Saturday, June 29, 2013

It's About Time: The President's Climate Change Call to Action

 So the question is not whether we need to act.  The overwhelming judgment of science -- of chemistry and physics and millions of measurements -- has put all that to rest.  Ninety-seven percent of scientists, including, by the way, some who originally disputed the data, have now put that to rest.  They've acknowledged the planet is warming and human activity is contributing to it... 

I refuse to condemn your generation and future generations to a planet that’s beyond fixing.  And that’s why, today, I'm announcing a new national climate action plan, and I'm here to enlist your generation's help in keeping the United States of America a leader -- a global leader -- in the fight against climate change.

-President Barack Obama

Finally!  There was some exciting news on the environmental front this week, as the President of the United States spoke in front of an audience at Georgetown University – and multitudes more eagerly watching on television – to lay out a detailed and concrete plan for the United States to combat climate change by reducing carbon emissions.  I have been hoping for years to hear the President stand up and denounce the dirty carbon-polluting energy industries, as well as those climate change deniers belonging to the “flat earth society” as he so accurately pegged them.  Hearing the President’s speech last Tuesday was possibly the most hopeful I’ve felt since learning of the dangers of climate change years ago.  With the oil and gas industry so entrenched in our society and government, and for years hearing so many politicians crying that climate change is a hoax, I have for a long time felt pessimistic that the government would ever take action, or even speak up on the issue. After hearing the leader of the most powerful nation on earth FINALLY issuing a resounding call to action, I am now hoping that this is the turning point we’ve been looking for.  The point where the President has spoken out and stepped up to lead the United States toward a future based on renewable energy, low carbon emissions, and an ethic of conservation to ensure that our planet will be as clean, healthy, and livable for as possible for future generations.

If you haven’t heard the speech yet, I would highly recommend listening to it.  It is a well-written and inspiring speech and I was extremely impressed with (most of) what the President had to say.  Check out the speech in the video below, or if you’re like me and get driven completely mad by all of the interruptions for applause, you can read the speech here.

After declaring that 1. Climate change is real, and 2. We are already dealing with the effects of climate change, the President outlined three basic steps in his plan to reduce carbon emissions at home:
  1. Use less dirty energy.  For the first time, coal-fired power plants (which currently provide the majority of our country’s energy) will face strict carbon emissions standards under the Clean Air Act.  Experts are expecting that these tough new emissions standards will in fact force many coal plants to be shut down, and make it uneconomical to build new plants, thus facilitating the next step:
  2. Transition to cleaner sources of energy. The President stated that he will direct the Interior department to develop enough renewable (wind and solar) energy on public lands to power 6 million homes by 2020.  In the meantime, he stressed that we need to further develop the use of natural gas for fuel, which has lower emissions than coal power.  Natural gas will be the “transition fuel” to get us off of oil, coal, and gas and help us move to wind and solar. (This is the part of the speech that I was not too impressed with.  Fracking, the process of extracting natural gas, is extremely destructive to the environment and has poisoned the water supplies of numerous communities in the eastern US)
  3. Wasting less energy. This involves making our vehicles, homes, office buildings, etc. more energy efficient. One way to accomplish this is by setting new standards for fuel efficiency in our vehicles, and new efficiency standards for home appliances.  The less energy wasted through vehicles with outrageously bad gas mileage or poorly designed and outfitted buildings, the less energy we’ll need to use overall.
The three steps to reducing carbon emissions outlined above are beautifully simple and straightforward. I didn't provide too much detail above, but in his speech the President further explained the types of new regulations that would be put in place to meet those three goals, as well as steps to be taken on a global scale.

One theme throughout the speech that particularly struck me was the expression of the utmost faith in the ingenuity, hard work, and incredible potential of the American people to meet the challenge before us.  I think that is one aspect that has been sorely lacking in the discourse thus far.  America has been historically known as a country that leads the way in technology and innovation and yet, we’ve been left far behind other countries in the development of renewable energy technologies.  Instead of investing in the creativity, intelligence, and ingenuity of the American people, our government has instead been investing in the dirty oil and gas industry, fattening the wallets of the very same companies that are destroying the livability of our planet.  At the end of the speech, the President reminded the audience of the “space race” back in the 1960’s, when President Kennedy vowed that America would make it to the moon by the end of the decade.  And we did.  What happened to that ambitious spirit of innovation that our country used to be known for?  The fight against global climate change and the need for renewable energy technology has provided an opportunity for our country to reconnect with that spirit, and the President’s speech was a hopeful and inspiring starting point.  Now let’s hope that our government and citizens can put some substance and action to those words, and put our country on a better path for the sake of our planet, ourselves, and for the generations that will follow.  Until the proposed changes are approved and start to take effect I will remain guardedly optimistic... but if even a fraction of our government and citizens have the same passion to tackle this issue, I think we might stand a fighting chance.

