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Archive for February, 2008

On February 16th, hundreds of people gathered at Trafalgar Square, all volunteers recruited for a covert performance. At exactly 3.30 pm, on a secret cue, they all froze and held their positions for 5 minutes:

Now imagine, if the same performance took place simultaneously in strategic places all over the world, and at the end of the five minutes, all performers delivered a message about the climate fight?

Maybe the message is a request for all spectators to do one simple thing. Like walking the next time they have to travel a short distance. The real beauty of such performances is what happens next on YouTube.

During the ten days since it was first downloaded, ‘The Day London Froze‘ video has been viewed 559,ooo times, favorited 3,715 times, and commented on 2,588 times.

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Back in May last year, a conversation on NPR, between Robert Siegel and E.O. Wilson got me excited about Wilson’s upcoming Encyclopedia of Life project. Of course, I was amongst the flurry of folks who tried to get on Tuesday, the day the Encyclopedia went online. Here is the rest of the story:

The concept of a comprehensive encyclopedia of life on the Internet proved too popular. Its computers were overwhelmed and couldn’t keep it alive when it debuted Tuesday.

The encyclopedia, which eventually will have more than 1 million pages devoted to different species of life on Earth, quickly crashed on its first day of a public unveiling, organizers said.

Scientists at the Encyclopedia of Life sought help from experts at Wikipedia for keeping their fledgling Web site going despite massive – and anticipated – interest. The site went back up Tuesday afternoon, but with expectations of more problems, although only temporary ones.

“We’ve been overwhelmed by traffic,” encyclopedia founding chairman Jesse Ausubel said. “We’re thrilled.”

The encyclopedia’s Web site logged 11.5 million hits over 5 1/2 hours, including two hours of down time, according to organizers.

Tuesday’s unveiling included limited Web pages for 30,000 species. There are also “exemplar pages” that go into more depth with photos, video, scientific references, maps and text of 25 species ranging from the common potato to the majestic peregrine falcon to a relatively newly discovered obscure marine single celled organism called Cafeteria roenbergensis. Eventually, planners hope to have all 1.8 million species on the Web and already have set up 1 million placeholder pages.

The most popular of the species for Web searches is the poisonous death cap mushroom, which may say something about people’s homicidal intentions, joked Ausubel.

All the pages have been made by scientists, but in a few months the encyclopedia will start taking submissions from the public, like Wikipedia.

Maybe one of the ways to people’s hearts in respect to the climate fight, is through the life sciences? After all, one of the most viewed videos on YouTube is the ‘Kruger‘ video:

Animals also come up second in Yahoo 2007 Top 10 Kids Searches.

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Many of the discussions on this blog deal with the question of, how to evangelize the crowds and get them mobilized in the climate fight. It may be, that part of the solution lies in the unlikely realm of organized religion. ‘Renewal‘, a new documentary by Marty Ostrow and Terry Kay Rockefeller, depicts a convincing picture of the rise in environmentalist activism among religious communities of different faiths throughout America. From The Boston Globe:

The congregations include evangelical Christians in Kentucky and Muslims in Chicago, Connecticut Jews and Mississippi Baptists. All are striving to preserve what they see as God’s creation, and all are increasingly working together as conscious stewards of the earth. Says one of the committed, “What gives me hope on this is that I’ve never seen a wider coalition.”

The film, accordingly, is earnest, idealistic, and fired with the righteous potential of making a difference. And maybe it’s right to: When New Mexico Catholics and Native Americans joined forces recently to protest development that was siphoning water from farms, the results were a very pretty community celebration – and pro-environment resolutions passed by the local planning commission.

Renewal” is really eight short documentaries stitched into a 90-minute whole, each focusing on a local action spearheaded by a different religious organization. Catholics and evangelicals in Appalachia raise awareness of the coal-mining practice known as “mountaintop removal” by flying over in helicopters and videotaping the devastation.

A Crime Against Creation‘ is only one of eight trailers, and also my favorite. I encourage you to watch all eight. I found it uplifting to see all these communities place some of their religious fervor into the climate fight. Faith can move mountains. Maybe now, it can protect them from being destroyed.

Thanks Kyle for the link.

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Green is out, blue is in. Move out treehuggers, make room for the sky watchers, and the sea divers.

Maybe it’s just me, but I haven’t heard trees mentioned in a long long time anywhere in the press. That, folks is just plain unfortunate. While we are busy chasing after carbon sequestration technologies, trying to build artificial trees even, right there, next to us is the simplest, cheapest, and most effective solution. Trees are amazing CO2 eating factories. And while initiatives such as the United Nations Environment Program ‘Let’s plant one billion more trees in 2008 are commendable, in my opinion, they are not enough, and have not made it down to the mainstream public.

