes, he was Mr. Volt. But I guess the "triumph of science" in the new administration was too much for him. Now if GM would just drop their anti-environmental lawsuits and their love affair with ethanol, I wouldn't feel so bad about bailing them out.

Photo courtesy GM

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Small Changes, Big Effects

One last bit on Australia. In an article in the UK Guardian, Tim Flannery, a scientist and climate activist who grew up in Victoria - ground zero of the fires - adds some futher perspective to the tragedy there. First, he notes that Australia, though it only contributes a fraction of the world's GHG emissions, has the highest per capita emissions in the world - mostly due to coal-fired power. Indeed, he claims that his home state has the dirtiest coal-fired power plant in the world. And he shares this bit of firsthand observation on the climate:
I was born in Victoria, and over five decades I've watched as the state has changed. The long, wet and cold winters that seemed so insufferable to me as a young boy wishing to play outside vanished decades ago, and for the past 12 years a new, drier climate has established itself... There's evidence that the stream of global pollution caused a step-change in climate following the huge El Niño event of 1998.
The theory is that a "disruptive" event interacted with long-term trends to create a new equilibrium. Not to get all Day After Tomorrow on everyone, but that's kind of scary. It suggests that we're seeing Australia's new normal: permanent drought, "desiccation of the soil, and more extreme summer temperatures." This is what climate change looks like.

He also shares some of his past experiences with bushfires and says:
I had not previously appreciated the difference a degree or two of additional heat, and a dry soil, can make to the ferocity of a fire. This fire was quantatively different from anything seen before.
Just like they warned us: small changes in initial conditions can lead to large changes in outcomes. So the next time you hear about "small" changes in global temperatures, keep in mind what's happening in Australia - because California and the American Southwest appear to be up next.

Photo by olaf141 used under CC license

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February 9, 2009

Food Coloring is Bad

This is something the Center for Science in the Public Interest has been flogging for a while but seems to be finally gaining traction. The Daily Green noted today that the state of Maryland may soon be the first state to require labeling on food items containing artificial colors with the possibility of banning them as soon as 2012. For the record, the colors in question are popular versions of blue, green, red, orange and yellow coloring. A veritable rainbow of poison.

What caught my attention were two things. First, the research documenting a connection between pediatric behavioral problems like ADHD and a raft of artificial food colors is well established both through meta-analysis of previous studies as well as through new studies designed specifically to test the hypothesis. Second, the UK has already effectively banned the stuff, which forced food companies to use what scientists refer to as "real food" to color their processed foodstuffs. The CSPI has the slightly nauseating details:

In Europe, regulators and industry have made considerable progress toward eliminating artificial dyes from food products, though American versions of the very same products continue to get their colors from synthetic dyes. For instance, the syrup in a strawberry sundae from a McDonald's in the U.K. gets its red color from strawberries; in the U.S., the red color comes from synthetic Red 40.

In the U.S., synthetic food dyes are common in brightly colored foods popular with children, including candies, soft drinks, breakfast cereals, and snack foods. Sometimes the sunny synthetic colors are designed to simulate fruits or vegetables, as in the case of a "Guacamole Dip" produced by Kraft, which gets its green color not from avocados but from Yellow 5, Yellow 6, and Blue 1. The "artificially flavored blueberry bits" in Aunt Jemima Blueberry Waffles are blue thanks to Red 40 and Blue 2, not blueberries.

Indeed, General Mills, Kellogg, Kraft and McDonalds all replaced the harmful dyes in their British products. Even Fanta now uses pumpkin and carrot extracts to color their soda orange in the UK. And you know what? The world didn't end. Nor did the companies go out of business. There's not even any indication that eliminating dyes caused price increases. In fact, no one really noticed, which begs the question of why the colors are used in the first place. We're running out of excuses, folks.

Thankfully, we can always rely on the medical community to come up with a doozy when required. How about this one from the NYT article on the dangers of food additives from last year. Expressing doubts about the risks vs benefits of banning these additives, a pediatric psychopharmacologist at Mass General Hospital asked, "Is [the effect] powerful enough that you want to ostracize your kid? It is very socially impacting if children can't eat the things that their friends do."

That's right. ADHD is bad and stuff. But no candy and soda? That's just outrageous! If this is the wisdom coming out of the medical profession, it's no wonder the FDA drags its feet. They're afraid they might bum us all out.

Photo by terren in Virginia used under a CC license

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More Trouble in Australia

With those ridiculously high temperatures in southern Australia having spawned that country's worst and deadliest brush fires ever, we're starting to see one of the first cases where public sentiment links natural disasters to government action on climate change. Australia, like the US, is coming off its long conservative hangover. Besides being one of the founding members of the George W. Bush fan club, former PM John Howard is a well-known climate skeptic. He pulled Australia out of the Kyoto Accords and, though he proposed a cap-and-trade system, wanted to avoid an actual mandated emissions cap. His successor, Kevin Rudd, is much more aggressive in his climate stance, but even so only supports a 5% cut in emissions by 2020 (unless a climate treaty forces additional cuts).