“And those of us in positions of responsibility, we’ll need to be less concerned with the judgment of special interests and well-connected donors, and more concerned with the judgment of posterity.  Because you and your children, and your children’s children, will have to live with the consequences of our decisions…

Nobody has a monopoly on what is a very hard problem, but I don’t have much patience for anyone who denies that this challenge is real.  We don’t have time for a meeting of the Flat Earth Society.  Sticking your head in the sand might make you feel safer, but it’s not going to protect you from the coming storm.  And ultimately, we will be judged as a people, and as a society, and as a country on where we go from here.”

-President Barack Obama

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Record Temperatures in Alaska: the Climate Change Threat in the Arctic

Ah, Alaska—that great Northern state of expansive wilderness, rugged mountains, frozen tundra, breathtaking glaciers and… 96 degree temperatures? No, that last item was not a mistake.  Earlier this week, the state of Alaska broke its all-time high temperature record twice, hitting a high of 91 degrees F on Sunday, and then immediately smashing that record with a high of 96 degrees F on Monday.  It is very important to recognize the distinction between weather (short term and temporary) and climate (long-term trends). However, when I see something like this, it is hard not to wonder whether we’re beginning to see the “global weirding” that climate scientists and advocates have been warning us about for decades: those increasingly frequent strange weather events that leave Alaska residents desperately wishing for air conditioning, while folks in California are wearing sweaters.  Those moments that leave us scratching our heads and thinking “wait… something doesn’t seem right here”.  Alaska will return to more normal temperatures once they get out from underneath the high pressure system that has currently taken up residence in the region, and that is certainly a good thing.  Although (thankfully) we aren’t at this point yet, the recent hot weather in Alaska got me to thinking about the serious trouble we’d be in if indeed 96 degree temperatures became the norm for the Arctic.  Everyone knows that melting of the Arctic is not a good thing, but many people don’t realize that this situation holds more serious consequences than the much-publicized plight of the polar bears.  This little-known threat in the Arctic goes by a familiar name: methane.

 June 19th, 2013 map of temperature variation showing that the state of Alaska is much 
warmer than anywhere else on the continent.  Source: Climate Central

Methane? Yep, the very same gas responsible for flatulence is also a greenhouse gas that poses a serious threat to our climate.  As bacteria ferment or break down organic matter, they produce methane as a byproduct.  In the Arctic, much of the land has been frozen for eons beneath glaciers or in permafrost, which has essentially “frozen” the fermentation process and created a “methane sink” that prevented this greenhouse gas from being released into the atmosphere.  As our planet warms and the Arctic begins to thaw, those little bacteria will get back to work breaking down organic matter and releasing significant amounts of methane.  Scientists fear that melting of glaciers and permafrost will release a devastating amount of methane into the atmosphere – a great “methane belch” that will further accelerate the warming of our planet and push the process of climate change beyond the point where anything can be done to mitigate it.

So what makes methane so dangerous?  Molecule-for-molecule, methane has a heat-trapping capacity that is approximately 20 times greater than its more famous partner in crime, carbon dioxide.  This means that methane in the atmosphere is trapping 20 times more heat from the sun than the same amount of carbon dioxide.  However, the good news about methane is the fact that its lifespan in the atmosphere is relatively short-lived.  One molecule of methane will last for 12 years in the atmosphere, while one molecule of carbon dioxide will last for as long as 50-200 years.  For this reason, organizations such as are advocating for a focus on methane reductions as an effective short-term strategy for combating climate change, complementary to the long-term need for carbon dioxide reductions.  They argue that in fact, reaching the much-touted “safe” target of 350 parts per million of atmospheric carbon dioxide will not be possible unless steps are taken to address methane emissions as well.  Their goal is to push for an atmospheric methane level of no greater than 1250 parts per billion to avoid potentially devastating climate change effects and further melting of the Arctic. (The differences between the two target numbers for carbon dioxide and methane are very revealing as to their potential danger in regard to warming the climate: when converted into the same units, 350ppm of carbon dioxide is considered safe, but only 1.25ppm – 1250ppb - is considered safe for methane)

Below is a table from the EPA detailing the largest sources of methane emissions in the United States. As you can see, human activities are responsible for a large percentage of the methane emissions in the US.  These are the areas that need to be adjusted, regulated, and re-designed to minimize methane emissions and hinder the climate-warming effects of this potent greenhouse gas.

