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Posts Tagged ‘climate change’

Photo: Lori Eanes.

In a piece I wrote for Yale Environment 360, I interview the new executive director of the Sierra Club, Michael Brune, about what’s next for the green movement in the wake of the defeat of federal climate change legislation:

In March, Michael Brune took over as executive director of the Sierra Club, the oldest and largest environmental organization in the United States. The Sierra Club doesn’t change leaders often — he’s only the sixth executive director in its 118-year history — and in selecting Brune, the group’s board chose to go with a young outsider with a track record of campaigning in the streets and confronting corporations to effect environmental change.

Brune, 38, previously ran the Rainforest Action Network, a San Francisco-based group whose slogan is “Environmentalism with Teeth.” With a small staff and modest budget, Rainforest Action has extracted agreements from companies such as Home Depot and Citigroup to abandon environmentally destructive practices.

In moving four blocks from Rainforest Action’s offices to the Sierra Club’s national headquarters, Brune — who started his environmental career as a Greenpeace campaigner — is now leading an organization with 1.3 million members and 400 chapters.

His ascension to one of the top jobs in American environmentalism comes at a turning point for the green movement. The decade’s best shot at imposing a national cap on greenhouse gas emissions has failed in the U.S. Senate, despite years of effort by groups such as the Environmental Defense Fund and the Natural Resources Defense Council to forge a coalition with Fortune 500 companies to pass climate change legislation.

“I think we need to a do a very honest and candid reflection on why various iterations of cap and trade legislation have failed,” says Brune, whose soft-spoken manner belies a reputation as a hard-nosed negotiator. “Millions of people have written e-mails, called their senators, demonstrated in the streets, taken actions in a variety of different ways, and still we can’t even get 50 votes, much less 60” in the Senate.

In an interview with Yale Environment 360, Brune sat down in his office at Sierra Club headquarters with writer Todd Woody to talk about the future of the environmental movement, his plans for the Sierra Club, and the next front in what author author Eric Pooley calls the “climate war.”

Yale Environment 360: With the failure of climate legislation, where does the environmental movement go from here?

Michael Brune: The first thing we need to do is a good assessment of what went wrong. We should not try to do the same thing and expect a different result. We need to rethink what the best way is to build momentum to fight climate change. Just as it was clear that one single bill wasn’t going to stop climate change, it’s also clear that there are many different avenues that we can take.

e360: What would be some of those avenues?

Brune: I think clearly right now focusing on administrative actions, regulatory actions, and perhaps more narrow but stronger legislation that would focus on reducing oil consumption and increasing the inventory of clean energy that is available. There’s a lot that can happen through the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] to protect the public health that Eight years from now we could have a third of the coal fleet replaced with clean energy.” will accelerate a transition away from dirty coal-fired power plants.

The Sierra Club over the past three or four years has been focused on stopping new coal-fired power plants from being built, arguably one of the most effective things we’ve ever done. Along with a broad coalition of grassroots groups, we’ve been able to stop about 131 new coal plants from being built.

That work is going to be evolving over the next several years to not only focus on stopping new plants but on retiring the biggest, oldest coal plants and replacing them with clean energy. So by supporting the EPA’s efforts to protect public health and tighten the controls on particulate matter and air toxins like mercury — there’s a whole series of regulations that are coming down the pike — we feel like we can achieve dramatic reductions and significantly decarbonize the power sector. We feel eight years from now we could have a third of the coal fleet be retired and replaced with clean energy.

You can read the rest of the interview here.

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I wrote this story for Grist, where it first appeared.

As global warming accelerates, the world will become not only hotter, flatter, and more crowded but also thirsty, according to a new study that finds 70 percent of counties in the United States may face climate change-related risks to their water supplies by 2050.

One-third of U.S. counties may find themselves at “high or extreme risk,” according to the report prepared for the Natural Resources Defense Council by Tetra Tech, a California environmental consulting firm.

“It appears highly likely that climate change could have major impacts on the available precipitation and the sustainability of water withdrawals in future years under the business-as-usual scenario,” the study’s authors conclude. “This calculation indicates the increase in risk that affected counties face that water demand will outstrip supplies, if no other remedial actions are taken. To be clear, it is not intended as a prediction that water shortages will occur, but rather where they are more likely to occur.”

Those conclusions are based on climate modeling, predicted precipitation, historical drinking water consumption as well as water use by industry and for electrical generation.

It’s no surprise that states in the hot and dry West faces the highest risk of water shortages. Arizona, California, Nevada, and Texas top the list, though the study also finds that part of Florida could find itself tapped out.

“As a result, the pressure on public officials and water users to creatively manage demand and supply — through greater efficiency and realignment among competing uses, and by water recycling and creation of new supplies through treatment — will be greatest in these regions,” the report states. “The majority of the Midwest and Southern regions are considered to be at moderate risk, whereas the Northeast and some regions in the Northwest are at low risk of impacts.”

