Environment & the World

Monday, July 31, 2006

Amazon drought

Filed under: Climate Change, Energy, Forests — Cathy @ 12:38 am

It’s not just the U.S. that’s been feeling a heat wave recently.  The Amazon rainforest appears to be heading into its second year of drought:


 The drought is driven by a combination of deforestation and global warming.  Ecologists fear that the Amazon is approaching a “tipping point”, beyond which it will convert into a completely different type of ecosystem – “dry savannah at best, desert at worst.”  Previous studies have suggested that 3 straight years of drought would cause much of the forest to die, releasing significant amounts of carbon dioxide.  The forest contains 90 billion tons of carbon dioxide, so if half of that were released, it would be equivalent to about 6 years worth of human emissions at current levels.

The article does not suggest much in the way of solutions, but presumably it would be necessary to get deforestation under control immediately.  If scientists are correct that the forest will begin to massively die next year, this seems to require an almost super-human effort. 

 Yet, despite all of the press received by Al Gore’s recent movie, if you search for “Amazon drought” in Google News, only one of the top 10 hits is from an American news source. 


Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Heat Waves and Blackouts

Filed under: Climate Change, Energy, Environmental Justice — amirj @ 8:39 am

Roughly a month after the longest day of sunlight in the Northern Hemisphere we are experiencing some of the hottest days of the year. This delay is quite typical and predictable, but is the severity of the summer heat getting any worse? This AP article reports that parts of California have faced 10 consecutive days of highs over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. The article goes on to state that

“The stretch of 100-plus degree scorchers that descended on the state last week marks the first time in 57 years that both Northern and Southern California have experienced extended heat waves simultaneously, California Undersecretary for Energy Affairs Joe Desmond said.”

Of course, the heat isn’t just limited to California. The past week brought record high temperatures along much of the west coast. In the Weather Channel blog, Stu Ostro provides a glimpse at some of the hot weather headlines. Notably, on July 22, Los Angeles County saw its highest temperature ever recorded: 119 degrees F.

The heat has put pressure on the electric grids, leading to blackouts in California. But California isn’t the only reason electricity blackouts are in the news these days. A severe weather event knocked out power in to well over 500,000 customers in St. Louis. New York City also faced an outage that affected about 100,000 people this week. (more…)

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Environmentalism at Wal-Mart

Filed under: Corporate Sustainability — Cathy @ 11:58 pm

Last week, Al Gore recently spoke at a meeting of Wal-Mart executives on sustainability. See
Gore and some other leading environmentalists (including Adam Werbach) are really working with Wal-Mart to try to get them to follow through on their environmental commitments. And Wal-Mart’s goals are quite lofty:

“Last October, Scott pledged to transform his sprawling company, which employs 1.8 million people worldwide and ranks No. 2 on the Fortune 500 list, into a lean green machine powered exclusively by renewable energy, producing zero waste, and selling sustainable products … He aims, for example, to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions at Wal-Mart’s existing stores and distribution centers 20 percent by 2012, and invest $500 million in environmental improvements each year.”

The whole idea of “greening” Wal-Mart is obviously highly controversial, since the very idea of an enormous transnational corporation that ships good all over the world and drives local competitors out of business seems antithetical to the idea of sustainability. But, on the other hand, there is little indication that Wal-Mart is going to go away any time soon, probably not in the next couple of decades that will be crucial to solving the climate problem. And the economies of scale that would come from Wal-Mart moving towards sustainability would be enormous. Wal-Mart’s goal is “to ‘democratize sustainability.’ … to use Wal-Mart’s unparalleled economies of scale to put everything from organic T-shirts to compact fluorescent light bulbs to pesticide-free foods within reach of the masses.” Given the huge volume that Wal-Mart requires, it will be interesting to see to what extent this is possible without corrupting some of the ideals of sustainability. For example, will Wal-Mart really be able to contract with local vendors near its store locations or will it end up shipping in organic produce from New Zealand?