I started thinking what would happen if there were no longer trees? What would the world be like? I imagined it to look like this:

A nightmarish universe, populated with rows and rows of manufactured things, and no sign of nature to be seen. Aseptic, lifeless, colorless, with the smell of death lurking. This could become our world, if we are not careful. According to popular lore, Thom Yorke recorded the vocals for ‘Fake Plastic Trees‘ in two takes, and broke down in tears after doing so.

Just as I was about to give hope, Prad drops this morning’s paper at my side, with, what do you know?, an article on ‘PG&E picks forests for green funds‘ . . .

San Francisco’s PG&E will use cash from its ClimateSmart program to fund the restoration and management of two California forests, one in Santa Cruz County, the other on the state’s North Coast. The trees – mostly coastal redwoods – will soak up carbon dioxide from the air, offsetting some of the gases produced by the power plants that provide PG&E customers with electricity.

The amount of money changing hands is small by the standards of the utility industry – only about $2 million. That cash, however, should help remove 214,000 metric tons of greenhouse gases from the air. That’s roughly equivalent to taking almost 40,000 cars off the road for a year.

It also means that the 17,500 PG&E customers who have signed up for the ClimateSmart program will have offset all the carbon dioxide emissions associated with the electricity and natural gas they consume. Participating customers pay an average of $5 per month over and above their regular bill. They receive nothing in return, except the satisfaction of helping the environment.

Still, not quite what I had in mind. Trees need a PR makeover, with Hollywood celebrities stepping in and speaking on their behalf. Or maybe, just someone to start a tree movement that makes it clear what can be accomplished with just a shovel and a few seeds. Cost: just plain goodwill from citizens.

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Obama speaking on the environment. I had to watch:

I listened attentively to Obama’s words, and felt encouraged by his speech. Part of me wished he would be more aggressive. But then, I have to remember, policy making is a process, and  it has to start somewhere. My favorite moments were his speech to the guys in Detroit and the shots of his two daughters.

Imagine for a second, if you were President of the United States, what would your plan for a sustainable world be? Would it be any different from Barack Obama’s?

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First my daughter Charlotte, then loyal reader and commenter Jeff Huggins. Both urged me to read “Big Foot“, Michael Specter‘s article in The New Yorker‘s upcoming March issue. Subtitled, ‘In measuring carbon emissions, it’s easy to confuse morality and science‘, the article is a great summary of the challenges inherent to carbon labeling. Here are some highlights of the eight-page article, starting with an introduction featuring some commendable efforts from Tesco, the British retailing giant:

A little more than a year ago, Sir Terry Leahy, who is the chief executive of the Tesco chain of supermarkets, Britain’s largest retailer, delivered a speech to a group called the Forum for the Future, about the implications of climate change. Leahy had never before addressed the issue in public, but his remarks left little doubt that he recognized the magnitude of the problem. “I am not a scientist,” he said. “But I listen when the scientists say that, if we fail to mitigate climate change, the environmental, social, and economic consequences will be stark and severe. . . . There comes a moment when it is clear what you must do. I am determined that Tesco should be a leader in helping to create a low-carbon economy. In saying this, I do not underestimate the task. It is to take an economy where human comfort, activity, and growth are inextricably linked with emitting carbon and to transform it into one which can only thrive without depending on carbon. This is a monumental challenge. It requires a revolution in technology and a revolution in thinking. We are going to have to rethink the way we live and work.”

Tesco sells nearly a quarter of the groceries bought in the United Kingdom, it possesses a growing share of the markets in Asia and Europe, and late last year the chain opened its first stores in America. Few corporations could have a more visible-or forceful-impact on the lives of their customers. In his speech, Leahy, who is fifty-two, laid out a series of measures that he hoped would ignite “a revolution in green consumption.” He announced that Tesco would cut its energy use in half by 2010, drastically limit the number of products it transports by air, and place airplane symbols on the packaging of those which it does. More important, in an effort to help consumers understand the environmental impact of the choices they make every day, he told the forum that Tesco would develop a system of carbon labels and put them on each of its seventy thousand products.’

Sir Leahy is attempting to implement what I have been asking for on several occasions, a carbon label on each item, to let people know the real cost to the environment of that item. I appreciate Sir Leahy‘s efforts to bring some awareness and behavior changes in his customers. I can certainly attest to the power of ‘carbon consciousness‘. Even more effective than carbon labeling, would be a carbon tax, to be added to the normal price of the item, and based on the carbon cost of the item. But that should be a policy decision, not a matter for businesses like Tesco.

Michael Specter pays tribute to a bunch of corporate and institutional green do-gooders: Marks&Spencer, Kraft, Sara Lee, the Church of England, and yes, even Ford and General Motors . . . I am surprised no mention is made of Wal-Mart, but then, the article is heavily skewed towards a British crowd!

Measuring carbon footprint is very, very complex, and this is where good intentions, such as the Tesco initiative, can fall short:

‘The calculations required to assess the full environmental impact of how we live can be dazzlingly complex. To sum them up on a label will not be easy. Should the carbon label on a jar of peanut butter include the emissions caused by the fertilizer, calcium, and potassium applied to the original crop of peanuts? What about the energy used to boil the peanuts once they have been harvested, or to mold the jar and print the labels? Seen this way, carbon costs multiply rapidly.