The forecast relies on the continuation of business as usual — i.e. the nation does not change its water-wasting ways — and also on federal government data that predicts the U.S. will continue to use thirsty fossil-fuel power plants to generate electricity.

That should whet some appetites for renewable energy sources that use less water and for investment in new water technologies.

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photo: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

On Thursday, Yale Environment 360 published a story I wrote about a growing fight over using the U.S. Endangered Species Act to protect wildlife at risk of extinction from climate change:

While a high-profile battle raged over listing the polar bear as a threatened species due to melting Arctic sea ice, U.S. environmentalists were quietly building a case to protect a critter closer to home, one whose existence also seems gravely threatened by a warming world.

A pocket-sized member of the rabbit family with a distinctive squeak and large ears that frame dark eyes and a button nose, the American pika lives on rocky slopes high in alpine mountain ranges from the Sierra Nevada to the Rockies. Sporting a thick gray-brown coat, the pika does not hibernate and so maintains a high internal temperature to survive frigid winters. Because it can’t turn off its heater, the animal can die in the summer if its body temperature increases by as little as 3 degrees Celsius (5.4 F).

As temperatures have risen across the American West, scientists who study the pika have discovered that it is disappearing from lower elevations. In the Sierra Nevada, for instance, biologists at the University of California, Berkeley, found that the pika had moved upslope 500 feet to cooler climes over the past 90 years. Another study determined that nine of 25 pika populations in the Great Basin of Nevada and Utah have vanished over the past century, with surviving pikas migrating up 900 feet. Eventually, the tiny mammal will reach the mountaintop and the end of the line, with nowhere left to go if temperatures continue to climb, according to numerous biologists.

The pika has become an indicator species in more ways than one. It is in the vanguard of a growing number of animals and plants that U.S. environmental groups have petitioned to protect as the Endangered Species Act becomes the latest battleground over global warming.

The effort to put a furry face on the abstract phenomenon of climate change is bringing to a head a simmering issue: As scientific evidence accumulates about global warming’s impact on wildlife, how effective can the Endangered Species Act be in cushioning the blow of climate change on various species? But beyond this issue, an even thornier question looms: Can conservation groups use the act to force the U.S. government to use the legislation’s powerful provisions to mandate greenhouse gas reductions to protect wildlife and their habitat?

You can read the rest of the story here.

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photo: Picarro

In The New York Times on Wednesday, I write about California’s move to deploy the world’s first statewide greenhouse gas monitoring network:

SAN FRANCISCO — California is preparing to introduce the first statewide system of monitoring devices to detect global-warming emissions, installing them on towers throughout the state.

The monitoring network, which is expected to grow, will initially focus on pinpointing the sources and concentrations of methane, a potent contributor to climate change. The California plan is an early example of the kind of system that may be needed in many places as countries develop plans to limit their emissions of greenhouse gases.

“This is the first time that this is being done anywhere in the world that we know of,” said Jorn Dinh Herner, a scientist with the California Air Resources Board.

While monitoring stations around the globe already detect carbon dioxide, methane and other greenhouse gases, they are deliberately placed in remote locations and are generally intended to measure average global concentrations of greenhouse gases rather than local emissions.

The California network, by contrast, is meant to help the state find specific sources of emissions, as well as to verify the state’s overall compliance with a plan it adopted to limit greenhouse gases.

The air resources board has bought seven portable analyzers made by Picarro, a company in Silicon Valley that also supplies the machines to the federal government and academic scientists.

By this summer, the analyzers will be deployed on towers in the San Joaquin and Sacramento Valleys, home to large agricultural operations and oil fields, and on Mount Wilson, outside Los Angeles. Data will also be collected from Picarro machines maintained by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory on the coast and from several monitoring stations operated by other agencies.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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In my new Green State column on Grist, I write about the latest political machinations in Australia that derailed carbon cap-and-trade legislation at the 11th hour and sets the stage for a national election fought largely over climate change:

As I boarded my flight back to California in Brisbane, Australia, last Wednesday, I received an email alert that the Australian Senate had just defeated the Labor government’s climate change legislation. Only days earlier victory seemed all but assured, allowing Australia to go to Copenhagen with an iron-clad, albeit weak, agreement in hand to reduce the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions, which per capita are among the highest in the world.

Then in the course of 24 hours the conservative opposition Liberal Party sacked its leader—who had pledged to pass the government’s cap-and-trade legislation—and replaced him with a one-time global warming denier and quickly voted down the government’s Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme.

The defeat gives Prime Minister Rudd the trigger for an early election that would largely be fought over climate change. (If Parliament twice rejects a government bill, the prime minister can ask that the legislature be dissolved and a snap election called.)

In August, after the Senate first rejected the center-left government’s cap-and-trade legislation, I wrote in Grist that the defeat reflected the peculiarities of the Australian political system rather than the viability of a cap-and-trade system.

