Posts Tagged ‘climate policy’

Snowden is missing.  The IRS scandal is ongoing. SCOTUS struck down DOMA and punted on affirmative action. A Texas filibuster over a proposed abortion bill was picked up by a historic crowd at the state capitol who effectively blocked the legislation through sheer willpower. A red panda went missing from the National Zoo. DC United won a game. It’s been a hell of a week, and it’s only Wednesday.


I feel ya, buddy.

In the middle of it all, President Obama delivered the policy speech that environmentalists have been waiting for since the day he took office: the one on climate change. The President’s agenda outlined broad goals for the U.S. to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, invest in renewable energy, respond to the ongoing impacts of climate change, and finally, lead the international community in all of those areas, too. The official White House fact sheet is available here. But what about the details?

Coal, more than any other industry, took it on the chin in this one – not surprising given just how much pollution is generated by coal-fired power plants.  The plan directs EPA to move forward with regulations limiting greenhouse gas emissions from existing power plants by June 2014.  The plan also included expanded effort to fund renewable energy and use public lands for renewable energy sources, efficiency initiatives, and reforestation measures.

The plan was met with mixed reactions.  Commentators were quick to judge the measures as a scaled-back version of the lofty goals that Obama set at the outset of his Presidency, and not surprisingly, many Republicans continued the drumbeat of erroneously pitting environmental initiatives against economic goals. (Side note: when will they give up, and realize the renewable energy can also create jobs? Sigh.)  Coal stocks responded by plummeting.  Many environmental groups, including Sierra Club and 350.org applauded the measures as the long-awaited concrete action to back up the President’s constant promises to tackle climate change.  Former Vice President and environmental advocate Al Gore called the speech “terrific and historic,” responding optimistically to the steps proposed in the President’s plan as well as his willingness to finally move forward on a longstanding issue.  The mention of the infamous Keystone XL pipeline caught many by surprise, as did the President’s comments that the pipeline will not go forward if it is found to increase GHG emissions.  That of course, is a finding that in reality is stupid – of course expanded tar sands development, and continuing to enable fossil fuel exports, will increase emissions and accelerate climate change.  But, the “official” outcome could go either way depending on how groups calculate the emissions and how directly they tie the impacts to the pipeline itself.  You know the saying- lies, damned lies, and impact assessments.  Another surprising feature was the mention of fossil fuel subsidies, which was included in the President’s international goals, but not within his steps to curb emissions in the US.  (Honestly, I don’t know why nobody listens to me on this one.  Cut fossil fuel subsidies, cut federal spending, and cut emissions by forcing people to think about how much and how often they drive and make better choices. Oh well.)

Overall, while the actions were not as bold as some groups hoped, the result of the speech was a net positive – an acknowledgement that climate change is real, here, and happening, and a specific plan for moving forward.  Let’s hope that the follow-through is real.

A summary of the main points of the plan is available through Grist.org right here. A full transcript of the President’s speech is available here. As for Team Spinach, a detailed analysis of the plan by our resident climate expert, El Nino, will follow soon.


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Hi all!


I think everyone was busy last week worrying the NSA is judging them for not calling their grandmother more often.  I know I was.  Which is why it took me a bit to get this post up, and also why so many fascinating things happened in the energy and climate world that I had to talk about them all in one post.

First of all, our least favorite pipeline that doesn’t even exist yet is back in the news.  The Sierra Club has quietly taken the debate over the Keystone XL pipeline over to the judicial branch.  The litigious environmental nonprofit (for those of you who don’t know, Sierra Club has acted as plaintiff for some of the nation’s most pivotal and groundbreaking environmental lawsuits – it’s one of their specialties as an organization) filed suit against the State Department last week regarding the sketchy-as-all-hell (from what I’ve read) environmental impact statement that the agency issued about the pipeline.  The impact statement – which suggests the pipeline will have no negative impacts – was prepared by a third-party contractor that has an active membership in the American Petroleum Institute, which Sierra Club and other environmental groups widely regard as evidence of a conflict of interest.  Perhaps more critically, the State Department did not respond to requests to produce documentation proving that the department screened for such a conflict of interest.  The lawsuit is seeking access to those documents and extension of the public comment period for the agency to finalize the determination so that the documents can be considered.  In the continued debate, Al Gore weighted in on the pipeline in a recent interview, stating that the project was ‘an atrocity.’  

