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[1THING] Blog: Archive for October, 2012

[ Hurricane Sandy: The Climate Change Connection ]

Hurricane Sandy & Climate Change

Longisland

Homes Flooded on Long Island: DVIDSHUB / Flickr


Although 24/7 broadcast coverage of Hurricane Sandy barely
hinted at the climate change elephant in the room, and while the two leading
presidential candidates continued to avoid the topic, those in Sandy’s path were
more adamant about the need to confront global warming.

“There’s no such thing as a 100-year flood. These are
extreme weather patterns. The frequency has been increasing,” New York Governor
Andrew Cuomo said in
an interview
. Cuomo has recently suggested the state might need to start
constructing storm barriers to guard against the sea level scientists are
predicting
will rise two feet by 2050.

Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy echoed the unprecedented
nature of the hurricane in another
way
: “The last time we saw anything like this was – never.”

It’s important to note here that it’s difficult to blame some individual weather events — particularly
hurricanes — on climate change. EarthShare member The Union of Concerned
Scientists created
this handy infographic
to show which weather events have the strongest
connection. Hurricanes are on the low end of the spectrum:

Extreme-Weather-and-Climate-Change-Infographic-Blog-Format

Even so, Sandy’s record-breaking
run — largest Atlantic hurricane on record at 1000-miles across, highest-ever
storm surge in Battery Park, most widespread power outages and public transit
impacts, combined with the growing frequency of other extreme weather events
and the almost textbook
predictions of climate scientists
fulfilled — has led many to call this a
global warming-fueled storm.

“In a nutshell, global warming heats up our oceans and loads
hurricanes and other storms with extra energy, making them more violent,” says
Dan Lashof of the Natural
Resources Defense Council
, an EarthShare member organization. “Global warming also leads to rising sea levels,
which boosts storm surges, and in turn lead to more severe flooding. Sea levels
stretching from Boston to Norfolk, Virginia are rising four times as fast as the
global average, making the region more vulnerable to flooding.”

Jeremy Syomons at the National Wildlife Federation, also an EarthShare member group, points to
the source of this warming: “The near-record warmth of the Atlantic waters that spawned the
storm is the new normal, thanks to the warming caused by one trillion tons of carbon pollution that has been dumped
in our atmosphere from burning oil, coal and gas.”

The question of how big or damaging Sandy might have been
without climate change is difficult to answer, but there’s one thing 98% of
climate scientists unequivocally agree on: extreme
weather events like Hurricane Sandy will become more frequent in the coming
years
. The once-in-a-lifetime storm
is sure to become a regular occurrence in years ahead.

In 2012 alone, the US experienced the warmest
year on record
(so far); wildfires burned more than a million acres in the
West; a severe drought impacted over half of the country; violent, heat-fueled “Derecho”
storms tore through the Ohio Valley and mid-Atlantic; and Arctic ice melted to its lowest
extent ever.

These indications make it imperative that citizens and leaders
begin to both reduce greenhouse gas emissions and prepare for climate change by
making their cities more resilient. You can make a difference by starting that
conversation in your own community and asking the climate question, even (and
especially) when no one else is willing to do so!

For more information
on the work that EarthShare member groups are doing to address global warming, visit
our
Climate Change & Energy page.
Also check out World Resources Institute’s timeline of 2012 extreme weather
events:



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[ Note to Exelon: You can’t have it both ways. ]

Exelon has changed its tune on the federal Production Tax Credit (PTC) for wind energy and has begun to lobby against its extension. Most recently, the company issued a reportattacking the subsidy.

The truth behind this about-face is not something Exelon wants the public to know. Exelon owns the country’s largest commercial nuclear fleet, and the profitability of these plants depends primarily on the price of power. While lower electricity prices are good for electric customers, they cut into Exelon’s bottom line.

While Exelon would like you to believe that the PTC is causing wholesale electricity prices to fall, that is simply not the case. It is well documented that the recent reduction in wholesale electricity prices has primarily been caused by the economic downturn and the abundance of cheap natural gas. Natural gas production is at a record high in the U.S., and prices are the lowest they’ve been in over a decade. It is, therefore, not surprising that the use of low-cost natural gas by electric power generators has increased every year since 2009.