I’m not so sure any more after watching the latest reversal unfold during a visit to the Lucky Country.

Just as Australia is the proverbial canary in the coal mine for the environmental affects of climate change, a national election waged over cap-and-trade will offer a preview of voters’ willingness to pull the lever for action on climate change.

You can read the rest of the column here.

image: courtesy cinephobia via Flickr

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Image: Pacific Northwest National Laboratory

Next month the United States Department of Energy will release a study finding that China contains huge underground repositories that could be used to store 100 years of carbon emissions. As I write in The New York Times on Thursday:

China has vast underground repositories that could store more than a century’s worth of carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants and industrial facilities, according to a report to be released by the United States Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

The study, conducted with scientists at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, found that the geologic formations are in close to a large percentage of the country’s power plants.

That could permit “the continued use of cheap, domestic coal within China while supporting CO2 emissions reductions via the capture and geologic storage of the associated CO2,” according to an eight-page summary of the study.

The full report will be released in November.

“A lot of the policy dialogue and technical discussions have this really sharp dichotomy — either you use coal and bad things happen to the environment, or you forgo coal and bad things happen to the economy,” James Dooley, a scientist at the laboratory and an author of the report, said in an interview. “We’re trying to say maybe there’s a third way here.”

Such technology, which remains untried on a commercial scale, comes with high costs, because capturing and storing carbon emissions consumes significant amounts of energy and water. The potential environmental impact of putting billions of tons of carbon dioxide underground also remains unknown.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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malta-smart-grid

Photo: Visit Malta

The Mediterranean island nation of Malta on Wednesday unveiled a deal with IBM to build a “smart utility” system that will digitize the country’s electricity grid and water system.

Granted, Malta is a microstate with a population of 403,500 (smaller than Sacramento; bigger than Iceland). But the world — and utility infrastructure giants like General Electric (GE) — will be watching closely. Not only is Malta the first country to green its national grid but it will also serve as a test case for whether integrating so-called smart technologies into both electricity and water systems can help mitigate the increasing deleterious effects of global warming on the island.

As with other island states, power and water are intricately linked on Malta. All of the archipelago’s electricity is generated from imported fuel oil while the country depends on energy-intensive desalinization plants for half its water supply. Meanwhile, rising sea levels threaten its underground freshwater supplies.

“About 55% of the cost of water on Malta is related to electricity – it’s a pretty staggering amount,” Guido Bartels, general manager of IBM’s Global Energy & Utilities Industry division, told Green Wombat from Malta on Tuesday.

So how can digitizing the grid help? IBM (IBM) and its partners will replace Malta’s 250,000 utility meters with interactive versions that will allow Malta’s electric utility, Enemalta, to monitor electricity use in real-time and set variable rates that reward customers that cut their power consumption.  As part of the $91 million (€70 million) project, a sensor network will be deployed on the grid  –  along transmission lines, substations and other infrastructure – to provide information that will let the utility more efficiently manage electricity distribution and detect potential problems. IBM will provide the software that will aggregate and analyze all that data so Enemalta can identify opportunities to reduce costs – and emissions from Malta’s carbon-intensive power plants. (For an excellent primer on smart grids, see Earth2Tech editor Katie Fehrenbacher’s recent story.)

A sensor network will also be installed on the water system for Malta’s Water Services Corporation. “They’ll indicate where there is water leakage and provide better information about the water network,” says Robert Aguilera, IBM’s lead executive for the Malta project, which is set to be completed in 2012. “The information that will be collected by the system will allow the government to make decisions on how to save money on water and electricity consumption.”

Cutting the volume of water that must be desalinated would, of course, reduce electricity use in the 122-square-mile (316-square-kilometer) nation.

With the U.S. Congress debating an economic stimulus package that includes tens of billions of dollars for greening the power grid, IBM sees smart grid-related technologies as a $126 billion market opportunity in 2009. That’s because what’s happening in Malta today will likely be the future elsewhere – no country is an island when it comes to climate change. Rising electricity prices and water shortages are afflicting regions stretching from Australia to Africa to California.

IBM spokeswoman Emily Horn says Big Blue has not yet publicly identified which companies will be providing the smart meters, software and other services for the Malta grid project.

Malta’s greenhouse gas emissions are expected to rise 62% above 1990 levels by 2012, according to the European Environment Agency, and as a member of the European Union the country will be under pressure to cut its carbon. A smart energy grid will help but Malta, like Hawaii and other island states, will have to start replacing carbon-intensive fuel oil with renewable energy.

The island could present opportunities for other types of smart networks. According to the Maltese government, Malta has the second-highest concentration of cars in the world, with 660 vehicles per square kilometer. That also contributes to the country’s dependence on imported oil and its greenhouse gas emissions.

Given that Silicon Valley company Better Place has described islands as the ideal location to install its electric car charging infrastructure, perhaps CEO Shai Agassi should be looking at adding Malta to the list of countries that have signed deals with the startup.

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