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Archive for March, 2012

It’s a question we hear a lot in Washington. And hell, lots of times we ask it ourselves. The answer, of course, is that it depends. It depends on the day, and the mood of the electorate. It depends on who’s doing the judging and what party’s stripes he or she wears. And naturally, it depends on the issue.

Which is why some recent polling from Gallup is so darn interesting. For about two months, Obama has confronted energy head on. He’s given four speeches about American energy, oil independence, new production, the Keystone pipeline, renewable development and the “all of the above” mantra he stole from Republicans. He took a trip this month to New Mexico and Oklahoma to find rugged backdrops in front of wind turbines and oil rigs. In the mean time, Obama hasn’t made many public overtures about environmental policy. He hasn’t focused much on oceans or rainforest degradation or ocean acidification. He’s done only one event – a speech, at that – at the Department of Interior on habitat conservation. And he virtually dropped the ball on climate change policy, reeling in his Environmental Protection Agency and shelving cap and trade indefinitely until the economy picks up.

So you’d think Obama wants voters’ approval on energy, right around now when energy prices are ticking up and he’s trying to avoid blame. And you’d also think he doesn’t care about his approval on environmental issues, since no one’s really focused on the great outdoors as long as unemployment is high and consumer spending is low.

But you’d be wrong. Check out this graph from Gallup. It, in fact, shows the opposite. Despite all of Obama’s efforts, his approval on energy has stayed stagnant in the low 40s. On protecting the environment, it’s a stunningly higher 56 percent.

Why, is the obvious question. And I think there’s a reasonable explanation here. Elevating an issue in the national discourse elevates it in people’s minds, too. It makes people look and go “oh yes, the president is talking about energy, which reminds me, I’m going to think critically about energy for a moment, and oh yes, Obama has failed on all sorts of energy fronts…” Whereas with environmental policy, nothing major has really happened. That keeps it buried deep in people’s minds. And when a pollster calls up and says “Do you think the president is doing good things for the nation’s environment?” you’d answer with something like “well, uh, sure why not” without giving it a second thought.

You might call it the Sarah Palin effect. After she moistly disappeared from the public stage last year, her approval rating slowly ticked up. But every time she comes forward again in people’s mind to make public statements, either to endorse a candidate or decry some ongoing debate, her ratings plummet again. It’s an unfortunate reality for Palin and Obama’s energy approval. But it sure makes it look like a lot of folks like his environmental policy.

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Of all the headlines floating around over the past week, one in particular caught my eye.  Rather, it wasn’t a headline; it was a picture of one adorable creature.

Check yourself if you don't think this is cute.

Maybe it’s just me.  Perhaps my soft spot is softer than yours, a byproduct of not having outgrown my childhood love for reptiles and still secretly aspiring to achieve my life-long dream of becoming a paleontologist.

A young Indy right here.

But that is neither here nor now.

What is here and is now is that two of our great passions—protecting animals and generating energy from renewable sources—may be on a course to collide.  The Washington Post brought this issue to light this past week in discussing how BrightSource Energy’s $2.2 billion solar farm project in the Mojave desert is being brought to a standstill by the threatened desert tortoise.

What are the facts in this case?  Accounts say that BrightSource was warned that they would be infringing on a part of the Mojave rich with these hardshells–the exact number of which was unknown.  Yet, because the site is ideal for solar energy generation, BrightSource decided to pursue.  U.S. Fish and Wildlife granted BrightSource a permit to move a maximum of 38 tortoises from the location and a total of three accidental deaths per year over the three years of planned construction.

Their first concession to the tortoise came at the expense of 10 percent of the project’s expected power output, by adopting a re-designed plan that reduced the size of the solar towers.  They then agreed to build a 50-mile fence, at a cost of $50,000 per mile, to prevent tortoises from relocating back into harms way once removed.  During all of this, biologists surveying the site continued to find more and more tortoises than estimates yielded.  In all, BrightSource has spent $56 million so far to protect and relocate the tortoises, but even this has been met with problems for the tortoise.  BrightSource, for their end, states that their efforts to help the tortoise could sink the project–and in turn sink California’s efforts to meet its proposed renewable energy goals.

