Monday, December 30, 2013

Looking back: Environmental news of 2013



The sun setting on another year - a good time for reflection

As 2013 draws to a close and we prepare to put another year behind us, now is a good time to reflect on some of the year’s big environmental headlines.  Whether the topic was energy, weather or pollution, the environmental news discourse of 2013 was underlined by one common theme: climate change.  There seemed to be a distinct shift in the tone of news compared with previous years; where instead of arguing about whether climate change is really happening (it is), this year our society began to move toward action, both in the form of citizen protests and government mandates. 

Milestones

In the month of March, 100% of the newly installed electricity generation in the US was solar energy.  That’s not just 100% of the newly installed renewable electricity generation… that’s 100% of newly installed electricity generation, period. Now that is a trend that needs to keep rising! The White House even got back on board with solar power, as 2013 marked the return of solar panels to the White House roof.

In May, we hit an unfortunate milestone as atmospheric carbon dioxide levels reached 400 parts per million (ppm) – the highest level in human history, and well above the “safe” level of 350ppm. This confirms that our planet is still on a dangerous climate change trajectory.  With increasing levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide, our collective global society is headed toward a challenging future on a changing planet. (See 400: A Sobering Milestone)

In June, the President made a groundbreaking speech in which he called for climate change action by mandating tougher emissions standards for coal-based power plants, calling for higher energy efficiency, and stressing the importance of moving to renewable energy.  Although some new regulations and goals have been set, most of us still sit with bated breath to see if the President's promises will be upheld as we wait for action on critical issues such as the Keystone XL pipeline, domestic oil drilling, and natural gas fracking. If allowed to move forward, these endeavors would have tragically counterproductive consequences on our efforts to fight climate change.

In December, the Endangered Species Act marked its 40th year of protecting our planet’s most vulnerable and threatened species.  Check out the top five Endangered Species Act successes here.  

Activism

2013 will certainly be a memorable year in regard to environmental activism: 

Kicking things off in February, activists staged the largest climate rally to date, with more than 40,000 people descending on the National Mall in the “Forward on Climate” rally, urging President Obama to reject the Keystone XL Pipeline and “move forward on climate".

And without fail, wherever President Obama traveled this year, he was greeted by groups of activists urging him to reject the Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry tar sands oil from Canada to refineries on the Gulf Coast.  An environmental disaster waiting to happen, the pipeline is not only dangerous in terms of potential leaks or spills, but also because of the tremendous contributions it would make to climate change.  (See my Earth Day post for more information).

Around the world, people banded together in protest of oil and gas companies, highlighting the significant contributions to climate change and the environmental destruction caused by these industries.  Residents of the Pacific Islands stood together and declared “We are not drowning, we are fighting,” as their homelands become increasingly threatened by rising sea levels.  Back at home in the US, activists in the northeast staged protests to shut down the activities of natural gas companies who were “fracking” to extract shale gas in their towns, poisoning the environment and local water supplies in the process.  In the Pacific Northwest, amidst concerns of increased pollution and climate change, protestors railed against several proposed coal terminals that would ship US coal to overseas ports.  

2013 was also a big year for the movement to divest from fossil fuels.  Several universities, churches, cities (including Seattle!) vowed to pull their investments out of fossil fuel companies, conceding that it was ethically unacceptable to invest in an industry that is well on its way to destroying our planet as we know it. I would have to agree!

Weather

Weather events frequently made headlines this year, continuing to fulfill the “global weirding” predicted by scientists as our climate continues to change.  We witnessed a devastating typhoon in the Philippines, flooding in Europe, tornadoes in the US Midwest, and a record-shattering heat wave in China, just to name a few.  In January through November this year, there were thirty-six devastating weather events that came with a price tag in the billions and resulted in the loss of thousands of lives. 

The weather in Siberia is currently in the news as I write this: many residents are in disbelief at the unprecedented lack of snowfall and relatively warm temperatures they’re experiencing this winter, with one elderly local ominously remarking “I cannot believe my eyes… this doesn’t happen.” Check out the incredulous Siberian Times article here.

Grim Warnings

An early revision of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) 5th Assessment Report was leaked this year, painting a sobering picture of our future if we continue with the fossil-fuel burning, carbon-spewing path we’re on. The report noted that although adaptation is possible to a certain degree, we can still expect significant casualties in the latter half of the century due to drought, flooding, decreased crop yields, heat waves and resource scarcity, all of which are fueled by climate change.  The IPCC report warned that we will not avoid the worst effects of climate change unless dramatic action is taken in the next few decades.