But with Australia wracked by long term drought, record heat and massive infernos, the calls for action are growing louder. Australia is an outlier in every sense of the word - geographically and ecologically. It's basically a desert continent that is barely habitable in the best of circumstances - unlike in the US, regional climate issues mirror national ones. It's understandable then that Australians might start connecting some dots for themselves. Obviously, you can't take a single set of weather events or natural disasters and pin it on climate change. But as the Green Party spokesperson said as the heat, drought and fires rage on, "we Australians have looked our own future in the face." And who wants a future like that?

As an Asian-Pacific democracy and despite the fact that it's responsible for only a modest 1.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions, Australia could do worse than to take their Green Party's advice to lead by example through steeper cuts. If nothing else, it would be a further means of bringing China and India along on the emissions cutting path - probably the only hope for keeping Australia's fiery future permanently at bay

Photo courtesy Reuters

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February 6, 2009

Back Door Reform

In the waning days of the Bush administration, the USDA created the Office of Ecosystem Services and Markets and named the number two person at the Forest Service, Sally Collins, as head of the new office - a position she has retained. They didn't do it out of the goodness of their hearts, of course - its creation was mandated by the 2008 Farm Bill. As then USDA chief Ed Schafer described it in a December press release:
Our Nation's farms, ranches and forests provide goods and services that are vital to society - natural assets we call "ecosystem services..." The Office of Ecosystem Services and Markets will enable America's agriculture producers to better compete, trade their services around the world, and make significant contributions to help improve the environment.
To me this smacks a bit too much of the right's steamy love affair with cost-benefit analysis and its attempt to put a dollar value on every public good. That said, coming from a group that typically looks at a tree and sees the wrong kind of green, I guess it represents progress. The press release seems downright resentful that landowners whose properties provide "clean water and air, wildlife habitat, carbon storage, and scenic landscapes... are not generally compensated for providing these critical public benefits." Poor, unappreciated landed gentry. I guess we're all bleeding-hearts now.

Sadly, no matter how desperately you may want to discover the dollar value of bison habitat, the OESM (or however you shorten that mouthful of a name) will instead start its work with carbon sequestration, which is probably a good thing. As the Christian Science Monitor explains:
the focus is on cataloging land-use activities that trap carbon and developing an acceptable standard for measuring them. The first step is setting up verifiable national standards -- eco-bean counting for carbon sequestration as a 21st-century commodity crop.
Now, when you throw in various comments Tom Vilsack has made regarding the role of carbon sequestration in agriculture and forestry, one interpretation is that forests and farms will play a central role in an offset regime as part of an Obama administration cap-and-trade system. The idea, as I've explained before, is that companies would purchase the right to emit carbon by paying other companies to reduce their carbon emissions by an equivalent amount. Unfortunately, such programs really don't work. Offset regimes are easy to game and hard to measure. Europe's offset program has been an unmitigated disaster and is likely to be phased out within a few years. Why then are we laying the groundwork for our own?

It makes even less sense when you realize that Big Ag isn't exactly what scientists would call a "carbon sink" - rather it's responsible for a significant chunk of US carbon emissions. And all that nitrogen fertilizer running off those monocrop fields doesn't make the water any cleaner. And those livestock ranches? Don't get me started.

But I think Vilsack and Obama something quite different in mind. This isn't meant to be the next ethanol boondoggle. It's designed to be a big fat juicy carrot. Through this office, the USDA will officially take a position on ag sector greenhouse gas emissions. We're not just going to get a list of the good practices, we're going to get a list of the bad ones, too. The CSM article hints at where all this is leading:

The idea is to nurture food- and fiber-producing activities that are more climate-friendly. Over time, Collins says by phone from Washington, "Where we go from here will alter the discussion of how the country thinks about natural resources."

The program will be similar to payments farmers currently receive to rest their land in order to preserve the soil, restoration of wetlands along rivers by municipalities to promote water quality and flood control, and "biodiversity banks" in which landholders that affect habitat for endangered species are required to provide equal or greater amount of habitat elsewhere.

How's that for flipping the farm subsidy system on its head? The government will pay you to farm sustainably. Vilsack himself suggested as much in an interview in the Des Moines Register on the shrinking number of mid-size farms:
Increased payments to farmers for land-conservation measures should help keep smaller operations in business, and those farms also could get checks in the future for reducing carbon emissions, he said.
That would be downright radical. Its not a frontal assault on Big Ag - it is rather quite an elegant flanking maneuver. If you can start increasing the pot of subsidy money available for low-carbon farming, it strikes me as at least conceivable that you could start squeezing the old-school commodity crop subsidies without the same level of outrage (Collin Peterson notwithstanding) you might otherwise incite.