This story highlights the need and often overlooked importance of the National Environment Policy Act’s environmental impact statement (EIS).  You’ve probably heard a lot about the EIS recently; it’s been at the heart of the Keystone XL struggle, with Nebraskans asking to complete a new environmentally impact statement that reviews a pipeline course that does not run through the Sandhills region.  The whole purpose of an EIS is to assess the impacts of a particular project.  Whether or not it is actually required of a project, the value of such considerations comes to light in situations such as this one with BrightSource and the desert tortoise.  It’s clear that a thorough and well conducted EIS can actually help companies (believe it or not) avoid situations that may end up costing them $56 million dollars more than they were anticipating for a project.

So now I’ll pose the question to you: What do we do in a situation like this?  Do we protect this cherished species at all costs or try at all costs to maintain our place as the top renewable energy using nation? (Check on Christian Science Monitor‘s article for more on that.)  Weigh in with your thoughts.

My thought on the situation: this beloved species has weathered 220 million years on this planet; it would certainly be a shame that it be lost to the war on fossil fuels.

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A quick but notable note from last week: According to the Department of Labor, green jobs accounted for 2.4 percent of total employment in 2010, or 3.1 million jobs.  Not too shabby.  This statistic, contained in a larger report, represents the first attempt of the Department’s Bureau of Labor Statistics to quantify environmentally friendly jobs.

Most of these jobs, as it turns out, come from the private sector; only 860,000 come from the public side.  Furthermore, private-sector manufacturing accounted of the largest share of green jobs, a good sign for growth and investment in the green arena.  Of course, most of these jobs were located in the state that’s leading the way in green efforts: California.   Proudly, D.C. was near the top of the list when considering the proportion of green jobs relative to total employment, with green jobs constituting 3.9 percent of overall employment (Vermont led here with 4.4 percent of its total employment relating to green jobs).

You may be asking yourself at this point, “What exactly constitutes a green job?” Good question.  As it turns out that that definition isn’t straightforward as we might hope.  For this report, BLS developed a two-part definition for sorting out which jobs qualified as green.  Part one counted what they named “output based-jobs.”  This encompassed jobs that produced goods and services to either benefit the environment or conserve natural resources.  This means something such as producing solar panels.  Part two counted “process-based jobs” that make an enterprise more environmentally friendly or use fewer resources.  So bringing someone on board to compost your leftover food stuffs (call them Captain Compost) is an idea of what BLS means with this.  For purposes of this report, BLS used only the first definition; a part two report based on the second definition is due out later this year.

Who wouldn't want to be the captain of composting?

Businessweek made an interesting notation worth repeating here: By using these definitions, energy like nuclear is considered environmentally beneficial because it does not emit greenhouse gases.  But, producing a bike on the other hand is not deemed beneficial because the ways in which the bike is produced are generally not environmentally friendly, even if it is used by someone in lieu of using a car.

It’s also important to note, as the Washington Post did, that it is hard to use any of this data to reflect on the President’s green/clean job initiatives.  This is a very true point—these jobs may have very well been in the pipeline before President Obama came into office.  It’s also hard to go around surveying companies/governments, etc. and say, “By the way, did the Section 1603 Treasury grant program help you out?  Or was it your region’s SREC program?” It’s also hard to quantify what goes into making an organic tomato or even a solar panel (do you count the person who produced the parts that were then purchased to be used by the solar company to then make the panel?).  Being ever so optimistic, I am tempted to point out that this 3.1 million, with more to come this summer, could mean that the President’s goal of 5 million jobs may…actually…be…met.  How often does a politician actually make good on a goal?

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This summer will mark the seventh anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, the run-of-the-mill storm that took a very deadly turn, slamming straight into New Orleans and leaving the city known for its culture completely debilitated, hardly alive. That was a trying time, you might recall from the images of the city’s displaced people camped out in the Louisiana Superdome and being rescued in boats. In all, nearly 1,900 people died during the disaster, and in its aftermath.

But as forest fires teach us, where there once was death, new life can begin anew. In New Orleans’ case, the maxim is true, but in remarkably strange ways.

