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.