 US Methane Emissions, by Source

Although carbon dioxide will continue to warm our climate for centuries to come due to its long lifespan in the atmosphere, in the short term, there is increasing evidence that we can make a meaningful impact on the trajectory of climate change if we can control methane emissions.  Unfortunately, there is nothing that we can directly do to control methane being released from the melting Arctic, other than doing our best to control emissions of the greenhouse gases that warm the planet and contribute to that melting to begin with.  Groups such as and are fighting to do just that.  Let us hope that in the decades and centuries to come, we can still look upon Alaska as a state known for its stunning wilderness, rather than a state known as the one that melted.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Environmentalism just found Jesus

Our goal must be to make real the gospel, with its injunction to love our neighbors--not to drown them, not to sicken them, not to make it impossible for them to grow crops--but to love them.
 –Bill McKibben

There are many compelling reasons why it is important to protect the environment and take action on climate change. There are practical reasons: if we pollute our air, water and land, we will have nothing to breathe, drink, or eat, which will make survival extremely difficult.  There are economic reasons: it is much more expensive to attempt to clean up our environment and atmosphere after the mess has been made than to stop the pollution in its tracks and develop a better, cleaner alternative.   Another new, refreshing reason that many people—including myself—have never considered before is presented in the video below.  Featuring founder Bill McKibben, the sermon in this video provides an inspiring take on the religious, moral, and spiritual reasons for protecting the environment.

 (The good stuff starts at about the 2-minute mark)

One thing that is so intriguing about McKibben’s sermon is the fact that he is not arguing for the protection of nature for its own sake or intrinsic value, as do many people who take the moral and spiritual standpoint on this issue. Instead, he focuses on the side of the issue that is concerned with humanity and social justice—what are we doing to our fellow human beings on this planet when we choose to support companies and practices that degrade and pollute nature and use our natural resources unsustainably?  Calling global climate change “an act of blasphemy acted out against the least among us,” he illustrates that our society is violating, if not blatantly ignoring, the order that Jesus gave before ascending to heaven: love one another.  

Are we loving our neighbor if our own actions pollute their air, water, or land that they rely on for survival? How are we loving one another when we drive gas-guzzling SUVs whose significant contributions to global warming threaten to drown dozens of island nations and their residents as a result of rising sea levels? How are we loving our neighbors when we support oil companies who, in their extreme greed, take over and pollute the land of indigenous people around the world, sickening them with cancer and poisoning their water supply as they drill for oil?  How are we loving our neighbor when we continue toward a future based on fossil fuels that warm the planet, change the weather, affect our ability to grow crops, and raise food prices beyond what most people in developing countries can afford?  Do we claim that those aren’t our problems? One fantastic point of Bill McKibben’s sermon is the fact that each choice we make--as individuals and as a society-- can have far-reaching consequences.  And on the other end of those consequences is a human being, a life put in jeopardy, a need to survive that should far supersede any need or desire that we may have, for example, to drive a big, inefficient vehicle just “because we can”, or the for oil companies to continue in their philosophy of making as much money as possible, regardless of the consequences.  That attitude of disregard is not conducive to following the mandate from Jesus Christ that we need to love one another.

This video was posted on Facebook several weeks ago.  I was curious to investigate other viewers’ responses to the video, so I decided to scroll through the comments at the bottom of the post—and what I read was shocking and disappointing.  Many people who are avid environmentalists and supporters of Bill McKibben’s anti-climate change organization (and apparent atheists) were criticizing his sermon because of the fact that he was discussing biblical principles and scripture. Some commented that they had lost respect for him because of it. I just found myself shaking my head and asking WHY?  What is wrong with framing the argument for environmental protection from a different perspective?  I see no issue with speaking to a congregation of Christians and explaining that protecting the environment is one important way to show love to one another as followers of Jesus.  Think of all of the Christians in this country—if we can also cause them to become “believers” in the issue of environmental protection and sustainability, we will have added a formidable number of supporters to the cause. The desire is clearly there:  many churches have already participated in the growing campaign to divest from fossil fuels. When we’re facing such an ominous task as the issue of climate change, it seems to me as though we can use all the help and all the voices we can get!  It was disappointing that many commenters disregarded the value of this message and the potential contributions of Christians who might be moved to action because of it.