In the waning days of 2013, we have arrived at the tail end of the 346th consecutive month of above-average global temperatures. Will our society take steps in the coming year to break that streak? I suspect that 2014 will look much the same as 2013 on the environmental news front, but am hanging on to the hope that the new year will bring much-needed groundbreaking action to combat climate change, move toward 100% renewable energy, and protect our beautiful planet. Although the efforts of 2013 are a highly commendable start, we need to be mindful that in a life-or-death battle where our opponent is moving forward in leaps and bounds, we cannot afford to continue fighting by inches.  

Environmental news can be notoriously grim and depressing… for some lighter fare, be sure to check out Nature Nerd Wednesdays, with inspiring nature photography and nature writing.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

In the News: Another Unsettling Climate Change Map

The Orange States of America.  This is the picture in an unsettling interactive map recently released by the US Geological Survey (click here to view the map on the Washington Post website), in what has become the next round of depressing climate change projections.  Pulling data from more than a dozen climate models, the map depicts expected temperature and precipitation changes for the continental US for the years 2050-2074.  And the picture is not a pretty one... things are going to get significantly warmer.

Screenshot of the USGS Map.  Source: http://knowmore.washingtonpost.com/2013/12/16/this-terrifying-map-shows-how-much-hotter-america-will-be-in-a-half-century/

Nationwide, annual mean temperatures are projected to increase anywhere from 2.4 to 4 degrees Celsius, which correlates to approximately 6 to7 degrees Fahrenheit. Can you imagine adding another 6 or 7 degrees to the already-sweltering summertime heat experienced in some areas of the US?  This will lead to unbearable and dangerously hot weather.  And how about increasing wintertime temps by the same 6 to 7 degrees?  At first, many of us likely wouldn't complain about milder winter weather, but we might think twice after taking into consideration the fact that our summertime water supply (i.e., snowpack in the mountains) would be jeopardized with the projected temperature increases, as well as the pest problems that could arise with the disappearance of that annual "killing frost".  Mild winters and dangerously hot summers with a severely diminished water supply... that doesn't sound like an ideal situation.

Screenshot of the USGS Map.  Source: http://knowmore.washingtonpost.com/2013/12/16/this-terrifying-map-shows-how-much-hotter-america-will-be-in-a-half-century/
By clicking on the "Variable" tab above the map, you can change the projections to show precipitation across the US.  The pale blue color across much of the map indicates that precipitation is expected to stay about the same or increase marginally, while the beige tones across the south/southwest indicate that precipitation in those regions will remain the same or decrease slightly.

And of course, when I saw this map I had to ask... what about Washington?  The mean model predicts that temperatures in our state will increase by 3.3 degrees Celsius, which is approximately 6 degrees Fahrenheit.  This could push our summertime temperatures into the 90's and 100's, and our wintertime temperatures could be in the balmy 40's and 50's. Precipitation is projected to increase slightly (1mm per day), so our corner of the country certainly won't be losing its reputation for being notoriously gray and rainy.

We're clearly going to be living in a much different country in the latter half of this century.  The increased temperatures will have far-reaching adverse effects on water supplies, agriculture and food supply, human health, ecosystem functions and biodiversity.  In order to mitigate the worst of these effects, our country needs to start planning now for this challenging future, and take immediate steps to curb our greenhouse gas emissions which fuel the climate change that has turned the United States orange. The US Geological Survey map is yet another clarion call for immediate action to address climate change. 

The Washington State Department of Ecology and the Department of Natural Resources prepared an Integrated Climate Response Strategy, released in April 2012.  This report covers human health, ecosystems, oceans, water resources, agriculture, forests, and infrastructure, among other topics, and details the expected effects of climate change and suggested strategies to mitigate those effects. Our state is one of the few that has prepared such climate change strategies - time for the rest of our country to get on board... we're all facing a warmer future!

For more information on how you can take steps to decrease your personal carbon footprint and combat climate change, visit the "Going Green" page on this blog.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Going Green: Tips for an Eco-Friendly Christmas


Snowy weather, cozy fires, gift-giving, and time spent with family and friends… there are many wonderful things to enjoy during the holiday season; but amongst the hustle and bustle of decking the halls, it is easy to lose sight of our environmental conscience.  
 
Unfortunately, Christmas is not very friendly to our environment, with household waste increasing as much as 25% during the holiday season—that’s a lot of holiday cheer headed to the landfill!  And our household budgets aren’t the only ones taking a hit this time of year:  all of the traveling and consumption (in the form of gift purchases) that occurs this time of year takes a toll on our global carbon dioxide emissions budget as well.  But don't despair: making a few thoughtful choices and putting in a little extra effort can make your Christmas much greener.

