Tuesday, November 10, 2015

This criminal's got it right and environmentalists... maybe not?

7 minute piece on NPR today. Very cool! Give it a listen.

TL;DL version: Brazil's massive rainforest is supposed to be the "lungs of the world." This guy says that if we want his land to be our lungs, we should pay him for that privilege. The US deforested like crazy as it was developing: where do we get off denying Brazil the chance to deforest, and hence develop economically?

So, where do we? I'm stumped.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Flourishing under Limits to growth

Reflecting today on a presentation by Prof. Brian Fath centering on his new book, which looks great. A few thoughts, not really that connected to each other:

1) A list he posted of countries that are giving a relatively large share of their GDP as foreign aid shows Scandinavia near the top. Ok, great, but note that some of those countries are richer than others due to substantial mineral wealth. In other words, they can afford to put out some foreign aid because they're making bank by selling oil. Another, Sweden, is apparently a major arms exporter. Ugh.

2) I'm really curious about how his group models technology, if at all. He's right to point out that most of our effort goes into increasing how much we consume, and that's not going to improve our situation on the earth. At the same time, there is progress made every year about being more efficient every year. Take a look at the graph about halfway down this page labelled "Carbon Intensity of the US Economy." Every year we are doing more with less, and though we'd all like to see more, it's not like no progress at all is forthcoming.

More after the break...

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Worst Environmental Disaster of the Century so far... and not in the news

I certainly hadn't heard much about it, but here it is: fires consuming not just trees but the actual land upon which they sit in Indonesia. In 1997 a similar event led to a missing cohort of children under three, as the particulate matter led to thousands of prenatal deaths. This year, with our pending record El Nino, is leading to the same kind of conditions. Here's what satellites saw that year.

I hope that the Indonesian government and others can get together to stop a similar disaster- if it isn't already too late. Read the article for the full story!

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

The next 25 years

The Nature Conservancy has a nice, short summary of worldwide issues over this time. Probably not a news flash to most of you, but a good general assessment.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Farming update

An article in Forbes, dated October 9th, investigates organic agriculture. The author finds that organic agriculture is significantly less productive per unit of land, which is not a new result. Some math shows that converting all agriculture to organic would require over 100 million acres of land to be converted to agriculture. The article's brief but informative and features lots of charts, graphs, and pictures: take a look.

That reminds me of another link I've been meaning to post for awhile: another exposé on factory farms. Packing a lot of animals into a small area yields cheap meat, but it also yields nasty bacteria and huge amounts of waste that aren't easily disposed of. Guess who isn't interested in building a new sewage treatment plant to clean up the waste? Yeah.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

The anti-recycling vote

I haven't heard people attack recycling in awhile, so it was a bit of a surprise to see this editorial in the NYT today. The author, John Tierney, is a little much for me personally, meaning both that I think he stretches too far in search of his goal and that he can be snide. (Of course, I enjoy snide remarks made by people I agree with, so I shouldn't fault him too much for this characteristic.) In this piece, I have to say that he makes some really good points when he's not being an ass. Here some key takeaways from the piece:

1) Recycling is expensive. Once you take into account all the costs of consumers separating trash, vehicles moving the recycled goods to a processing facility, then sorting, grouping, and processing the materials for recycling, most goods really aren't worth it. Metals are the big exception: they are very worth it. As I recall, paper's not bad, but glass is either a total wash or maybe yields very tiny profit. Plastic is costly and largely unproductive. In the article, Tierney notes that the pinch is even worse now since the cost of making new materials is lower than ever (since oil is cheap right now). That makes sense, particularly for plastics.

Much of Tierney's article is about bashing the inefficiency of plastics recycling, though he writes as though it's about recycling in general. Notice how little attention he pays to aluminum, which is the real moneymaker. Yes, John, recycling plastics isn't a very profitable undertaking. You're right.

2) Landfills are cheap. It's true: in this country, we have a lot of land per person, much more than in, say, Western Europe. It's also true that we're getting better at minimizing the environmental impact of landfills by installing liners and, in a few cases, capturing emitted methane. I don't think that happens enough, but it does happen, and hopefully it will become increasingly common.

3) Composting is important for limiting greenhouse gases, but it's hard to do right, particularly at scale. I think it's great when I see people building or stirring their bins.

4) Taxing garbage is a good way to go. When I lived in Japan, the garbage collectors would only take trash that was set out in certain special bags that had a garbage fee built into their costs. That way people had to pay when they produced more trash, rather than paying a flat fee for as much trash as they could produce.

5) One issue he doesn't consider at all is the "supply side" of trash. Yes, once we have produced garbage there's a lot of it that we might best dispose of cheaply by burying or high temperature incineration. However, it'd be best if we could learn to produce less trash in the first place. The zero-trash movement he mocks is as much about reducing and reusing as it is about recycling- remember the little triangle?

So why the histrionics, John? I guess he's an opinion writer and not a journalist (much less a researcher) because he can't be bothered to fully investigate the issue.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Solar energy- finally getting there?

The lead story in my New York Times email is about the gunman in Oregon- it's so frustrating that if you want coverage for whatever random crap you think about, you just have to kill people.

To me they've really buried the lede today: the real head-turner was this quote in an obscure article about Solar City. "'You’re talking about a 40 percent increase in efficiency at a lower cost,' he said. 'We have to get solar energy to be cheaper than natural gas or coal, and these breakthroughs get us there.'"

If this is really true, this is huge news. We've been waiting for a long time for solar to be competitive by price alone, and if we are there, then look out: there's really hope for renewables. I sure hope this isn't a gimmick!

Friday, September 4, 2015

Power plant live

I couldn't make up my mind on what to post from Obama's Alaska trip, and in the end I didn't put anything. It's good that he's going there to show some of the most visible effects of climate change, which will hopefully raise awareness, but that's an economy that relies on oil production. That's a tough message to balance, as described in a recent Brookings blog post.

One interesting comment he made was that he wants more icebreakers up there, competing with the Russians. That's probably a good thing.

Finally, speaking of fossil fuels (and Brookings), I came across this nice little summary that lets you identify the power mix in your area. Natural gas is a growing share of our power here in Baltimore. Again, gas is better than coal, though obviously worse than renewables. Progress?

Friday, August 28, 2015

Climate change in Russia & California

A couple of two very different places were in the news today. First, an analyst at Brookings has an interesting take on Russia's Arctic ambitions. While the Arctic has long held promise as a new, faster, northern route for transporting goods between continents, it's still going to be awhile before it's economic. Further, as Russia's infrastructure decays, it's going to be harder for that county to assume the prominent role it aspires to. (As we saw a few days ago, the low price of oil is going to slow it down even further.)

More happily, the Guardian has a writeup on some anti-climate change bills awaiting their fate in the California legislature. One would establish a goal of 50% petroleum use reduction by 2030, and another calls for an 80% drop in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. These are ambitious goals, but California has led the way for the US so many times before, dating back at least to 1967 when noted socialist Ronald Reagan created the California Air Resources Board (wikipedia link) prior to the Feds putting together the Clean Air Act.

How about some California Love?

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Climate change & migration

I have heard a lot about climate change fueling conflict, including perhaps the current Syrian civil war, but I hadn't thought much about how climate change is likely to fuel migration. It's obvious: I mean, if conflict becomes more common, then people fleeing the conflicts will be more common. And of course economic migrants- changing temperatures could easily set off another round of migrants like those in the Grapes of Wrath, fleeing the dust bowl in 1930's USA. If those people can be accommodated, they can help with the agriculture in the places they migrate, since climate change will make formerly cold places more ag-friendly. Unfortunately, it seems more likely that people continue to talk about building walls....

More on oil

In April of 2014 TU's own Prof. Woroby gave a talk about what's going on in the Ukraine. The short version is that Russia's fading fortunes were buoyed simultaneously by the aggressive leadership of Vladimir Putin and by high oil prices. Most Russians seemed to think that the former is what mattered, but in fact the latter has played a huge part. Actually, it looks like we'll soon find out since oil prices have dropped and don't appear to be going anywhere. How good does it seem to the Russian people (to the extent that he has a popular mandate) to retain this guy? A recent article in the Financial Times (behind pay wall) holds out hope that the power-hungry autocrats now in charge will one day fall and better leaders will rise. The low price of oil certainly makes that more likely!