While wind does have beneficial impacts on lowering wholesale electricity prices, it is not from subsidies. Rather, it is due to the fact that wind has no fuel costs and therefore can bid into competitive electricity markets such as PJM at a price of zero.

Another flaw in Exelon’s argument is that it fails to recognize that all forms of power generation are subsidized. The company’s nuclear plants, it should be noted, are no exception. A 2011 report by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) found that more than 30 subsidies have supported every stage of the nuclear fuel cycle, from uranium mining to long-term waste storage. The report concluded that legacy subsidies exceeded 7 cents per kilowatt-hour (kWh), which is above the average wholesale electricity price from 1960 to 2008. All told, the nuclear industry has received over $160 billion in subsidies since 1947, and new plants have been eligible for a production tax credit of $18 per megawatt-hour since 2005.

Exelon may be feeling the pinch from lower wholesale electricity costs but it cannot use wind energy or the PTC as a scapegoat. It is critical for electric customers, and the reliability of our grid, that we continue to invest in a diverse supply of power generation. Wind is an important part of our generation portfolio and provides many benefits to electric customers, the economy and the environment.

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[ U.S. Nuclear Plants Brace for Hurricane Sandy Impact ]

As Hurricane Sandy approaches the East Coast, preparations are under way to safeguard Oyster Creek Generating Station, the oldest U.S. nuclear plant.

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[ Why Are China and Japan Sparring Over Eight Tiny, Uninhabited Islands? ]

A potential wealth of natural gas beneath the East China Sea’s Senkaku Islands places them at the center of a tense territorial dispute between China and its neighbors.

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[ Most Say Global Warming is Real, But Does That Mean They’re Ready to Make Changes? ]

Surveys show the American public is more convinced of the reality of global warming – but how much will that really shift policy?

Two surveys released this month, from the Pew Research Center and the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, both find solid majorities of Americans who say global warming is real and growing numbers who say it’s caused by human activity. The questions used are slightly different, but both agree that there’s been an increase.

  • Pew finds 67 percent say there is “solid evidence” the planet is warming, up 10 points from 2009. Some 42 percent tell Pew researchers the warming is caused by human activity such as burning fossil fuels, an increase of eight points since 2010.
  • Yale found 70 percent who say “global warming is happening,” an increase of 13 points, and 54 percent who say it’s caused by human activity, up 8 points since 2010.
  • While most people in the Yale survey still believe global warming is a distant threat, the survey also found four in 10 who say people around the world are being harmed right now by climate change.

It isn’t clear what’s driving the change, although Yale speculates that the extreme weather of the past several years may play a role. It’s also true that surveys showed public belief in climate change dipped in 2009 and 2010 – even with the recent shift, fewer say climate change is real than in 2006. There are also significant differences by age and party identification.

Many environmentalists and climate scientists have seemed mesmerized by surveys like this, because they’re convinced of a basic premise: If people believe climate change is real, then they’ll support action to prevent it.

But in fact, public thinking on solutions is a lot more complicated than that.

Accepting the problem isn’t the same thing as embracing a solution. Solving our energy problems is largely a matter of making tradeoffs, and the tradeoffs get complicated very quickly. The world desperately needs more energy, as places like China and India develop and increase demand, yet it also needs energy that’s clean, affordable and secure.

And it’s difficult to get clean, affordable and secure energy in one package. No energy source is perfect. Every option has flaws. Coal is cheap but dirty. Nuclear is clean but expensive and potentially risky. Oil is prone to price swings and political disruptions. Wind and solar require big investments to scale up.

No matter what option you pick, someone’s going to be unhappy, and something is going to be sacrificed.

What’s more, even if they believe global warming is real, people may not see it as the country’s top priority. Other problems, like the economy, may be more pressing, or none of the options may seem practical or palatable.