Tie all that in with a just-announced pilot project that will allow farmers who receive commodity crop subsidies to plant some of their acreage with vegetables (usually illegal) and you start to see the beginnings of where Vilsack might be headed. Giving commodity crop farmers a "way-out" of the subsidy system without having to go cold turkey combined with additional financial incentives to move toward sustainable farming? I'm now officially intrigued.

Photo by Ed Yourdon used under a CC license

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Phthalate Phight

Plastics are bad and you shouldn't use them. But since that won't happen, it would be nice if we could at least get rid of phthalates, a common ingredient in soft plastics. For those who need a phthalates refresher, Enviroblog reminds us that they are:
a family of toxic chemicals that have been linked to allergies and asthma, infertility, reduced testosterone concentrations, and, most worrisome, abnormal development of reproductive system in baby boys.

Phthalates are used in a wide variety of consumer products such as fragrances, cosmetics and shampoos, medical devices, soft toys that children and pets play with and often chew, building and home decorating materials, and even children's clothing.
The good news is that Congress passed a law last year banning the chemical. The bad news is that the Consumer Product Safety Commission under idiot former President Bush had ruled that products manufactured before February 10, 2009 could stay on the shelves. So it's a poison, but only after February 10. Before February 10 it's not a poison. Got it? So the Natural Resources Defense Council and Public Citizen sued to stop enforcement of that CPSC ruling. And they appear to have won. Good news, right?

Well, it was until GOP Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina and several of his Senate colleagues got involved. With backing from the US Chamber of Commerce, this group of Republicans are attempting to insert a provision into the stimulus bill that would significantly weaken the entire product safety reform act. According to the LAT, the bill:
...would delay the [phthalate] regulations by six months, clarify rules about component testing, exempt resellers from the act, prevent retroactive enforcement of the act and require the commission to provide small businesses with a compliance guide.
Apparently, stimulating the economy and poisoning children go hand in hand. What is it with these people? Presumably, Democrats will knock it back. But it does make you wonder - what environmental landmines might still be buried in that stimulus package?

Photo by Steve Wampler used under a CC license

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February 5, 2009

Help Us, China. You're Our Only Hope.

It's good to see that the administration and I are on the same page regarding China. I speculated when Secretary of State Clinton tapped Todd Stern as special envoy for climate change it signaled a big push for a making a climate deal with China. Now the NYT reports that Hillary will soon be winging her way to Beijing. But a more intriguing nugget from the article was the release of a new report by Pew and the Asia Society called "A Roadmap for U.S.-China Cooperation on Energy and Climate Change." What's the big deal? Check out who helped write it:
It was produced by a committee led by Steven Chu, a Nobel laureate in physics who is now the secretary of energy, and John L. Thornton, a professor at Tsinghua University who has been mentioned as a possible candidate for United States ambassador to China. John P. Holdren, Mr. Obama's choice for science adviser, is another contributor.
Oh, them. Think it'll make it onto the president's desk? Brookings also released a report on the same subject with it's own set of recommendations. There's nothing earth-shattering earth-saving in either report - they both suggest high-level discussions and movement toward concrete goals in order to foster the creation of a global climate framework, i.e. Copenhagen. Certainly, we're a long way from a simple agreement with China to cut emissions. As long as Wen Jiabao, China's Premier, says stuff like this:
"It's difficult for China to take quantified emission reduction quotas at the Copenhagen conference, because this country is still at an early stage of development," he said. "Europe started its industrialization several hundred years ago, but for China, it has only been dozens of years."
...it will hard to accomplish much of anything. I don't, however, think you can take too seriously Wen's request that China be allowed to burn its fair share of fossil fuels to power its industrialization. I'm not a China expert - I don't even play one on this blog. But it doesn't take a senior diplomat to read between those lines.

China's not going to announce any willingness to do anything until and unless we make it worth their while. That doesn't just mean technology transfers and aid (which I imagine it will) but it means that we must first demonstrate an ability to cut emissions by passing our own climate legislation. Still, the confirmation that 1) China is indeed a top US climate priority and 2) senior members of the Obama administration have been working and thinking about this issue for some time suggests we're going about this the right way. Oh, look. And administration that can walk and chew gum at the same time. How refreshing.

Photo by shelisrael1 used under a CC license

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And We're Back!
Whoops. Had a little clog in our intertube. All clear now.