Cheap oil threatening Russia, the Saudis, Venezuela, and even Nigeria seems like a good thing. However, it also poses a threat to governments like the fledgling democracy of Iraq which, for all its warts, is hopefully better than what it was. It's not helping provide stability in Lebanon, either, where government paralysis has reached epidemic proportions. What will it mean for Iran, which is trying to come out from years of economic sanctions and again sell its oil to the larger world? Change is in the air....

Monday, August 24, 2015

Lettuce in the crosshairs

An interesting article in the Washington Post today claims that lettuce is a huge waste of resources. Containing little nutritional value, "Lettuce is a vehicle to transport refrigerated water from farm to table." It is the vegetable responsible for the most food waste. Conclusion: "as we look for ways to rejigger our food supply to grow crops responsibly and feed people nutritiously, maybe we should stop thinking about salad as a wholesome staple, and start thinking about it as a resource-hungry luxury." Wow!

The article's suggested alternative? (somewhat NSFW)
Collard Greens (Gimme gimme gimme some!)

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Fracking & Air Pollution

I have been mostly somewhat pro-fracking: it's just SO much better than coal and so much cheaper than renewables. Yes, it should be considered a temporary solution on the way to renewables, but there is good there with the bad: I really think that if done carefully, this is not a bad way to go.

There's the rub, though: what % of the time are they doing things "carefully"? On the one hand, it's in their interests to capture as much of the gas as possible, since that's their product, but on the other hand, at some point it becomes too expensive for them to try to trap every little bit of it. Also, depending on the tightness of environmental regulations, the nasty byproduct given the benign name "produced water" can be treated lots of ways, from carefully to sloppily. Unfortunately Josh Fox's lame movie lumped in valid criticism with journalistic hype (as some of you saw in my class) making it all too easy to dismiss his whole argument, IMHO.

Anyway, a nice article from the Guardian reminds me of the air pollution problems that may be associated with fracking. As a long-time asthma sufferer it's frustrating to know that a lot of people develop this condition after exposure to pollution: sure wish that would stop, but anecdotally at least fracking may be making it worse.

Further, the article points out another issue: environmental racism. Black Lives Matter, and the quality of black lives matters too. Too often environmental damage is ignored when it's in areas populated mostly by poor people of color. Let the word go out!

Friday, August 14, 2015


Those of us in Maryland are often concerned about water quality in the Chesapeake, not least because of the hundreds of millions of chickens and their associated poop produced on the Eastern Shore. This isn't the latest news, but I wanted to make sure you've seen John Oliver talking about the difficulties of chicken farming.

Monday, August 10, 2015

GMO impacts estimated

Some researchers at Purdue decided to see what US agriculture would look like if we banned GMO's. Since GMO's produce more crop with fewer inputs, they allow us to increase production without using too much land. If we banned GMOs and wanted to produce the same amount of crops, we would have to convert a lot of land from forest or other wild areas to agriculture, and they say the result would be an increase of "7-17% of global agricultural emissions." And that's just from converting the US! Food prices would also increase, costing consumers $14-24 billion per year.

Another paper from the same conference estimated the value of a variety of insecticides. They found that neonicotinoids (you know, the pesticides suspected of contributing to the big bee die-off?) saved farmers about $1.43 billion in 2013. Bt corn saved $1.3 billion. So, one way to help the bees might be to actually promote GMOs.

Hm, now I know why Whole Foods promotes all that anti-GMO literature: guess who benefits if food prices increase? Hint: farmers get just a few cents of every dollar spent....

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Price of oil staying low

The price of oil is really low right now. That means that energy consumption is cheaper and easier, and unfortunately it's pretty bad news for renewable energy sources, which at this point are even more expensive by comparison. Perhaps the only good news is that this takes a lot of power away from OPEC and from repressive governments from Venezuela to Saudi Arabia and Russia, who rely heavily on their oil exports to support their policies.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Clean Energy Plan

Sorry I didn't have a post on Obama's exciting new energy plan: my email inbox and even my Facebook feed were full of articles about it, so I imagine you got an idea that something is going on. I do want to share this nice reflection by NYT pundit Joe Nocera, who talks about how the regulations have before and hopefully will again create jobs. Not that industry will let it go through easily, of course, but eventually....

Another update: some folks are noting that the plan doesn't support nuclear energy, which of course produces no CO2. That will raise the cost of going emission-free while avoiding the production of nuclear waste.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Fishing- Still a Wild Frontier

Pretty epic story in the NYT recently about Bob Barker chasing down some fish pirates. Seriously! As much as the numbers depress me on how much the US spends on the military, I sure wish someone would impose order on the oceans to stop slavery and this kind of violation of international law. Does the world need police? Who should pay for them? Discuss....

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Organics & carbon

While organic agriculture is better for the environment in some ways, one recent article finds that they are heavy machine users, and hence emit at least as much carbon as conventional farms. It'd be nice if the "organic" label system was more than a yes vs. no but had a 1-10 rating system or something so that farmers would have an incentive to improve, and buyers would know more about what they're getting.

That'd be much better than the GMO labeling that some people are excited about- why must we demonize what we don't understand?

Monday, July 20, 2015

Eat American Seafood

It turns out that some of the imported stuff was processed by slaves. No wonder it's so cheap. (Please do take a look at the article if you have time!)

Update, 7/27: the NYT has caught on. Here is its version, which is pretty brutal, and also links the Thai fish trade to pet food.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

The good and bad of fracking

You've probably heard the one about the one-handed economist, but what can I say: the world is complicated! Here are the two sides of fracking. New study, out July 15th, finds that hospitalizations related to a variety of ailments (including heart, skin, brain, and others) are up in places where fracking is happening. On the other hand, cheaper energy and other benefits saved people (mostly in the South) about $48 billion per year from 2007-2013. Note that this is NOT an estimate of corporate profits: actually the dropping price of energy cost industry about $26 billion, but the benefits added up to $74 billion per year over that time, so the net benefit [NOT including the health/ environmental damages] was the $48 billion.

So, how do you balance that?

One other thing to keep in mind: doing good accounting means that we also need to think about what the fallback option is. If we, say, tax fracking (and a ban can be considered a really high tax) then what happens? The country's energy mix may shift a little bit in ways you want it to, like toward renewables and maybe nuclear, but it will also shift a lot back toward what it was ten years ago, which is toward coal. Coal mining and burning is linked to at least as many health problems as fracking, I'm sure! Not to say that fracking should therefore be given free rein, just that we need to recognize that the balancing is happening in a context....

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Slate on GMO's

Nice, clear if lengthy takedown of the anti-GMO movement on Slate, a reliably liberal site. Really, it's not about Monsanto brainwashing us! Take a look.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Maryland's energy mix

We mentioned briefly in class what energy predominates in our region, but here it is, straight from Baltimore Gas & Electric:

Interesting that all of the pollutants are "100%" of the regional average: no more, no less. I wanted a little more information there, so I clicked over to the EPA's database, summarized here. Unfortunately the information there is from 2010, meaning that the mix at that time was probably more coal and less natural gas, but compared to that these numbers are actually pretty good. 

The above table says that in our area, we produce 0.90 lbs of NOx per megawatt-hour generated, and the US average in 2010 was 1.12, so that's good. (The regional average at that time, which I think is labeled SRVC on the chart, was 0.8, though.) SO2 in 2014 was 2.23, and in 2010 the US average was 2.64, so again, better than average. (Again, though, the SRVC average was 2.04, so we're worse by comparison with that.) The US average for CO2 was 1232 compared to this 1108, so again we're better than the 2010 national average.

In the short term, more natural gas is going to make this look better; in the long run, of course, renewables are the way to go. I need to learn more about some of those listed here, particularly Black Liquor. No idea what that is- anyone volunteers to investigate? Could be a worthy way to spend a hot afternoon! :)

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Fracking ok?