The New York Times Magazine this weekend takes on some provocative and fascinating questions. What happened to the city, ecologically speaking, since the disaster? How has it been rebuilt by people? And what has nature done to the area? The answers may be as much about economics as they are about the environment. From the story:

A year after Katrina, the city’s population plunged to about 200,000 [from 627,525]; meanwhile, the street grid, since 1970, had increased by more than 10 percent. Could a city built for 627,000 maintain a population less than a third of its size? Could taxpayers afford to maintain services like garbage removal, policing, sewer pipes and miles of perpetually eroding streets? And if not, what should be done with the lowest-lying areas and their exiled inhabitants?

Essentially, the city shrunk by two thirds. And as the remaining residents struggled to rebuild their neighborhoods, they didn’t have the time nor interest to rebuild other ones—ones completely abandoned. The most apt analogy comes from a Tulane ecologist: “The closest analogy to what happened in the Lower Ninth is a volcanic eruption on the order of Mount St. Helens. The next closest is the tsunami that hit Japan’s northeast coast a year ago.”

Ecologically, that means that grass has overgrown, in some places overtaking houses and parked cars. Pavement has eroded away. The Lower Ninth Ward, an area hit particularly hard by Katrina, has been invaded by flora, much of it completely new to the area. In the most ravaged areas, underlying weeds have grown to the height of basketball hoops.

There’s no need to summarize the story. You can read it here, and it’s certainly worth your time. But it does bring up frequently asked questions about terrestrial dominance. Who’s planet is it, anyway?

Alan Weisman explores that very question in his book 2007 book The World Without Us. His premise is to wonder what would happen if the planet were to suddenly, just as it is, be relieved of the relentless pressure of human interference. How quickly could the planet, and its wonderful wildness, return, he wondered.

Pretty darn fast, it turns out. Weisman looked at New York City for an example of extreme study in human dominance. Within days, his models showed, the city’s subway tunnels would fill with water, eventually collapsing the streets, taking down skyscrapers and returning the area to the wild land it once was.

For most disaster ecologists, a niche area of study with hefty job security, one area on the planet has been a prime example of sudden human absence. That would be the Demilitarized Zone (the DMZ), a narrow, human-less, strip of land separating North and South Korea that’s 160 miles long and 2.5 miles wide and since the Korean War ended in 1953 has become among the most ecologically rich pieces of land on the planet.

But now, apparently, someone in New Orleans would find a better, and more recent, case study.

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Talk about kissing carrots.

We’re not quite ones to believe the usual Virgin-Mary-on-grilled-cheese hype, but this food formation is too good not to share. This here from the Farm Food Freedom Coalition, a movement working to give people choice over what food they can access (and reduce government subsidies and regulations).

We’ll get back to the serious stuff tomorrow and the rest of the week, but for now, just this.

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Apparently, millennials are the least environmentally conscious generation.  Jean Twenge, author of this discovery, claims that she too was shocked by this.  Twenge conducted two national long-term studies of high school seniors and college freshman and their interest in government as well as social problems.  In collecting her data, she noticed that, while there were declines across all categories, interest in the environment demonstrated the steepest dropoff.  Examples:

On conserving fuel used to heat their homes:

78 percent of young baby boomers said they cut back
71 percent of young Gen Xers said they cut back
56 percent of Millennials said they cut back

On becoming personally involved with cleaning up the environment:

15 percent of Millennials said they made no effort
8 percent of young Gen Xers said they made no effort
5 percent of young baby boomers said they made no effort

On how important it is to become personally involved in program to clean up the environment:

1/3 of young baby boomers said it was important
1/4 of young Gen Xers said it was important
21 percent of Millennials said it was important

What would justify these results?  Several other social scientists and students pondered this thought and offered that:

(1) A lot of young people don’t spend time exploring nature.

Can't...leave...my...computer...behind...

(2) Young people are lazy and expect things to be given to them (call it entitled).

Anything else is just boring.

(3) Young people are increasingly desensitized to political and social situations because of the sheer volume of information they received via the media, school, etc.

Being bombarded and drawing a blank.

I would be shocked and alarmed by this discovery, too—and at first I was.  Except then I sat back and pondered the information and I’ve come up with a couple of my own thoughts/justifications/considerations:

(1) Surveys, while a good source of data, can also be very biased.  When a respondent is the one submitting their own answers without any way to check these answers, there is always a flag of inherent personal bias.

(2) Environmental efforts are much more ingrained in our present society.  For example, recycling is becoming much more prevalent and for many young people, it can be second nature.  Another example: reusable bags.