The Tree

Choose a live tree:  the ultimate “green” option, purchasing a live tree will allow you to have the experience of a traditional Christmas tree without the guilt of having to cut one down (am I the only one who feels conscience-stricken about toppling a beautiful tree?). After the holidays, your live tree can be planted in your yard and enjoyed for years to come.  If you’re looking for something less-traditional, you can choose a fruit tree such as apple, cherry, or plum: these trees are a practical choice and will provide gifts of their own within a few years!

Avoid artificial trees:  if you do not have the yard space to accommodate planting a live tree, your next best option is to choose a cut tree instead of purchasing an artificial one.  But isn’t it better to save a real tree and choose a fake one instead?  It might seem like it on the surface, but when you consider all of the fossil fuels and other chemicals that went into manufacturing and shipping the artificial tree, you’d be much greener choosing the real tree.  Studies have shown that you would have to use your artificial tree for more than twenty years in order for it to be a “greener” option than cutting down a fresh tree every year.

Plant a tree: consider making a donation to conservation groups such as the Arbor Day Foundation  in the spirit of “offsetting” your Christmas tree by having them plant a new one for you.

Decorate your tree with energy-efficient LED lights and reusable/recycled ornaments.

Adorable sleeping kitties make wonderful tree decorations, too!
Gifts

Give experiences instead of things:  instead of purchasing someone a gift that they might not want or cannot use, consider instead giving them tickets to a show or sporting event, taking them for a hike or outdoor adventure, cooking them a meal, or offering to assist with any housework, yardwork or other projects they might need help with.

Donate: another option for the hard-to-shop-for person is to donate to a charity in their name.  Look for a charity whose mission focuses on an issue close to the gift recipient’s heart.

Use re-useable or recyclable wrapping:  newspapers, maps, posters, scarves, baskets, tins, recycled gift bags… the options are limited only by your imagination. Also be sure to re-use ribbons and bows, or go for an eco-chic look by dressing packages up with pinecones or sprigs of berries, pine, or holly.

The Meal

Whether you’re preparing a traditional holiday meal with turkey and all the trimmings, or something non-traditional such as tacos (it has been done!), be sure to purchase organic, locally grown food wherever possible.  Organic food results in less pesticides/chemicals in our environment and on your dinner plate, and locally grown food supports local farmers and means a smaller carbon footprint for your meal.


It doesn’t have to be difficult to make your holidays greener… it just takes a conscious effort and thoughtful decisions, which will add up to a truly memorable season.

Do you have additional “green” holiday tips? Please share in the comments below!

Thursday, December 5, 2013

In the News: Renewable Energy in Washington

Environmental news outlets are buzzing today with the release of President Obama's memo ordering the federal government to increase its use of renewable energy.  By 2020, federal agencies will need to obtain 20% of their energy from renewable resources, which would triple the amount currently used.  Additionally, the President called for federal government buildings to be made more energy-efficient. 

Expanding the use of renewable energy is crucial in decreasing carbon dioxide emissions that lead to climate change, and also in protecting our environment from the damaging methods used to extract fossil fuels, which currently provide the majority of our nation's energy. Sometimes referred to as "fuels from heaven," energy sources such as wind, solar, hydroelectric, and tidal energy are all renewable, above-ground, readily available and do not call for the destructive mining and extraction techniques that their underground "fuels from hell" counterparts such as coal, oil, and natural gas require. 

How does Washington State stack up in our use of renewable energy? As you can see in the chart below from the US Energy Information Administration, our Ever"green" State produces well over 20% of our energy from renewable sources! 


Seattle's King 5 News recently aired an interesting special entitled "Beyond the Forecast: Power Play," which examined the use of three up-and-coming renewable energy sources in Washington: wind, solar, and tidal energy.  Here are some of the highlights:

Wind Energy

Wind energy is the fastest-growing form of renewable energy in the US, and accounted for more than 40% of newly installed energy last year.  Located mostly in Eastern Washington, our state's 14 wind farms currently operating or in development have the ability to provide a significant amount of electricity. For example, the Puget Sound Energy Wild Horse Wind Farm produces enough electricity to power 70,000 homes -- utilizing an average wind speed of merely 15 miles per hour!

Solar Power
 
Most people wouldn't consider Washington to be a prime candidate for solar power, considering the tendency of our weather to lean toward the grey and cloudy side of the spectrum.  However, even in rainy Seattle, solar power is thriving and growing!  Seattle is the proud home of the Bullitt Center, which has the distinction of being the greenest building in the world, largely due to its roof of solar panels that provide more than enough energy to power the six-story building.  The Seattle Aquarium is also making a statement by installing solar panels to support its commitment to protecting the marine environment, which is increasingly threatened by ocean acidification caused by CO2 emissions from fossil fuels. On a smaller scale, homeowners are taking advantage of tax credits and incentives to install solar panels on their homes, allowing them to produce their own electricity while also making a little cash when their panels produce "extra" energy that is fed back into the grid.