The EPA has found that fracking doesn't pose a consistent threat to groundwater or to drinking water supplies. If it's not done well, flaws in the setup can definitely lead to problems, but if the hole is built properly and if produced water is treated safely, it should not pose a threat.

Sure, there is risk, as with most other sources of energy, but if we accept the risk then we have access to a lot of cheap power that is less carbon-intensive than coal. Another analysis of the report, on Forbes.com, notes that both pro- and anti-fracking camps have found information in the report that they can use.

On the other hand, one of the few sources of energy with even less risk recently got a big boost in Africa. Music icon Akon is promoting solar energy with significant financial backing, and he hopes to reach hundreds of millions of people. That would sure be great! We'll see how it goes....

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Cost and politics of changing power sources

I hadn't heard much about Germany's plan to go non-nuclear, so I'm thankful from this update by Max Auffhammer, a professor in my old department. The last I'd heard was that it was getting really expensive to get energy from other sources, and that's surely still the case. However, it has not dissuaded the rich Germans from staying the course, and in fact they have now set themselves the goal of divesting themselves from coal as well, which in my estimation is a more laudable goal. Their heavy investments in solar photovoltaics and other renewable sources have improved technology and driven prices down, though they are still not cheap.

Still, renewables were an impressive 23% of the German power supply in 2013 vs a little less than 10% in the US. Also, "renewables" includes everything from hydropower to biofuels: if we zero in on solar, for instance, we see that solar photovoltaics represent 4.5% of total German consumption, while they are 0.1% of total US consumption. Ironically, this is not because Germany is more suitable for solar power: the opposite is true. Source

Not just a tip of the cap, but a deep bow to Germany for taking on the expense of making this transition. The world will be better for it!

Thursday, May 28, 2015

$160 billion in wasted food in the US

Some people just can't get enough environmental news! This just in from Bianca, who finished the class just a few days ago: France is making it illegal to throw away edible food. How cool is that? Think about what else could be saved rather than throwing out this huge amount of valuable stuff. A few years ago our class talked about it, including one student's penchant for dumpster diving. He said he'd eaten sushi he found dumpster diving- that was a little farther than I'd go, but man, billions of dollars is being thrown out! Man.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Carbon pricing

I'm just full of good news today! (How rare is that?!) Just came across this page showing where people are starting to implement prices for carbon. I had only heard about Australia's brief implementation of the tax; I didn't realize that so many places were carrying out this kind of policy. That's great: only when it's expensive to pollute will people reconsider their polluting behavior.

HT: @WorldBank

Big potential for expansion of wind energy

In my Resources class I show a map of areas suitable for wind energy, but it might be better for me to toss that thing away. New reports show that taller turbines, though more expensive to build and harder to transport, are workable just about everywhere. That's pretty cool on its own, but the even more exciting news is out of developing countries, where 2/3 of power being installed is from renewable sources, including wind and solar. Wow! Hopefully the batteries produced by Tesla and others will make wind increasingly the mainstay of the world's energy supply.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Fracking linked to contaminated groundwater

I go back and forth on fracking. I saw a presentation last week by a TU Master's student on how fracking for natural gas can be done safely. It should definitely be regulated for a variety of reasons: if not done carefully, you can have a great deal of methane lost at the frack site, wiping out the process's alleged benefit over coal in the area of greenhouse gas emissions. Yes, there is a heck of a lot of water consumed by the process, so doing this out West during the current drought may not be appropriate. Also, the risk of earthquakes is real and needs to be taken into account: I don't know yet how bad that is, so it may be excessive.

Almost all types of energy production create pollution, whether air, water, or both, and I think pretty much everyone agrees that natural gas is better than coal. Coal mining is definitely worse than gas extraction, and burning coal creates CO2, it creates acid rain, and it puts a variety of other chemicals into the air. The ash left after coal is burned is also a huge problem, as it contains heavy metals and radioactive material. There's also really a lot of coal ash, so disposal is increasingly a problem.

A final issue in favor of gas has been that the liquid waste that is produced is injected deep underground, way past the water table, and that part of the hole that is at the water table has something like 5-7 separate protective jackets to ensure that there is no leakage. So, the pollution is effectively hidden... or so we thought! In April of 2015 an article came out claiming that chemicals used in fracking were found in groundwater. Uh oh. The back and forth goes on.

Biofuels summary

Nice little article on biofuel policy and technology written by Kimberly Ann Elliott of the Center for Global Development. The government set standards in the mid 2000s to incentivize development of biofuels, and those have more or less backfired for a number of reasons. One is that food prices rose sharply during the period in which the biofuel mandates were beginning to bite; another is that the carbon footprint of the biofuels has turned out to be larger than expected. In other words, the good probably doesn't outweigh the bad right now: we need a technological improvement before we start promoting this stuff.

Friday, May 15, 2015

The Story of Corn

h/t to @cblatts

Full story: http://thebreakthrough.org/index.php/journal/issue-5/the-return-of-nature

TL;DR: corn production up, use of inputs down thanks to amazing modern technology. This means less environmental destruction and more food!

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Paying people not to deforest

In the US we have the Conservation Reserve Program, which supports protecting fragile lands by "Paying farmers not to farm" on certain portions of their land. India has come up with a twist on that: to prevent the destruction of forests, the central government now allocates funds to its states based on how good a job they do of protecting the forests. Economics in action!

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Mixing Oil and Water

With the current drought in California many methods are being looked to for relief from this issue. This article (and its twin) talk about the practice of using recycled oil wastefield water in order to irrigate the crops. This process is even being praised for how it is dealing with the issue so successfully.  But the most important thing that is being overlooked is the safety processes involved in the filtering of the water.  The standards as they existed only check for the chemicals used in oil fields back when the program began.  They see this as being “Good Enough” and fail to account for many chemicals that are being used in the treatment today such as the acetone and methylene chloride that was present in the water being used for irrigation.  The good news is that legislation was passed that forced the plants to expand the chemicals that they test for and they reported that the water that they were using was cleaning of the contaminants.  This is good news for the farmers using this water for their crops during this drought.  But since contaminated water was used at one point it is unclear whether or not the produce that was grown using the water.  Hopefully no damage was done and the upgraded testing methods ensures that no more damage will be done to the crops.
--Doug Burroughs


    With water shortage becoming a very real and scary problem I believe that we must look for innovative solutions such as desalination. These articles highlight a form of desalination that uses a floating barge rather than large stationary plants that can pollute the area with greenhouse gas emissions. Desalination research is primarily funded by private sector companies creating a high risk environment for new technology. One area that seems to be emerging in the desalination industry is floating barge systems. The systems are rapidly deployable and can be tailored to area specific needs. The McCabe Wave Pump is also being remodeled by Murtech engineering, a company I was able to work with over the summer. This system hopes to pump water through the desalination membranes and back to shore using wave energy. The rate that desalination is advancing even with the lack of government support is astonishing; with subsidies and other governmental promotions for the technology I believe that this technology can combat current and future water scarcity.
--Mike McCormick

Thursday, May 7, 2015

California drought & the price of water

    Malcolm's articles reminded me of another piece I saw recently about the price of water and the California drought. As was noted in the article referred to, people don't worry about things that are cheap, and water is very cheap. This New York Times article concurs with the WSJ article he cited: conservation is spurred by having the right prices on commodities.