But this is what leaders are for: to make the choices clear to the public, and to move policy forward. So far, based on the presidential debates, we’re having half of the discussion we need. Climate change barely rates a mention, yet it’s as much a part of the tradeoffs we need to consider as the price of gas or energy security.

Accepting the reality of global warming is important. But unless you also accept the tradeoffs needed to address it, you haven’t really moved forward.

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[ High Fuel Costs Spark Increased Use of Wood for Home Heating ]

High heating oil prices are causing more U.S. households to choose wood for home heating, according to a new government analysis, but only a fraction of those are using cleaner wood pellets.

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[ Batter Maker A123’s Bankruptcy Underscores Hurdles for Clean Tech ]

The bankruptcy filing this week of U.S. government-backed battery maker A123 Systems demonstrates the challenges of developing clean energy technology in a still-evolving market.

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[ Green Quiz: Bats! Not So Spooky ]

Green Quiz: Bats! Not So Spooky…

Bat

Bat Conservation International


Stories like Dracula have given bats a bad rep. The truth is, humans would be lost without these nocturnal mammals: they eat the bugs that would otherwise ruin our crops and they serve as pollinators, especially in precious rainforests. Even the very few bats that drink blood contain a chemical that is helping doctors treat stroke victims! Do you know the answer to our bat quiz?


Of the more than 1,200 species of bats, how many feed on the blood of animals (ie, how many are Vampires)?


A. 3

B. 13         

C. 23

D. 33


The correct answer is A. 3. Congrats to our green quiz winners Teresa Lewis, Stephen H., and Katy Preston!

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[ Probe Deepens on New Oil Linked to BP Site ]

BP and its rig contractor, Transocean, will deploy robotic submarine cameras to the wreckage of the ill-fated Deepwater Horizon at the floor of the Gulf of Mexico on Sunday, as they, under U.S. Coast Guard supervision, try to pinpoint the source of an oil sheen that appeared at the site last month, the government said last night.

The Coast Guard earlier this week said its own laboratory testing showed oil from the slick matched oil from BP’s 2010 spill. This latest development indicates the government is not satisfied with BP’s explanation that the oil likely came from a leak in the bent riser pipe that once connected the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig to the Macondo well.  Officials have noted that the pipe lies on the bottom of the sea floor with both ends open.

Now, the Coast Guard says, BP and Transocean have agreed to make satellite observations and to mobilize “ROVs,” or remotely operated vehicles, to examine the original Macondo well area, including the wreckage, debris, and the riser on the sea floor.

This is not the first time that authorities have investigated reports of oil near the Macondo site. At least one leak in the immediate aftermath of the spill was traced to another well. And exactly one year ago, responding to other reports of oil on the Gulf surface near Macondo, the Coast Guard released robot submarine video of both the riser and the well (see photo above) to show that no leaks from the debris were visible. But this is the first time since the capping of the BP well that new oil has been chemically fingerprinted to match the 4.9 million barrels that gushed into the Gulf in the spring and summer of 2010.

To gain some insights on what might be happening at the site of the worst oil spill in U.S. history, I emailed Robert Bea, professor emeritus in engineering at the University of California, Berkeley, a former oil industry executive who has spent years studying catastrophic engineering failure. He has closely followed the Deepwater Horizon disaster from the beginning.

“I am skeptical that the current leakage is coming from the riser,” he said by email. “The riser has been collapsed for a long time… exposed to severe currents and hurricanes… lots of movements to encourage oil to escape if it could.”

Instead, he suggests another possible explanation:  “The leakage could be coming from the fissures—fractures to the sea floor that connect to the ‘sealed’ Macondo well…. or that connect to fractures in the Macondo reservoir.”

This would not necessarily be cause for alarm, Bea said, noting that there are numerous natural oil seeps in the sea floor. Indeed, more than 1,300 barrels of oil a day seep naturally into the Gulf of Mexico, according to a 2002 report by the U.S. National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences.

But any seeping of fresh oil from the Macondo reservoir could greatly complicate the negotiations now underway to settle BP’s liability for the 2010 disaster.