Tidal Energy

This form of renewable energy relies on turbines placed on the ocean floor to capture energy from the regular twice-daily tidal currents. This technology is still in development, but looks to be very promising for its reliability.  The Snohomish County PUD and the Department of Energy plan to place two turbines on the seafloor in Admiralty Inlet, with the goal of producing energy by 2015.


The King 5 News special also briefly mentioned hydroelectric power, which provides the majority of Washington's electricity.  Although hydroelectric power certainly falls in the "renewable" category, its "green-ness" has been debated due to the significant ecological impacts created when a river is dammed. Not only is the landscape transformed upstream and downstream of the dam, but all of the fish and wildlife species that rely on the river for survival are affected as well.

When one considers the many innovative opportunities for creating energy from renewable resources, President Obama's goal for the federal government to acquire 20% of its energy from renewable resources in the next six years seems absurdly low. Although every effort toward a renewable energy future should be applauded, our rapidly warming climate, rising seas, and acidifying oceans clearly warn that the future livability of our planet depends upon our society to move to 100% renewable energy-- and soon.

Lainey Piland photo
Ahhh, fuel from heaven indeed, and proof that renewables are the way to go... 
I think we would all prefer a "sun spill" over an oil spill any day!

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Musings: Memories to be Thankful For

“I am grateful for what I am and have. My thanksgiving is perpetual…O how I laugh when I think of my vague indefinite riches. No run on my bank can drain it, for my wealth is not possession but enjoyment.”  - Henry David Thoreau
Happy Thanksgiving! There are so many things to be thankful for, not only at this time of year, but all year long: family, friends, good health, food on the table, a job... and as Thoreau so eloquently states above: for finding wealth not in things but in memories and experiences. The Nature Conservancy in Washington posed an interesting question on their Facebook page yesterday along those lines:  

What memory of spending time in nature are you most thankful for? 

After getting past my immediate reaction (how do I choose just one?!?) the obvious answer came to mind as I reminisced about the numerous summers spent on road trips with my Dad and older sister.

Yellowstone National Park:  The first of our annual road trips with Dad. That's me on the right, and depending upon how angry she would be with me for sharing this, that may or may not be my older sister on the left...

Outfitted with sunglasses, fanny packs, clunky cameras, hiking boots and/or sandals (with socks!), we hiked through Yellowstone, Yosemite, the Redwoods, Crater Lake, the Grand Canyon, Zion National Park, Banff National Park, Glacier National Park, as well as Mount Saint Helens, Mount Rainier, Mount Baker, and the Olympic National Park here in Washington... just to name a few!

At the time, as a child who viewed hiking with some trepidation and who tended to get whiny once the hike exceeded a mile or so, I didn't realize that these experiences of being outdoors in nature were changing me as a person.  The natural wonders that we marveled at, hiked through, learned about, and photographed gradually worked their way into my being and gave me a greater appreciation for the impressive ancient forests, roaring waterfalls, mountain peaks, rock formations, lava flows and canyons that are our national heritage.  The impressive raw beauty combined with the intriguing ecology and history of the scenery drew me in, sparked my interest, and led to what will be a life-long affinity for the outdoors and the environment that surrounds us.

Over the years I accumulated photo albums packed with pictures of the sites we visited, freezing in time the images of our proud national and state parks that are increasingly threatened by environmental issues such as climate change.  I am a believer in the idea that people care about what they know: without having seen a particular natural feature or landscape, and without developing a connection with it and a reason to care, people will be less likely to be involved with and impassioned about its protection.  Looking back now, I know that these annual summertime road trips were crucial in developing the environmental ethic and interest in nature that defines a big part of who I am as a person (and Nature Nerd!) today.  And for this, I am truly thankful. 

Dad on a hiking trail through a lava flow in Oregon

Thank you Dad, for driving us around the country so that we could see the scenery and experience the journey rather than putting us on an airplane to quickly get from point A to point B; for taking us into the great outdoors to appreciate what is real instead of shuffling us into the artifice of amusement parks. Those road trips to our national parks are the memories of spending time in nature that I am most thankful for!

Friday, November 15, 2013

Going Green: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle



Today is National Recycling Day!  It may not be deemed Hallmark card-worthy, but this member of the Obscure Holiday Club is guaranteed to be on the radar of us environmentally-conscious nerds. 