Chipotle & GMO's

  A new topic in the news is Chipotle changing most of their products to non-GMO foods. Two articles show similar views on the subject. One article is from The New York Times and the other is from USA Today.
  The New York Times article states how Chipotle is stopping using GMO’s in its food. Chipotle has a total of 63 ingredients in its food, which is much less than many other restaurants. The fact that Chipotle chose to advertise which ingredients included GMO’s has encouraged other restaurants and stores to label foods with GMO’s in them.  Chipotle cannot be completely GMO free because of the fact that many of the sodas contain GMO ingredients. They state that it is a start in the right direction.
  The article from USA Today states a similar position to the first article. This article provides some information about how many people in the United States believe that GMO foods should be labeled. This shows how many foods actually contain GMO’s. They set an example for many other stores that GMO free foods are possible and can be done.
  Some people are not happy with the change from regular products to all non-GMO ingredients. Not only does the change from GMO food to non-GMO food possibly increase prices it also causes slight problems with some of the farms that produce ingredients for Chipotle. I believe that Chipotle changing the ingredients may also be slightly over the top. There are no current reports that show GMO’s are negative to human health. Chipotle changing the ingredients makes certain people feel that they should think the same thing.
    Chipotle changing to non-GMO ingredients has caused controversy. Currently there is no evidence that they are bad so I do not think Chipotle should have switched.
--Kathryn Franc

$1 Billion Relief Fund

    California’s drought continues to shock the lawmakers of the state, leaving them to question what measures need to be taken to preserve the states remaining water supply. California has been experiencing a drought for the past three years and there seems to be no relief in sight.  The two articles that I read address the looming crisis that is going on in California.  The first article illustrates the severity of the drought. Although the drought has been an important issue, it has become even more important as a result of the latest data compiled about the snow pack. Lawmakers are scrambling to come up with solutions to solve this growing problem.  They are trying to speed up the release of $1 billion in bond relief funding towards the crisis. The situation is getting so bad that Gov. Jerry Brown issued a 25% cut in water use.  The second article highlights the issue of water pricing in the state of California.  According to the article, residents are paying $.002 per gallon. As a results of water’s low cost, more efficient water systems are too costly to install given the large payback period required.
    In my opinion, water does deserve a price increase.  Water is one of the most precious resources on the planet. However its low cost and seeming abundance has caused a system of abuse and under appreciation.   The government’s $1 billion relief fund cannot be implemented fast enough.  The funding is much needed to push regulations; laws and policies that will help fix the looming problem. It is hard for me to imagine California as a desert much similar to Nevada.  However, perhaps it is a reality that many Californians have to start getting used to. So, although the cutbacks will be felt by many California residents, they are for the greater good of society if they help solve the crisis.
--Malcolm Khalil

Pollinators and Pesticides

[Here is a short video created by Nina and Sam on the subject. Check it out!]
    I have selected two articles discussing possible causes of Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). Colony Collapse Disorder was identified in 2005 as all adult honey bees abandoning their stored honey, pollen, and larval. Bees pollinate about 1/3 of crops that make up Americans diets and their honey is used in pharmaceuticals. One of the possible causes of CCD is excessive pesticide and fertilizer use, which can disrupt the bee’s central nervous system. “If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe man would have no more than 4 years to live”- Albert Einstein.
    This 2012 article talks about a study completed to see what happens to honey bees and bumble bees when exposed to small doses of pesticides. The study concluded that CCD also affects bumblebees, not just honeybees. “Pesticide-exposed colonies were on average 8-12 percent smaller than the colonies that had not been exposed, which implies that exposed bees were not gathering as much food."  This 2015 article talks about how pesticides are not just affecting honeybees, but they are affecting wild bees and that bees may have developed an addiction for nicotine-like pesticides. Researchers conducted a study with 16 fields; 8 were treated with pesticides and 8 were not treated with pesticides. The study showed that bees hives stopped growing in the fields that were treated and they produced less queens to go start their own colony.
    Now that we have possibly found what is causing Colony Collapse Disorder we can hopefully rebuild our bee colonies. With the decrease of bees in the environment we would have to find another way to pollinate crops, which will end up being pollinated by hand like in China. The price of food will increase because now we have to pay people to go around and pollinate our food so we can feed the 7 billion, and counting, people on the planet.
--Nita Beanland

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Coal ash

The slides show some of the costs associated with the nasty stuff that comes out of the smokestack when coal is burned for energy, but the stuff that stays behind seems to be at least as nasty. In North Carolina, coal ash seems to have contaminated the groundwater with heavy metals.

Fun fact: did you know that every year in Maryland we generate about 1.8 million tons of coal ash? Just thought you might like to know!

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Drilling in the Arctic

    The danger of climate change is known all across the world but some have other priorities other than earth’s sustainability. Big oil companies have been pushing for the permission to drill in the Arctic for many years. The article I read presents the positive economic side of the Arctic glaciers melting.
    The article explains that melting glaciers will allow easier accessibility to fossil fuel resources in the arctic.  The US Geological Survey has said that about a quarter of the world’s undiscovered oil and gas lies in Arctic waters. During the influx of oil prices big oil companies were battling for the rights to drill in the Arctic. The attractiveness for big oil companies has lessened after the decrease in oil prices, there is too much risk. The Economist presents how the melting has aided in the shipping of goods. It has potential to cut shipment time by two weeks or more. The number of cargo ships taking the Northern Sea Route increases as the ice continues to melt. As glaciers melt more time becomes available in summer months for ships to pass through. The article describes reasons why businesses want an economic transformation of the Arctic.
    I do not support the ideas presented in this article. They attempt to rationalize the negative externalities that come with using the Arctic for transportation and drilling. There have been remarkable innovations in renewable energy and we need to start depending on those. Illustrating just how much renewables have grown--and how routinely EIA projections miss the mark--current U.S. solar capacity has already surpassed EIA's AEO 2012 estimates for 2030. -- By 227%. Wind's success story is similarly impressive, and the potential is enormous. The addition of carbon gas from the drilling would increase the speed of the melting. The shorter transit for cargo goods is not worth the environmental risk of pollution or a boat sinking in the Arctic Ocean. This would damage the ecosystem along with land species that already have a scarce food source and loss of natural habitat.
--Gus Ratcliff

Banning Bag Bans

    With recent initiatives in sustainable consumption that reduces waste, many places in the world have considered or implemented bans on disposable products. Plastic bags are one such product, and many bans have occurred in U.S cities, especially in California. The state of California actually followed the lead of its cities, and has enacted its own bag ban. In Arizona, the city of Bisbee banned the use of plastic bags in retail sales last year, and two other cities have considered doing the same. However, the state of Arizona has passed a law that will outlaw the banning of bags by municipalities. Lawmakers have stated that increasing awareness in recycling will reduce bag waste, and that plastic bags are cheaper and more sanitary than alternative bag options. The state has the support of retail organizations, including many grocery stores.
    This ban on bag bans seems very backwards to me. The state may not agree with the ban, but to make it illegal is oppressive. Are they really going to punish their cities for trying to be more sustainable? The average consumer uses 134 plastic bags each year, and bags take from 400 to 1000 years to decompose. The least the state government could do is implement alternative laws to a ban that would reduce bag use and waste. Taxes have been successful in European countries, although critics say it hurts those in a lower economic status, meaning they cannot afford the extra bag cost or to buy reusable bags. I think a solution could be to use more biodegradable bags, although I am not sure how expensive they are or how much energy it takes to produce them. Whatever method we use, reducing the amount of plastic waste we generate is crucial, and the government banning a technique for reduction is ridiculous.
--Kirby Cole

New regulations linked to health benefits

“If EPA sets strong carbon standards, we can expect large public health benefits from cleaner air almost immediately after the standards are implemented,” said Jonathan Buonocore, research fellow in the Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and a co-author of the new paper.

300 saved lives a year- that's got to be worth something, isn't it?

Saturday, May 2, 2015

GMO terrorism

A new technology offers answers to viruses and pests that consume food. In poor countries, this might be a godsend, enabling people to eat without forcing them to put pesticides on growing crops. Instead, using this technology inspires threats from outsiders who are under the mistaken belief that the technology is unsafe. This nightmare scenario is repeating worldwide thanks to the pointless demonization of GMO technology.

Nice little meta-article (i.e. an article that links to dozens of others) on how Chipotle's move encourages people to be science-illiterate. I'm glad to see that a quick Google search of "Chipotle GMOs" turns up articles like this one right after linking to the company's own website.

In many cases, GMO's cut the use of agricultural chemicals. When Chipotle says they're going GMO-free, they're basically saying that they're going to use more pesticides and herbicides.