The Coast Guard’s original statement, while noting the source was unknown, did say the oil “could be residual oil associated with wreckage and/or debris left on the seabed,” and some of the original news  coverage of these latest developments said the oil tested showed signs of drilling mud, which would bolster that conclusion.

But I called the U.S. Coast Guard Eighth District in Louisiana yesterday to check on this point. Spokesman  Ryan Tippets said that the Coast Guard’s lab tests did not detect presence of drilling mud in the oil sample.

Bea said the only way to pinpoint the source is to do the kind of survey that now appears to be planned: “The source/s of the current oil ‘leakage’ can be determined after a thorough ROV camera survey is done of the immediate and surrounding areas,” he wrote by email, adding that such an endeavor is “not quick, easy, or free.”

For a deeper look at deepwater drilling, the science of oil on water, and the geography of the debris that now lies on the sea floor around BP’s Macondo well, see our National Geographic cover story, “Is Another Deepwater Disaster Inevitable?,” and our follow-up stories (“Why The Gulf Oil Spill is Not Going Away,” “Gulf Spill Pictures: Ten New Studies Show Impact on Coast,”and “Gulf Spill Anniversary News and Pictures.”) (Related: Quiz: How Much Do You Know About the Gulf Oil Spill?)

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[ In Colorado, A Whole New (Green) Starbucks ]

When it comes to sustainability, there’s no denying that Starbucks has been taking some steps in recent years. Some of those steps are small: introducing compostable hot-cup sleeves, for example, and turning old baked goods into plastics at its store in Hong Kong. Some of those steps are bigger, such as mandating that all new stores be built to LEED standards, purchasing Renewable Energy Credits equivalent to 50 percent of its North American energy use, and increasing energy efficiency across its stores worldwide. 

One of the most fascinating aspects of Starbucks’ efforts to green its global caffeine empire is the way that these efforts tend to intersect with the company’s ongoing reinvention of the Starbucks experience itself. We’ve seen this at work in the store Starbucks opened not long ago in Amsterdam, which harks back to the original Starbucks in Seattle in the fact that it is located in a landmark historical building. Loaded with recycled and local materials — such as antique Delft tiles, bicycle inner tubes, and repurposed Dutch oak — this store is about as far from the average strip-mall Starbucks as you could imagine.

Now Starbucks has a new green concept going, literally. The company recently opened a new concept store in Denver, Colo., where you won’t find any cushy leather chairs, nor any CDs for sale at the check out counter. This new “modern modular,” LEED-certified Starbucks is a drive-thru-and-walk-up-only shop that represents a new direction for the chain.

This 500-square-foot store building was constructed in a factory and delivered via articulated truck. Once unloaded and put together, the building was covered in old Wyoming snow fencing. It’s a winning model, as far as green construction goes: prefabrication helps to save on the resources used to create the core of the building, and the local materials used in creating that artistic, attractive facade can change based on the location, personalizing the building while helping to earn it those shiny LEED point for materials sourced within 500 miles.

Oh, and because the U.S. Green Building Council also likes it when buildings educate visitors on their green practices and strategies, the building features signage announcing exactly where its funky facade came from. (Which, you know, isn’t good for marketing or anything.)

This new store model, like a number of others we’ve seen in recent years, bears testament to the fact that Starbucks doesn’t just farm out its store designs to various architecture firms. Rather, it develops all of its store designs from within, taking into account the questions the company as a whole seeks to answer as it expands: How to achieve market growth while reducing the environmental footprint of each store? How to create a standardized model than can be customized, based on its location?

Officially a “pilot program,” this new store poses some unique answers. By cutting the size and ditching its seating, the model not only reduces its carbon footprint over the average Starbucks, it can penetrate markets that might be too small to sustain a traditional store. The prefab aspect makes it easy to standardize, while the building’s facade leaves room for local materials, craftsmanship and even art in the form of “art panels” that can be filled with the work of local artists.

— Susan DeFreitas

This post originally appeared at EarthTechling and was republished with permission.

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