I understand that many non-Christian environmentalists/scientists view believers as people who are ignorant of science, and who in general tend to deny that climate change is happening.  As a Christian and avid environmentalist myself, I often have a hard time reconciling what scripture tells us versus what science tells us, but at the end of the day, I have to agree with Bill McKibbin:  Jesus told us to love one another, and supporting destructive and unsustainable practices that perpetuate climate change and social injustice is not going to accomplish that task.  That is yet one more excellent reason for us to be more thoughtful about our choices, to speak up and push for change in our society, to step away from environmental pollution, degradation, and unsustainable living, realizing that ultimately there are real people and real lives affected by the consequences. No matter what your preference-- religious, economic, practical--everyone can find a reason to stand up for environmental protection and climate change action.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

World Environment Day 2013 - Eat.Think.Save

How did you celebrate World Environment Day on June 5th?  Well, don’t feel too badly if the day passed by without your knowledge, because you’re not alone—this special day doesn’t seem to receive a great deal of press in our country.  World Environment Day is organized by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), and features a different theme every year.  This year’s theme was “Eat.Think.Save.” -- focusing on the significant amount of food that is wasted globally every year.  Not only is this wasted food a tragedy in light of the billion starving people on our planet, but it is also damaging to the environment.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that one-third of global food production is either wasted or lost annually.  This means that one-third of the resources that we put into the food system are also wasted.  This waste comes at a significant environmental cost, especially when one considers that globally, our food system is responsible for using 25% of all habitable land, 70% of fresh water consumption, and accounts for 80% of deforestation and 30% of greenhouse gas emissions annually, according to the UNEP.  Take one-third of each of those figures, and you begin to get an idea of how much of our valuable resources we’re wasting each year—quite unsettling to consider.

So what can be done to combat this excessive waste?  People from around the world registered activities and events they organized in recognition of World Environment Day.  Some of the events in the United States included social media campaigns to raise awareness of the issue of food waste, classes on composting, gardening, and food preservation, a Local Food Expo, and pledges to eat waste-free meals.  The UNEP itself emphasizes two different methods of combating food waste: food preservation and sustainable consumption.

·         Food Preservation:  this isn’t as pressing an issue here in the United States as it is in developing countries.  All we need to do to “preserve” our food is to toss it into the refrigerator or freezer, or perhaps just zip closed the re-sealable bag that the food is packaged in.  In regions of the world that don’t have access to such easy means to preserve food, they must get a little more creative and utilize more labor-intensive methods (examples here).  However, one huge issue here in the United States is not whether we have the ability to preserve our food, but whether we actually do it.  How many times have you pulled some produce out of your fridge that was starting to look a little wilted, and then tossed it in the garbage? I’ll admit that I’ve done it before.  Clearly, we don’t want to eat food that is rotting or unsafe, but here is the key: eat the food before it goes bad, or don’t buy more food than you know you’ll be able to eat before it spoils.
o   If you have food that is beyond the point where it is safe to eat, try composting it instead of throwing it in the garbage, so at least its nutrients will be returned to the soil and are available for re-use in your own garden.
o   Instead of chucking that slightly wilted vegetable, try to find a recipe in which you can use it—one that requires baking, boiling, sautéing—and chances are you won’t even notice the slight wilting. 
o   Next time you consider tossing food in the garbage, just remember the resource use statistics listed above, and perhaps that will persuade you to choose a better option!

·         Sustainable Consumption focuses on making choices to consume less and consume wisely, with the goal of reducing resource use, pollution, and environmental degradation.
o   Choose locally grown food:  this results in a smaller carbon footprint, as your food has to travel fewer miles from field to table (see my Food Miles article for more info).  Also consider that if you’re purchasing produce—bananas, for example—imported from a tropical region, they likely came at the expense of the rainforest in which they were grown.  Deforestation of tropical rainforests for expansion of agriculture has been cited as the biggest threat to biodiversity and one of the largest contributors to carbon dioxide emissions.
o   Choose organic food: food grown organically comes without the hefty environmental toll of pesticides and chemical fertilizers.  Not only is it healthier for you, it is much better for our environment and creates significantly less pollution.  Organic farming has also been found in many cases to promote species biodiversity in the farmland.
o   Choose food with less packaging:  what many people don’t think about is that not only does their food have an environmental footprint, but so does the packaging it comes in. Oftentimes, more water and fossil fuels are used in the manufacturing of the packaging materials than in growing and producing the food itself.  And let’s not forget that the packaging will most likely end up in a landfill after the food has been consumed, creating even more pollution.
o   Plan meals and consume less: when you purchase excessive quantities of food each time you visit the grocery store, chances are you won’t be able to use all of it before it spoils, and so a little bit of each food item will be wasted.  If you plan meals carefully and only purchase what you need, then you’ll have much better chances of using all of the food before it goes to waste—plus you might even save a little money in the process. 
o   Just for fun, take a look at what a week’s worth of groceries looks like for typical families in countries around the world.  Which families are consuming sustainably? (Hint, it’s not the family from the US!)

There are certainly many things to consider in regard to our food choices and the environmental repercussions of those choices.  In the spirit of World Environment Day 2013, make an effort to "Eat.Think.Save" and reduce the food waste in your life, and let’s see if collectively we can’t work toward eliminating that one-third of global food production wasted each year, and manage to save some of our precious and rapidly disappearing natural resources in the process.