Finally, my Facebook feed got lit up with some people bashing glyphosate (AKA Roundup, Monsanto's favorite herbicide). This is linked to GMO's pretty directly: the vast majority of corn and soy currently produced are Monsanto's Roundup Ready variety, which means that the chemical can and is used frequently to kill weeds around the crops without harming the crops themselves. Glyphosate is widely regarded as safe, including by the EPA. The EPA says that "a lifetime of exposure in drinking water" may or may not cause problems. So, don't drink the stuff every day, ok?

A recent peer-reviewed scientific article concludes that the chemical doesn't cause cancer, though two of the writers are from Monsanto. Another from 2013 by "independent consultants" finds no genotoxicity.

Opposed to Monsanto? Ok- they do some nasty things, but that doesn't mean that all GMO's are bad. Please be afraid of something just because you don't know much about it, or you might fall into the dihydrogen monoxide trap.

Breathing in Manure

For a long time my vision of CAFO's (confined animal feeding operations) has been hog farms like this picture from North Carolina, which produces $3 billion worth of hogs per year.

Apparently, something nastier is afoot in California. California makes me think of abundant produce, like this from a friend's Facebook page, taken in February 2015.

However, this article on the California's dairy farms, which produce 20% of the US's dairy products, almost made me glad to be in Baltimore. Huge amounts of toxic particulate matter in the air shorten people's lives, and the impact on global warming is considerable. Ammonia, volatile organic compounds, and pressure on Latin American forests are other toxic byproducts of the expanding industry. 


Friday, May 1, 2015

Agenda 21

    Agenda 21, which is a global plan of action to combat poverty and implement sustainable development, was adopted by the UN in 1992 at the Earth Summit held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.. President George H. W. Bush signed the agreement at the Earth Summit, which has initiated efforts in the US towards becoming compliant with the program.  I chose to briefly explore the controversy of individual property rights verses the “sustainable development” processes of the UN adopted Agenda 21 program.  The articles discuss anti Agenda 21 legislation and express concern over the infringement of personal property rights, but do not explicitly state the details of the total concern in question.  The fear held by these people is that Agenda 21 gradually reduces citizens to being restricted to living exclusively within cities, with little to no personal property rights at all, and no access to the “suburbs”
    One article focused on the New Hampshire House of Representatives' effort to ban the implementation of Agenda 21, indicating that the vote held was 201 to 99 in favor of the ban. The primary sponsor of the bill, Anne Cartwright, expressed her concern in several quotes in the article, and are best summed up with these statements: "I know it is totally against our Constitution from reading the U.N. biodiversity assessment,” "They are very slowly implementing rules and regulations that have not reached a high level yet," and "They are implementing it through zoning, planning and regional planning things that impact our property rights."  It seems that Cartwright is referring to the “renewable growth planning” aspect of Agenda 21 here, which outlines how property use is to be zoned.
    Another article described the same scenario, but in Tennessee, Oklahoma and Missouri instead.  Tennessee HB185 and SB459 have been introduced and are awaiting approval by their respective committees to move forward.  If passed, these bills will prohibit any state or sub political agency from adopting or implementing any policy that intentionally or unintentionally infringes on individual property rights without due process of law.  Oklahoma has introduced HB 2807 as their measure to address these concerns, and Missouri proposed legislation worded very similarly to that of Tennessee. Apparently Kansas has also joined this movement.
    Judging by the words “without due process” appearing in all of the said legislation, it seems the primary concern of those opposed to Agenda 21 is that the programs implementation was never put to an official vote by Congress.  Since the program is not a treaty or binding agreement, but merely a plan to take action and follow proposed guidelines, a vote by Congress is not required.  This has allowed over 500 cities to begin zoning and planning land use in accordance with Agenda 21 policies without actually asking the people if they agree with or want it.  The Inquisitr also presents a video called “Behind the Green Mask,” by a Democrat named Rosa Koire, who claims to be a Forensic Land Appraiser that works for a government agency, as further support for the claims.  The video was full length, but very interesting.
    As Agenda 21 has made its way around the political arena and garnered plenty of media coverage, I have investigated it at length.  As an Environmental Science and Studies student, I am proud to say that I love parks, bike trails, recycling and all forms of responsible Earth stewardship.  I enjoy hiking, fishing and outdoor recreation like everybody else, and don’t wish to stand in the way of any good intentioned efforts to preserve such activities. That being said, I must admit that I am severely disappointed and even disturbed by much of what I have watched and read concerning Agenda 21. I have seen the argument of those who are alarmed by Agenda 21, and I think they generally present a very valid point.  There is evidence of Agenda 21 policies clashing with the right of private property, but the question is, what is the end state of this global initiative?  How does a responsible citizen go about determining what the end goal for this program is?  A good start is to read it, and most have not. In a country where so much has been done in the name of freedom, and where the government uses the idea of freedom to rally its citizens to support national causes abroad, I would expect folks to be more vigilant and critical of the legislative structure of their own freedoms here at home. It is disheartening to see so many folks be unwilling to even consider the idea that these claims could hold some legitimacy. What is even worse is that one cannot seem to express this concern without being asked where their tinfoil hat is. I also believe that global warming is very real, and that humans are either the cause, or greatly accelerated it. Small groups of people who are so untrusting of authority figures, including scientists, that they do not believe in global warming despite all of the supporting evidence, being touted in the media as the primary kind of people who oppose Agenda 21 adds to the disappointment. It’s disappointing that being critical to legislative wording, and vigilant about personal liberties has been equated with being radical or crazy.  In the words of Dave Chapelle, “the worst thing to call somebody is crazy…..it’s dismissive.”
--Travis Dunaway
Other sources: Esquire CFACT

Can the Bay and Blue Crabs Survive?

    In recent decades, the Chesapeake Bay has been drastically becoming more and more polluted. With the overabundance of nitrogen and phosphorous in the water, fish (and especially blue crab) populations have taken a huge hit. The main contributors to the devastation of the Bay are wastewater treatment plants, chicken manufacturers, and coal-fired power plants.
    In 2010, however, steps were taken to increase the health of the Bay. The Environmental Protection Agency and the Chesapeake Bay Program, all came together to get six states (Maryland, Virginia, Delaware, Pennsylvania, New York, West Virginia) and the District of Columbia to save the Bay by reducing pollution in its watershed. Some of the actions required by the EPA are for states to find point and nonpoint sources of pollution that can be altered to lower pollution and evaluate their individual state’s legislation that may not be providing enough enforcement of current restorative actions.
    I think that this article, though not immediate news, is important to get out there right now as blue crab season has just started. It will take time and everyone’s cooperation to get the Bay healthy again and it is important to keep the public informed about the steps being taken so that they too can help in the process. One of the most influential actions being taken in Maryland is the Department of Agriculture’s Phosphorous Initiative that was signed into law in March. This initiative will put harsher restrictions on the amount of phosphorous that farms can put into their soil and try to control the overuse of chicken manure throughout the state.
    As well as just the environmental impacts, Maryland’s Phosphorous Initiative will research and evaluate the economic impact on local farms in the spring of 2015 to further evaluate what other actions need to be taken and if the current ones are effective. Maryland will remain one of the major contributors to the Chesapeake Bay’s pollution and as so we need to be at the forefront of trying to keep the Bay healthy.
--Brittany Miller

Electronic Waste

    These articles from discoverynews.com and the BBC are about the record-breaking amount of electrical waste in 2014.  When it comes to waste we usually think about trash, junk, and anything that is old, outdated, or something we simply don’t want. Electrical waste is one of the most toxic forms of waste because humans and the environment are exposed to cadmium, lead, beryllium, mercury, and polyvinyl chloride. Less than one-sixth of all e-waste was properly recycled and last year 41.8 million tons of e-waste was dumped. Reports found that the United States and China generated the most waste and accounted for 32%, in terms of volume, of the entire world’s total. Japan, Germany, and India followed after. The United States per-capita waste per person was 48 pounds per person. European countries surprisingly had the largest per-capita per country. Switzerland generated 58 pound per person, Iceland with 57 pounds, Denmark with 52 pounds, and France with 48 pounds per person. The combined value of this e-waste is worth about $52 billion dollars and is toxic waste that is contributing to the destruction of our planet.
    I was surprised to learn about the amount of electrical waste! I always wondered what happened to these microwaves, dishwashers, computers, and bulk items were trashed and recycled. It’s sad to see that there were two Responsible Electronic Recycling Acts in 2013 and 2014 not get passed. That just allows our country to ship our waste to third world nations already facing much larger crises, now left to deal with our waste. I believe we would handle our waste differently if we were not able to ship it out of the country and have to manage it on our own. It also leads me to the question of technology and our society. Since we are so technologically advanced, are these companies aware of the damage they are creating by introducing a new electronic item to the market every year? I think there need to be some laws passed to change this. Jobs can be created to recycle these products and credits could be offered to customers who send back electrical items they no longer need.
--Alex Banks