(3) The environment has come a long way since the baby boomers and Gen X.  It’s an important caveat to note that that our air has become much clean (Clean Air Act), our waterways much cleaner (Clean Water Act), and our drinking water much safer to consume (Safe Drinking Water Act).  Love Canal didn’t happen during the Millennial generation, nor did the Cuyahoga river fire.  These are inspirational, unique events that led to increased action and awareness that brought about landmark legislation.

Might shock some people into action.

(4) As the AP article noted and cannot be overlooked: The most recent data collected on Millennials was taken before the recession hit.  The baby boomers, in particular, but also Gen X, went through their own financial struggles that made them aware of conservation efforts.

(5) On the note of conservation efforts, reducing heat/AC may not be indicative of environmental consciousness; remember, young people very seldom have control over the AC/heat in their homes—their parents are the ones who do and if young people are taught to turn it on or off, it is more likely to be because of their parents than any conscious effort on their parts.  This can be likened to taking public transportation–without asking why, you don’t know if it’s because gas costs too much or because they believe in reducing their carbon footprint.

Vampires just aren't as scary to Millennials.

(6) While Twenge collected data from the same age bracket throughout her surveys, the dynamics of the age bracket have changed.  High school seniors are now more likely to go to college and are increasingly focused on achieving that next step in their education at that age.

(7) It is noted that less young people write to their member of congress.  There are several things wrong with noting this as a point of being less involved:

  1. Many of the people who write to their member of congress today do so by clicking a link in an e-mail that was sent to them as a member of the group.  Membership typically comes by way of a monetary donation or paying dues.  Many young people lack the money to pay for this kind of involvement.
  2. As someone who has worked in a Congressional office, the responses one receives in return for actually taking the time to really, truly write to their member are the same ones that people who sent in a form letter receive.  Tell me, what’s the incentive?  (Not saying it shouldn’t be done, but also asking).

(8) As Mike and Morley note in their blog, Twenge’s previous work’s foundation is on the notion that Millennials are a “me” and not a “we” generation.  So perhaps (I won’t assume as admittedly I have not read the study) there is an element of bias in her study.

You might say that I am also biased in how I look at her study.  I surround myself day-to-day with many people (though not exclusively) who do care about the environment, who compost, subscribe to the “if it’s yellow let it mellow, if it’s brown flush it down” philosophy,  etc.  So I will make this one final statement about this discovery: Jean’s Twenge’s justifications are not without any form of merit; however, it is only one study.  And, as we know within the world of science, it’s duplication of results that leads to new theory.  We here at Spinach look forward to further review.

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In this season of hyperpartisan horse racing, we’re not too enamored by polls, the insta-snapshot of where the election stands RIGHT NOW. After all, we’re just a mere eight months away from actual voting, so the constant statistical changes don’t really tell us too much. Plus, we, as environmenalists, are inherently long term thinkers. Consider climate change, or species loss, or energy innovation. None turn on a dime, and neither do we.

But that’s why a recent poll really caught our eye. Specifically, about Preisdent Obama and gas prices. A new WashPost/ABC News poll shows the president’s approval dropping almost as quickly as gas prices have risen. The oracles tell us they’re correlated. Even causally linked, if you will. The American people have spoken, and with gas hovering around $3.80 gallon, they’re not pleased with their leader.

The funny thing is how nonsensical this premise is. Pinning gas prices onto Obama is like blaming the governor of Georgia in the 1930s for World War 2. Yes Obama’s an actor in the play (let’s call it Unleaded 380, a Ray Bradbury sequel), but far from the only one, and certainly not the instigator, as some GOP candidates have suggested.

Global oil prices are set by speculators based on about 30 global factors: production around the world on a given day, supply centers, shipping costs, weather patterns, political stability, etc. Add in a few side factors like the European embargo of most Iranian oil and rising stakes in Syria, Israel and Afghanistan and you’ve got a recipe for demand to outpace supply, and that translates to an uptick in price.

That, of course, is the world’s simplest explanation of how it actually happens. If you’re in for more dense, reading, check here.

Odds are we’ll be writing about oil and energy prices lots more this spring and summer, as demand usually increases before the summer travel season. Stay tuned. And as always, feel free to chip in some spinach of your own in the comments section below.

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