I am extremely interested to see what will happen with this. If Wal-Mart is serious about this, it will dwarf all other attempts at corporate sustainability and probably end up shifting a significant portion of the retail industry along with it. It seems to be a real test of whether or not the current system of “transnational corporations run amok” can manage to fit itself within increasingly pressing environmental constraints.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Climate Change Documentary on Discovery Channel

Filed under: Climate Change, Energy, Media — Cathy @ 11:27 pm

I just watched the Discovery Channel’s 2-hour special on climate change.  It airs again on Saturday at 8pm ET/PT.  See http://dsc.discovery.com/convergence/globalwarming/globalwarming.html.  There is also a “live chat” with Dr. Michael Oppenheimer online after the program, which is interesting to browse through.

Overall I thought it was very well done.  It was rather focused on the scientific side, in the sense that all of the people interviewed were scientists.  In terms of visual appeal, it probably does better than Gore’s movie. (Maybe “appeal” is the wrong word … footage of flooding tropical islands is not very inspiring).

Some of the stuff on the “solutions” segment was interesting.  For instance, I have often been skeptical of the claim that we can make a major shift in our emissions without significant lifestyle changes.  But apparently the average American family can reduce its emissions 60% by improving the efficiency of appliances and cars and buying more local food.

There was also talk of what New York City has been doing to become more environmentally conscious (mostly green building design and more efficient cabs and buses).  Unfortunately they didn’t really substantially address the fact that public transit is not available in many places and, in cities where it is available, people much prefer cars to buses.  So the fact that NYC has more efficient buses is good, but it would be better if more people rode them.  I guess there wasn’t time to go into some of the more creative solutions that other cities have made to improve public transit (see e.g. the city of Curitiba in Brazil: http://www.solutions-site.org/artman/publish/article_62.shtml).  People will always prefer the most convenient method of transit, and if a bus system can be designed that is more efficient and faster than car travel (by having designated bus lanes), people will probably go for it.  In Curitiba, for example, the buses transport 1.9 million people every day!

 Still, even though the show was a little short on creative solutions, it definitely served its purpose.  The presentation of the science was fairly clear and unequivocal.  And the point that we can start taking action now with affordable, available technology is very important even if the show didn’t go into some of the more innovative case studies.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Oil Prices Top $78 Per Barrel

Filed under: Economics, Energy, Oil, Politics — amirj @ 8:15 am

Reuters reports that early Friday trading has pushed the price of oil above $78 per barrel. Needless to say, this is yet another record high price for oil after a string of record highs that have repeatedly been surpassed in the last few years. Given the enormous geopolitical instability in the Middle East, along with shaky situations in other major oil producing nations like Venezuela and Nigeria, the ever-increasing demand for oil, along with the ever-dwindling global supplies of oil, a string of similar headlines announcing record high oil prices is more than likely to ensue in the following months, if not years.

Paul Marriot reports in the article,

“Oil in New York is up around 28 percent in 2006, rallying from below $20 in January 2002 amid rising demand led by the United States and the second-largest oil consumer China, together with a series of real or potential supply disruptions.”

So oil has nearly quadrupled in less than five years. For decades, environmentalists have been urging the world to find alternative energy solutions to minimize pollution and the harmful effects of drilling and possible oil spills. Avoiding complicated global petro-politics has been another incentive to steer away from oil. In recent years, thanks to soaring oil commodity prices, there is now a business incentive to develop non-oil energy sources.

Nevertheless, reducing our dependence on oil does not necessarily lead to environmentally-friendly alternatives. In the USA, interest does exist in making further use of coal reserves and increasing our reliance on natural gas. The road to solar, and wind is unfortunately not guaranteed to be a smooth, direct sail for the near future.

In most recent energy developments, the BBC reports that a 1,100 mile-long oil pipeline has opened. This “Caspian pipeline” will pump a peak capacity of 1 million barrels of oil per day from reserves in the Caspian Sea through Azerbaijan and Georgia to a Turkish port. The BBC reports that the USA has strongly supported the development of this pipeline, “The US is keen to challenge Russia’s dominance of energy supply routes and to promote the Caspian as a secure additional source of fuel channelled via America’s regional allies.”

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