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February 4, 2009

Bring on the CPA
No, this will not be a paean to accountants. Nor is it meant as advice for future cabinet nominees (although it clearly applies). Rather, consider this a bit of encouraging news for those concerned about a way to break the guaranteed Senate impasse on any upcoming international climate treaty. I've harped in the past on the difficulty of mustering 60 votes in the Senate to overcome a Republican filibuster on plain jane domestic climate legislation. But that difficulty is as nothing compared to the absolute impossibility of finding the 67 votes needed to ratify a treaty. Na. Ga. Ha. Pen. No treaty, no planet-wide climate fix. Game over.

Thanks to Brookings, however, it turns out we don't need to worry. William J. Antholis and Nigel Purvis recently published an article that argues for creating what they call a "Climate Protection Authority" built in to cap-and-trade legislation. Through a nifty piece of parliamentary legerdemain, this power is used to pre-approve any international climate pact (don't call it a "treaty"!) that meets certain criteria. Here's the lowdown (h/t Dave Roberts):
First, in consultation with Congress, the president would decide that future climate and energy agreements are to be approved by the United States by statute rather than as treaties. Statutes require a majority in both houses of Congress, whereas treaties require two-thirds of only the Senate. Federal courts have repeatedly upheld the constitutionality of bicameral statutory approval of international pacts. In fact, the United States enters into more international agreements this way than by treaty, including some arms control agreements and environmental pacts and almost all trade deals.

Second, Congress should spell out in cap-and-trade legislation the conditions necessary for U.S. participation in new climate and energy agreements. For example, it should describe the role we envision for China, India and other major developing countries.

Third, cap-and-trade legislation should preapprove new climate and energy agreements that meet these congressional preconditions. Agreements that do should come into effect for the United States either without further congressional review or pursuant to the streamlined approval process Congress has used for most trade agreements.
See, that wasn't so hard! And even if we're unable to get our legislative act together and pass a climate bill before the next round of international negotiations in Copenhagen next December, the very fact that such an authority exists in the bill would give the world China and India solid evidence that we're bargaining in good faith for a change. Why, that's positively cheery. For a change.

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February 3, 2009

Help Chuck!

As I surmised might happen in a comment I made to a post by Tom Philpott at Grist on ag reform, "Sustainable Dozen" member Chuck Hassebrook, Tom Vilsack's choice for Deputy Secretary, is having trouble getting through the Senate Ag Committee. North Dakota's Kent Conrad is trying to kill Hassebrook's nomination before it's even officially announced. Nick Kristof has the details here (h/t Jill Richardson).

Remember that in the Senate a single senator wields enormous power and can put a stop to any bill or nomination if he or she so chooses. With everyone's attention on the stimulus package, this is the perfect time for a little backroom backstabbing. The current members (and their states) of the Senate Ag Committee appear below. Everyone should call, but if you live in one of the listed states, please do call your Senator now - your voices matter. Pennsylvanians, that means YOU!

Democrats:

Republicans:

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SUPERTRAIN, Is That You?
Anyone else notice this line buried in the Senate stimulus bill summary?
$3.1 billion for investments in rail transportation, including High Speed Rail
I wonder what that's all about.

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February 2, 2009

Hot Hot Heat Down Under

While we in the Mid-Atlantic experience actual winter for the first time in a while (and today being a sunny Candlemas, we can expect another six weeks of it), Australia bakes (h/t Wonk Room):

Leaves are falling off trees in the height of summer, railway tracks are buckling, and people are retiring to their beds with deep-frozen hot-water bottles, as much of Australia swelters in its worst-ever heatwave.

On Friday, Melbourne thermometers topped 43C (109.4F) on a third successive day for the first time on record, while even normally mild Tasmania suffered its second-hottest day in a row, as temperatures reached 42.2C (108F). Two days before, Adelaide hit a staggering 45.6C (114F). After a weekend respite, more records are expected to be broken this week.

Average summer temps Down Under are warm, but far lower than what they're seeing now - 79F for Melbourne and 82F for Adelaide (which makes it typically a much cooler summer than we get here in Philly). So 109F counts as unusual.

Thankfully, they're in line for a break in the heat. But they've been having a bit of a bad run down there. With all the talk of a goodly amount of warming now baked into the climate (and with all the deniers' claptrap about adaptation), it's worth noting what this brief run of 100+ degree temps did (via The Independent):
Chaos ruled in Melbourne on Friday after an electricity substation exploded, shutting down the city's entire train service, trapping people in lifts, and blocking roads as traffic lights failed. Half a million homes and businesses were blacked out, and patients were turned away from hospitals.
First the kangaroos, and now this. Throw in a 12 year long drought and coastal populations that are threatened by rising seas and you've got trouble with a capital "T." With water supplies continuing to shrink there's already talk of the collapse of Australian agriculture. At least in the media, the continent has the dubious distinction of being considered a candidate for "the first [country] to implode under the impact of climate change." The ultimate booby prize, no?

Photo by suburbanbloke used under a CC license

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