China's Dry Mountain Winter Olympics

    As the 2022 Winter Olympics draw closer, China makes a strong push to host these games. As part of their bid China is looking to build several large ski resorts to host events. While building these resorts would take away the land from local farmers in the region, they welcome this addition acknowledging that these places would bring more jobs and revenue, an estimated $500 a month for employees, than farming does in this region.
    China’s bid and potential building of these massive resorts would come at a huge cost. It is estimated to cost over $250 million dollars to construct all the facilities. The largest cost, however, would be the environmental impact of constructing these facilities. One problem is that in order to build, large amounts of trees, many of which are in National Parks, need to be cut down to create the slopes. The International Olympic Committee states that it will replant the trees in other areas; however, this number is very difficult to monitor and causes other erosional problems. The second and larger problem is the impact this would have on China’s water supply. Beijing’s mountainous region receives only about 16 inches of rain a year making it a semiarid region. The water it does receive cannot be used for farming purposes but is redirected to South mainly to be used for snow generation at these resorts. It was estimated that in 2011,“Beijing used an average of about a billion gallons of water a year, or enough for 42,000 people” in 11 ski resorts.
    As much revenue as the resorts would generate for this region I find it very unstable and not worth the environmental risk to build the needed ski resorts. With China’s population on the rise, I do not see how water can continue to be used on a luxury while there is a real threat of potentially running out of drinking water. It makes more sense to have these events take place in areas where snow is more natural available, instead of the measly average of 8.3 inches in China. No matter how sustainable and ecofriendly the IOC tries to make this event it will not be as environmentally friendly as simply leaving these forested areas untouched. With China’s horrible air quality issues I do not think they can afford to cut down any trees. It’s very hard to ignore the revenue that would be provided from the resorts. However, as the amount of water continues to decrease there may not even be enough water for the resorts to remain open. Now huge irreversible environmental impacts have been made on this region for basically no gain. Personally I think it is better to sacrifice the potential economic gains for a sounder environment and water security.
--Sam Moxey

After Death

    There are many people across the world that happily compost organic items in their homes or backyards and then use the material to fertilize their gardens. I wonder how many of those people would be willing to use the result of a composted human body in the same manner.
    Something that I have not truly considered is the environmental, spatial or economic cost of death; the physical disposal of the human body.  Approximately 56 million people die each year [in the US]. What happens to all of those bodies? “Death in the US is a 13.4 billion dollar industry”, which takes in to account cremation, funeral home costs, embalming, and burial, among others.  Since the recession hit in 2008, the percentage of people choosing cremation over embalming and a casket burial drastically increased largely because of the difference in cost. The price of cremation is on average, $2,570, as opposed to traditional burial which is $7,755. While cremation financially costs less and takes up less land compared to traditional burials, an issue that environmentalists are concerned about is the release of carbon dioxide from the burning process which contributes to greenhouse gases. With new technologies and ideas being thought up every day, there are now more than just two options for what to do with the deceased. An alternative to fire cremation is a process called alkaline hydrolysis which places the body in a steel chamber filled with “water, potassium hydroxide and heat to break down bodies into peptides, soaps, salts and sugars”.
    Yet another alternative is a proposal from Katrina Spade, a sustainable design architect, to compost human bodies. She has designed a building for human composting that will be three stories high with a vault called the “core” in the center. The core could hold about thirty people at any given time. There would need to be nitrogen rich material added such as wood chips or alfalfa and heat to begin the microbial activities. The process is likely to take weeks or a couple of months.
    I think this idea is interesting and makes sense for animals but it is difficult to imagine a pile of bodies degrading in the center core of a building. The concept is a good one: it doesn’t add to greenhouse gas emissions, it wouldn’t use land space for cement tombs, and it seems to be a very cheap option. But it seems that the actual process may take away some of the individualism and ceremony of remembering a person in death. To me it seems like the biggest issue is getting the general public on board. For this to be successful there would need to be volunteers who would put this in their will that they would like to be composted as opposed to cremated or buried. I also can’t imagine using the resulting compost in my garden, especially not to grow anything that I would eat. I think it might be nice to take the compost and use it to plant a tree in a loved one’s memory. I wonder if the compost material would contain DNA?  Personally, I plan to donate my organs or anything that might be useful to someone who can use it to live. I don’t particularly care what happens to what would remain of my body (though I wouldn’t like to be buried in a tomb), so this could be an option for me.
--Sarah Harrison

Soil Degradation due to Soil Salinization

    The world has been losing 2,000 hectares of farm soil every single day for about 20 years now due to soil salinization. The buildup of salt in the soil makes it harsher for crops to grow, decreasing yields and requiring more water. The areas affected are mostly in the Aral Sea Basin, the Indo-Gangetic Basin in India, Pakistan, the Yellow River Basin in China, Iraq, Australia, and California. It is estimated that an area the size of France (62 million hectares) is affected by soil salinization. The main way to get the salts out of the soil is by washing them with water, but even then the created salt water has to be removed, and the areas affected are in arid regions where water is scarce as it is. It is estimated that the world loses $27.3 billion per year in crop yield loss, not including the effects that the loss of food will have on the future of mankind. With the population trending towards doubling again by 2040, people will need more food to be able to handle the extra population, and it may not be available. 14% of the world’s land area is used in agriculture and there isn’t much left to replace what has been lost. A proposed solution is to irrigate plants in arid regions with brackish water or even seawater. While most land plants can’t handle using saltwater, some researchers are trying to introduce saltwater tolerant crops into humans’ diets, specifically halophytes, which with genetic engineering, can be used to supplement the world’s growing need for food while helping humanity be able to utilize the land lost to soil salinization.
--Colin McGill

New Jersey Fights Exxon Settlement

    For this current event I found two articles from the New York Times both about the current legal issues between Exxon and the State of New Jersey.  The main issue is that Exxon had two plants in New Jersey that were putting out a large amount of pollution over an extended period of time.  The state did an assessment on the damages caused by Exxon and determined that there was $8.9 billion in damages.  Over the last few years legal battles happened in court over how much damage there really was and if Exxon was liable for the damages but before a verdict was reached both sides opted to resolve the issue outside of court.  The settlement that was released was that Exxon would pay $225 million in damages and that there would be no formal actions taken against them besides the fine and that they would not be considered at fault for the damages to the environment.  Currently the settlement will sit for 60 days and the public is allowed to voice their opinions and then this settlement will go in front of a judge who will ultimately decide if it is fair.  Right now there is a lot of outrage in the public and even the New Jersey State Senate voted 24 to 0 to urge the judge to reject this settlement.
    I believe that in this situation it is important for New Jersey to stand up against Exxon and to try and get as much money as possible from them. $225 million is not even close to the amount owed to the state so why settle for so little?  I also believe that the Government needs to start caring about the environment more and this could set a national precedent; if a major company pollutes and causes great harm to the environment they must be held responsible.  Unfortunately it seems that Chris Christie seems to be for this settlement because he can use the money to fill holes in New Jersey's general budget.  I think that the state should fight as hard as they can and if necessary appeal the decision to a higher court.  Some ways to fight this in the future would be to have general inspections and yearly reports by companies to monitor pollution and impact on the area to catch issues like this early.  I also think that the government should label these companies as harmful to the environment and that could help stop other states from letting them operate in their state.
--Ian O'Brien