John Murlis is the chief scientific adviser to the Carbon Neutral Company also served as the director of strategy and chief scientist for Britain’s Environment Agency. Murlis worries that in our collective rush to make choices that display personal virtue we may be losing sight of the larger problem. “Would a carbon label on every product help us?” he asked. “I wonder. You can feel very good about the organic potatoes you buy from a farm near your home, but half the emissions-and half the footprint-from those potatoes could come from the energy you use to cook them. If you leave the lid off, boil them at a high heat, and then mash your potatoes, from a carbon standpoint you might as well drive to McDonald’s and spend your money buying an order of French fries.”

It is a logical and widely held assumption that the ecological impacts of transporting food-particularly on airplanes over great distances-are far more significant than if that food were grown locally. There are countless books, articles, Web sites, and organizations that promote the idea. There is even a “100-Mile Diet,” which encourages participants to think about “local eating for global change.” Eating locally produced food has become such a phenomenon, in fact, that the word “locavore” was just named the 2007 word of the year by the New Oxford American Dictionary.

Yet the relationship between food miles and their carbon footprint is not nearly as clear as it might seem. That is often true even when the environmental impact of shipping goods by air is taken into consideration. “People should stop talking about food miles,” Adrian Williams told me. “It’s a foolish concept: provincial, damaging, and simplistic.” Williams is an agricultural researcher in the Natural Resources Department of Cranfield University, in England. He has been commissioned by the British government to analyze the relative environmental impacts of a number of foods. “The idea that a product travels a certain distance and is therefore worse than one you raised nearby-well, it’s just idiotic,” he said. “It doesn’t take into consideration the land use, the type of transportation, the weather, or even the season. Potatoes you buy in winter, of course, have a far higher environmental ticket than if you were to buy them in August.” Williams pointed out that when people talk about global warming they usually speak only about carbon dioxide. Making milk or meat contributes less CO2 to the atmosphere than building a house or making a washing machine. But the animals produce methane and nitrous oxide, and those are greenhouse gases, too. “This is not an equation like the number of calories or even the cost of a product,” he said. “There is no one number that works.”

My reaction to “Big Foot“: are we missing the boat in attempting to be too perfect? I come back to the idea of a carbon tax, on non essential products and services that are obvious polluters. It is unrealistic to think that a precise carbon-based pricing can be derived for each product ever produced. By the time we are done measuring, global warming will have become an unavoidable reality.

You can also hear Michael Specter on Fresh Air.

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Yesterday, I wrote with a sense of urgency, about the need for Americans to start questioning their materialistic excesses. And I advocated in no uncertain terms, for a shift in individual behaviors. Not everybody agrees. Last month I attended an E2 presentation by Rick Duke, Director of Center for Innovation at NRDC, and also ex-McKinsey consultant. The topic was a recent McKinsey report on ‘Reducing U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions: How Much at What Cost?‘. The ground-breaking study was co-sponsored by a group of environmental and corporate heavy weights: NRDC, DTE Energy, Environmental Defense, Honeywell, National Grid, PG&E, and Shell. From E2:

Rick Duke followed by presenting McKinsey’s findings, which showed that the U.S. can cost-effectively address global warming – doing our part to avoid potential adverse climate impacts estimated to range as high as 20 percent of GDP – if we act immediately and comprehensively to start redirecting capital from old polluting infrastructure to clean solutions. Building, vehicle and appliance efficiency will play a critical role – generating net economic benefits that roughly pay for more expensive measures needed to clean up energy supply. Lastly, Rick emphasized that to enable businesses to scale up solutions, we urgently need three kinds of policy innovation: 1) measures to overcome non-price barriers to energy efficiency, e.g. smart regulation to ensure utilities can profit from delivering efficiency; 2) an effective cap on carbon emissions that puts a price on greenhouse gas pollution; and 3) incentives to develop and deploy emerging low-carbon solutions.

What the E2 summary does not cover, is the point Rick Duke made during his presentation about Americans not needing to make sacrifices in their way of life. This assumes the U.S. implement the policies recommended in the McKinsey report. The sigh of relief in the audience was palpable. You mean, I can keep going. The powers in charge will take care of things? Peter Waldman, also present during the presentation, protested that policy innovation was no substitute for some of the hard choices citizens ought to make. Choices such as driving less and consuming less.

Rick Duke‘s answer: sure, it’s great if people green their lifestyles, but what are the odds? In the mean time, let us forge ahead with policy innovation. I agree with him, and I also want to point the danger of his concurrent message. We cannot afford the luxury of ignoring the role of individual behaviors. It will take all, policy makers, businesses, and citizens, to reach a carbon neutral state.

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