When most of us think of recycling, an image of our large blue recycling bins parked curbside and filled to the brim with plastic, glass, cans, and paper will likely come to mind, luring us into the false sense of satisfaction that we are in fact, doing our part to protect the environment.  However, it is important to remember that recycling is not the only component of being a responsible consumer and environmental steward… we have to Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle. Recycling is actually the “last resort” option, after the first two have been exhausted.  If grade school was the last time you heard this phrase or put it into practice… it’s time to review these three crucial steps to consuming responsibly:

REDUCE

On a daily basis, people in our society are bombarded with advertisements that try to convince us that the things we currently have are not up-to-date or good enough, or that we need more "stuff"... stuff we never knew we wanted or needed until we saw the advertisement for it.  The first step to becoming a responsible and environmentally-conscious consumer is to consume less:  reduce the amount of things you buy

The quality of our natural environment plummets as the amount of consumer purchases increases. Think about it... all products go through the same process in the journey from raw materials to the store shelves:
  1.  Raw materials have to be mined/extracted/grown, with resulting environmental collateral damage such as deforestation, pollution, and habitat destruction, among others
  2. The product must be manufactured and packaged, leading to further pollution and greenhouse gas emissions
  3. The product is shipped to the store for purchase, leading to even further greenhouse gas emissions
As you can see, the environmental damage adds up throughout the entire process. This is why it is so crucial that our society learns to equate consumerism and "stuff" with greater environmental destruction.  Do your best to reduce your own consumption: ignore the propaganda of "bigger, better, more" and instead choose to maximize the lifespan and utility of the items you currently own. Not only will the environment thank you, but your wallet will as well!

Is it worth doing this to our planet...

Open pit mine in China, where metals for cell phones are mined. wired.co.uk


...to get the latest and greatest one of these every year?
 
REUSE

Do you have something in your house that you don’t need anymore, but that is still in good condition?  Instead of tossing that item in the trash, here are a few options to consider:

  •  Donate the item to Goodwill, Salvation Army, or a similar charitable organization.
  •  Sell it! Craigslist, garage sales, and classified ads are easy ways to make a few bucks on items that you no longer need, but which could be useful to someone else.
  • Repurpose it! This, along with “upcycling,” seems to be all the rage these days for the crafty, thrifty types.  Seriously… if you need some ideas, just go to Pinterest and type in “item name” and “repurpose” in the search field and behold the hundreds of possibilities.  Here, I have to salute my mother: she has been a great repurposing role model in my life. She repurposed old items and junk before it was even cool.  My sisters and I used to joke that she would turn anything into a flower planter. Like a barbeque. Seriously.
 Here are a few repurposing ideas found on Pinterest:

Another BBQ-turned-flower planter. Cute!

Crutches can become eye-catching shelves

Turn an old piano into a bookcase


Turn old t-shirts into a quilt full of memories!

  This one isn't from Pinterest, but is a braided rug that my great-grandmother made from old clothing:
Some of these examples might be practical, some might be a little silly... but the point is that the options for reusing your old items are limited only by your imagination!


RECYCLE

And now we arrive at the last resort: recycling.  If you have an item that you don’t want anymore, can no longer use, and are unable to repurpose, then the next best thing is to recycle it.  We all know that paper, along with clean glass, aluminum, and most types of plastic, are recyclable in our curbside bins, but some recycling companies will also accept scrap metal (pots and pans, small appliances), bagged plastic grocery bags, and food waste (in designated bins). Check with your provider for guidelines on what items are acceptable. You can also check with the manufacturers of the products you're looking to recycle. Many companies, especially electronics companies, are increasingly implementing take-back programs for their old, outdated, or no-longer-functioning products.

There are certain items that need to be recycled cautiously, so do your homework before recycling these:

  • Electronics: if taken to less-scrupulous recycling facilities, your old electronics could end up being shipped overseas and dumped in developing countries for “recycling” (i.e., polluting the local environment and creating a dangerous health hazard as the items are burned to extract raw materials). For tips on proper electronics recycling, check out my Responsible Electronics Recycling article.
  • Fluorescent light bulbs, batteries, mattresses, etc. are just a few items that have special recycling requirements.  Check with your city or county for information on how to recycle these items, as local programs and requirements vary.

This National Recycling Day, make a commitment to not be just another part in the machine of our over-consuming, throwaway society.  Implement the practice of Reducing, Reusing, and Recycling in your everyday life and encourage others to do the same.  Our planet—and our own survival—depend on everyone's collective efforts.


Do you have creative ideas for reducing, reusing, and recycling? Please share in the comments below!