Chesapeake Bay's blue crab population rebounding

    Chesapeake Bay's blue crab population rebounding discusses the challenges the Chesapeake Bay’s Blue Crab population faces. According to the article the number of spawning females dropped fifty three percent from the previous year. The estimated population of spawning female Blue Crabs is around seventy million. The author describes this as an alarming number because for a healthy Blue Crab population experts believe the number should be two hundred fifteen million. Dietrich believes that the population numbers are not down due to over harvesting the species. Dietrich says that experts attribute the decline to a combination of environmental factors. Karen Graham author of Where oh where are the Chesapeake Bay's blue crabs going? believes that the declining population is due to new migration patterns, environmental factors, and over-exploitation. Graham states that back in early 1980’s fisherman focused their efforts on Blue Crabs because the Oyster population took a major hit due to fresh water flooding. This caused the Blue Crab population to decline to three hundred million which is half of the natural population.
    I thoroughly enjoyed reading both of these articles and found that they gave great insight into the declining Blue Crab population. However, I do not agree with Tamara Dietrich’s belief that the decline is simply from environmental factors. Every summer Blue Crab demand increases and fisherman and restaurants stress the meet the demand due to the profits that can be made. I tend to agree more with Karen Grahams theory that the population decline is due to a combination of environmental factors and over harvesting of the species. I believe in order to have a healthy population we must mandate a cease of harvesting for an extended period of time.
--Brandon Replogle

EPA's authority to regulate in question

    The Case of Michigan vs. EPA will surely be a landmark case for the environmental movement in the United States. Michigan, representing about 20 other states, is suing the EPA for what they claim is over-stepping the EPA’s authority to regulate a state’s emissions. Under the Clean Air Act the EPA is allowed to set standards for pollutants that a state is allowed to produce. The process of how the States do that is usually up to the states however. The Obama administration is attempting to change that by demanding regulations on coal burning power plants to regulate mercury, arsenic and various other pollutants. This new policy of regulating mercury and arsenic will cost the U.S about $9.6 billion annually for what the opponents of this new rule will only produce about $6 million in direct benefits. The proponents of the bill have very different figures saying that the co-benefits from prevention of 11,000 premature deaths, 4700 nonfatal heart attacks, and 540,000 lost days of work annually will save the country anywhere from $37 billion to $90 billion.
    [Although the benefits clearly exceed the costs, these states are saying that the EPA did not do the cost-benefit analysis at the right time: it should have been done sooner.--JM]
    In my personal opinion I am heavily in favor of this new rule. I think that the benefits from this rule far outweigh the cost of putting air quality regulation in certain power plants. The fact that Michigan and these other states are trying to win this case on a technicality of the EPA's not factoring in the cost to the states at the appropriate stage is a move of desperation in my opinion. However I see that Michigan does have a point with the costs not being assessed at the right stage and while I don’t think it will stop the bill from eventually being put into action I could see it possibly delaying the implementation of the new rule.
--Derek Pittman

Men- Eat Your Junk Food!

    I reviewed two online articles which discussed sperm quality in relation to exposure to pesticides. The first article from The Guardian titled, “Pesticide residue on food could affect sperm quality", discussed the results of a Harvard study, which showed that consumption of fruits and vegetables with residue from pesticides decreases and affects the quality of sperm. One of the identifiable limitations of the research was that the study subject was men who attend fertility clinics and not a wider cross section of the public such as the general population.
    The second article from “Our Stolen Future” discusses the same topic, however the source of pesticide that was studied was from drinking water. The study was carried out in Missouri. The study purposely choose men who had a pregnant partner. This was used as an indicator of potency. The study tested men from rural parts of Missouri compared to urban areas in Minneapolis and the result showed that the men were affected by different chemical pesticides. The two articles addressed the issue of pesticides' affecting sperm level and quality from either fruit and vegetable or drinking water.
    These articles were interesting because in society today children and adults are being educated and advised to consume more healthy food to include fruits and vegetable, however it appears that this may be having a negative on men’s health. The pesticides used on fruits and vegetables protect the produce from the dangers from weeds, insects and plant diseases. This raises whether men, who attempt to have a healthier lifestyle with a focus on fruits and vegetables as part of their diets are actually unwittingly negatively affecting the health of their sperm, a problem that their junk-food eating counterparts do not experience?
--Nyala Clyne

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Air conditioning

A recently published paper discusses one impact of rising incomes and climate change: increased use of air conditioning. Depending on how efficient the engineers can make it, that could be quite a burden on the environment by itself.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

What does water really mean to you?

  According to a NASA study, which also involved scientists from Cornell and Columbia Universities, a projected megadrought is expected to occur between 2055 and 2099. The southwest and the central plains will be most affected and the drought has been projected to last anywhere between 20-40 years. The severity of this megadrought is dependent upon greenhouse gas emission rates, i.e., if they continue to increase as they are today, this megadrought has an 80% probability of occurring. Depending on what government and general public action is taken to help curb and abate the current greenhouse gas emission rates, the probability of the drought happening can be lowered to about 60%, far better odds than 80%. 
  This megadrought and the current drought the southwest is experiencing already have huge economic and social repercussions. Agriculture suffers a huge amount, crops are destroyed or can’t even be grown due to water shortages, unemployment increases, inflation will occur due to lack of water and food, and dairy and meat industries will ultimately fail. Government intervention is slow but growing; for example, state lawmakers, in California, have issued a $7.5 million bond to be put to vote with Californians in the fall which will expand reservoirs and aid in water recycling and conservation.
  I think it is a very positive thing to see the government trying to put more and more money toward helping the environment especially when our most precious resource is being so severely threatened. If I were a California citizen suffering the consequences of water shortages I would absolutely support the expansion of reservoirs in order to help the environment, the state, the economy, and the citizens that depend so much on water for jobs and of course, means of living. Even being a Maryland resident, I still support projects like the one proposed by California because water is our most precious resource and if we aren’t careful, it will be gone and it will be too late to do anything about it. I think the government needs to step up and educate the public about some of the easiest ways to reduce GHG emissions by doing things like carpooling more and decreasing individual driving and decreasing meat consumption. These two solutions would help abate GHG emission rates drastically, especially if done on a national and/or global level. The time to make a change is now, before it’s too late.

--Jordan Sedlock

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Productive Ag & Productive Criticism

Many of you seem to be frustrated when I say things like, "Industrial agriculture is extremely productive; thanks to technology and the use of inputs like pesticides, fertilizers, and GMO seeds, we are producing more grain than ever." I'm sorry if you don't like it, but it's really true: these technologies ARE tremendously productive, and what's more, all that productivity means that crops are cheaper than ever. All of us, including the poor, have access to food at lower prices than ever. Nutritional diseases like kwashiorkor and marasmus are basically gone from the US. Environmentally speaking, having tremendously productive fields means that there is less pressure on wild lands.

That doesn't mean that all is well with our food system. There are PLENTY of problems! First and foremost are the many externalities: pollution of our air and water, soil loss, serious depletion of aquifers, etc. Also, all this cheap food hurts farmers. Finally, the food that's cheap isn't quality food, and the mass consumption of foods with little nutritional value (aka "empty calories") is fueling the current boom in obesity.

IMHO the best critic is an informed critic. If you want to call for change, I think you will be most effective if you recognize the good and the bad of the current system instead of being in denial about it. For example, I have seen no credible evidence that GMO technology hurts human health. That could change- I could see a great study tomorrow- but the studies that showed harm have all more or less been shown to be flawed. Again, that doesn't mean you shouldn't criticize GMO's: just go after the real problems such as the monopoly power being brought to bear in seed technologies. That's not ok.

At the same time, the harms of industrial agriculture are clear. We need change to avoid the problems listed above, but we really need to keep up the high productivity on our limited land, since there are people to feed and wild lands that we don't want to bring into cultivation. Local food is tasty: good for gourmets, but it is much, much less productive than allowing Idaho to grow the nation's potatoes. Shipping uses fuel, yes, but a heck of a lot less fuel than trying to grow a potato in Florida.

Organic agriculture is a great start. Clearly the methods we need to take care of our land are incorporated. However, at this point it's about 20 to 25% less productive, at best. We need more research to improve productivity, and we may need some of the fruits of our industrial approach as well.

There are other approaches, and I mostly don't know much about them. Here's someone talking about agroecology, and in class some of you talked about analog forestry. Sounds like these are sustainable, but are they economic? Are they as productive as industry? I don't know! If you want to make the case for these, you need to be aware of the issue and be able to make the case. You need... drum roll please... economics!

Try to keep an open mind about costs AND benefits: that's the best way to generate effective criticism and build leverage for your own push to improve the system.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Eastern Shore Wind Nixed

The usual coalition of NIMBY activists seems to have won out over green energy business interests trying to bring wind power to the Eastern Shore. Although the excuses put forward range from protecting migratory geese to the needs of a local military installation, it sounds like those are just excuses to help people avoid the installation of large, noisy, and apparently ugly turbines.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Water: the price is wrong

A nice presentation of some key facts about the role of agriculture in California's drought is over at the Daily Beast. People always notice when prices go up, but people don't pay attention to prices that are too low. The price of water in many locations, such as for most farmers even in drought-stricken California, is nearly zero: people using water don't pay the full cost of the water, and so they aren't as careful with it as they ought to be. The article argues that planting large numbers of water-guzzling trees in the middle of a desert is probably not the best idea, and it's tough to contest that.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

California getting scary

For the past 65 years, the amount of snow on April 1 has averaged 65 inches, but this year there was zero. Nada. Since that snow becomes Nevada & California's water through the year, this situation is pretty dire, and the governor is imposing the most severe restrictions ever in California: a mandatory 25% cut pretty much everywhere. 2014 was California's warmest year on record, and this winter was the warmest winter on record. Add to that mix a near complete lack of precipitation and a history of heavily overdrawing groundwater resources, and we have serious trouble brewing.

Dairy & Crabs

Two quickies from today's Baltimore Sun, print edition (only one seems to be in their online edition, for whatever reason):

1) In upstate New York, the arrival of Chobani yogurt a few years ago has meant a large increase in the demand for milk. Dairy farmers there are thrilled, but say the locals refuse to work on the dairy farms. They want to hire immigrant workers from Central America (like Eastern Shore crab processors, by the way) but the government isn't being very supportive. It's not in the article, but it seems like the poor farmers may have to actually raise their willingness to pay for workers if they want to get a lot done.

2) More Maryland-y: tests by nonprofit group Oceana have revealed that 46% of crab cakes sold in Baltimore and advertised as containing crab from the Chesapeake do not, in fact, contain crab from the Chesapeake. Instead, some restaurant owners are using cheaper foreign substitutes. It is important to note, though, that sometimes it's not the restaurant's fault: they may pay a high price for something labelled as if it comes from here, but it might not actually be from the Bay. Seafood fraud!

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

What does it mean to "run out"?

Re: the California drought, from the Los Angeles Times:

"It is the economics of having to go deeper and deeper for groundwater that will ultimately force growers to retire land. It's not that the Central Valley's thick aquifer will run dry. Scientists estimate that it holds roughly 800 million acre-feet of water that seeped deep into the valley's sands and clays over millenniums from streams and rivers swollen with runoff from the neighboring Sierra Nevada and coastal ranges.

Farmers will instead run out of water they can afford to pump. As the groundwater table drops ever lower, wells become prohibitively expensive to drill, water quality deteriorates and it takes more energy, and thus money, to pull supplies from depths of 2,000 feet or more."

"To save our valley, we have to police ourselves," Pitigliano said, acknowledging that it won't be easy.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Food prices hit a low

We talked about food prices in the past slides, but I hadn't realized how well we are doing on that front. It turns out that last fall they were at their lowest level in four years, a development that was no doubt widely appreciated if not much remarked upon. Even so, though, Europe seems to be in an economic doldrums. I'm not a macroeconomist so I won't speculate on what might be keeping them down, but this would imply that the problem isn't just consumers with tight budgets....

Paris in the Smog

     Paris is currently the most polluted city on the planet in terms of air pollution. The smog (PM10 particles created by vehicles and industry) had been especially bad in March, which prompted city officials to put new temporary vehicle restrictions in place. The new measures allow only energy efficient cars, vehicles with odd-number plates, or cars carrying three or more passengers to be allowed to drive in the city. Vehicles were also restricted from exceeding 20kph. People violating these rules were fined €22. To ease the burden these measures place on potential commuters in the city, public transportation and residential parking were made available free of charge. The ban lasted five days and this is the third time since 1997 that such restrictions have been put in place. The ban was estimated to have resulted in a 40% reduction in traffic and a noticeable reduction in air pollution according to city residents. No official numbers have been published at this time. Some citizens and politicians have suggested that officials should instead try to find more sustainable solutions to the pollution problem.
I have to agree that officials should be doing more to curb the pollution problem. The current approach of these temporary bans does not seem sustainable. The smog will only get worse as time goes on, and more frequent temporary bans does not seem feasible. Free public transportation would be very costly, and once the ban is over the pollution simply comes back. What should be done is the implementation of new emissions regulations and incentives for people to ride bikes, carpool, drive cleaner cars, or use public transportation daily. Temporary bans could be effective while new legislation is in the works and before the new regulations start working to their full potential. These bans should not be used as a crutch against pollution.
--David Lanier

California Doubles Down on Renewable Energy

     According to this article California’s fourth term Governor, Jerry Brown has proposed to spend 59 billion dollars to fix infrastructure and raise the state’s renewable energy mandate to 50 percent by 2030. It is believed that his proposal will reboot California’s industrial-scale solar and wind industries and create another land grab in the Mojave Desert.
This isn’t the first time the Governor has set a benchmark for the state. Back in 2011 Governor Brown signed a law that would mandate 33 percent of the state’s energy be renewable by 2020. Since that time the state is not only on track to meeting that goal but will likely surpass it. Being on track of achieving the original goal has been a blessing and a curse for California.
     The good thing about achieving the goal is it led the country by example, showing large scale radical environmental policy can create long lasting change in energy use. The bad part about being on target to achieve the goal is the utility companies have lost interest in signing new contracts with large scale renewable energy firms, because there was no incentive to do so. Therefore many clean-energy developers don’t have the financing for large-scale projects. The clean-energy industry hope for the new benchmark is that it will renew interest in utility companies to contract large scale renewable energy developers.
There are several challenges associated with the new 50 percent standard. One is how the Governor will bring the 50 percent standard into law. Govern Brown could issue an executive order or ask the Legislature to craft a bill that will be likely to pass with the liberal state Senate. The other challenge is the limitation of renewable energy. Renewable energy is intermittent and the supply does not always meet the demand, therefore companies must find a way to balance and integrate renewable energy with non-renewable. Another challenge is the land use these large scale clean-energy companies will take up in the Mojave Desert.
     The Obama administration has set aside 22 million acres in California as Federal land for renewable energy endeavors. However, some of the construction that will take place on that land might negatively affect ecosystems and ancestral homelands of the Colorado River Indian Tribes. Last year the Colorado River Indian Tribes filed a lawsuit to stop construction of a solar energy plant that will span 4,000 acres in the Mojave Desert. In the lawsuit the Tribes claim the U.S Bureau of Land Management environmental impact statement for the project failed to take into account the damage that would incur to the ecosystem, culture, groundwater and the Colorado River.
     Even though there are many challenges setting the new standard, it is exciting to see a politician take such a bold stance on renewable energy. This article, showed how the environment, economics, law, and policy are interconnected and all must be taken into account when trying to bring long lasting change. The article also helped me to understand how economic incentives and policy can have an impact on the environment.
The article spoke of the utility companies that stopped contracting clean-energy developers once the incentive was gone. Because there was no push on businesses through economics or policy, progress in renewable energy became stagnant. However, while the incentive was there California achieved an environmental goal many thought couldn’t be accomplished, especially within a short 10 year period. This article has shown me that true environmental change has to start with changes in policy: if not businesses and individuals will be more inclined to do what is economically beneficial.
--Amanda Akins