Meanwhile, climate change is happening, you guys.  A five year study by FEMA that was just released has predicted a 45% increase in flooding in the United States during the coming decades – as a result of climate change.  (Except in North Carolina, of course, where flooding and climate change is illegal.  I suppose all the hurricanes will have to stick to Florida and South Carolina this year?) FEMA, which manages disaster relief, is expecting to have to insure 80% more properties, with a 90% increase in the average cost of a claim when filed.  But, this is all totally worth it, because it was definitely too expensive for us to regulate carbon through a cap-and-trade or tax system, and it was also definitely too expensive to make some of those fossil fuel companies maybe pay a little instead of collecting government subsidies.  What? Sarcasm is the lowest form of wit?

Fine. I’ll end on a good note.  Behold, Robert Redford for NRDC:


Still better looking than you.

Redford, an environmental activist and partner to National Resources Defense Council, has put together a series of short ads calling for action on climate change and clean energy initiatives.  You should watch them.  Because it’s Robert Redford.  And, he’s got something really important to say.  And then you should send them to everyone you know.

That’s all for now folks.  I’ll be back next week, and maybe I’ll be less cranky.

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We haven’t talked much about Keystone XL here at Spinach HQ for a while now, mostly becauase the news on that front continues to be more of the same – and more depressing.  Quite frankly, I’m not sure whether or not the general public (those of you outside the environmental field, that is) are sick of hearing about Keystone or not.  False claims and an incredibly convoluted regulatory and political process regarding approval of the environmental impact determination as well as the pipeline itself have slowly muddied the waters better than an oil spill.  I’ll be honest, even I’ve had a hard time keeping track of the timeline and the number of times the pipeline has been resurrected and then killed.

Which is why I was somewhat surprised (but excited!) to wander into the Foggy Bottom Metro stop in D.C. on Tuesday and be greeted by something that looked like this:


I couldn’t capture the whole ad in my camera phone (especially while trying not to look like some creeper taking a picture of the metro floor during rush hour….) but activist group SumOfUs.org is continuing to fight the good fight not just against Keystone XL, but against the expanded Tar Sands extraction that would come with it.

The ads direct you to the SumOfUs anti-tar-sands site, where they have already collected more than 17,000 of their goal level of 20,000 signatures for a petition to President Obama regarding the pipeline and expanded tar sands extraction.  Rather than solely attacking Keystone XL, the group is focusing on the impacts of the recent ExxonMobil tar sands oil spill in Arkansas.  Exxon’s response to the spill has been heavily criticized, with many community members voicing their doubts that the spill is contained or that Exxon is truly doing their part to take responsibility for the spill, contain it, and mitigate damages.

While the Keystone XL pipeline is likely to be decided by politics and not environmental impacts, the statement made by SumOfUs here is clear – and is taking the debate one step farther.  Instead of focusing on the impacts of the pipeline alone, the group is working to inform regarding some of the inherent risks (both environmental and economic) to expanded tar sands oil use as an energy source.  I’m happy to see these ads placed front and center in several key metro stations – maybe it’s a chance to finally have some dialogue about the real issue here, which is the overall direction of our energy future, and not one single pipeline.

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Well, here’s something new for ya: after watching weirder and weirder weather unfold for the past few years, a poll released today (reported by the New York Times) shows that the majority of Americans believe these events are the result of – wait for it – climate change.


Like I said: weird weather.

It’s certainly true that the past years have been an adventure.  Between the infamous east coast Snowmageddon (which I missed, because I was totally in Abu Dhabi, no joke), record flooding of the Mississippi River in 2011,  last year’s summer heat wave, the 2011 droughts in Texas and Oklahoma,  increasing tornadoes across the midwest and southern U.S., and 2012 bringing the warmest March on record, there have been no shortage of unusual patterns.  That’s just inside the U.S., too.


This might be a good time to turn around, eh?

Conducted by Knowledge Networks on behalf of teams at Yale and George Mason University, the study itself is the most comprehensive to date tracking public opinion on climate change. By almost a 2 – to – 1 ratio, Americans believe extreme weather patterns are due to global warming. A higher percentage than ever say that they have personally been impacted by the effects of climate change.  On top of that, after years where economic issues and concerns about international unrest eclipsed the issue of climate, the poll shows climate change is starting to climb the ranks once again.  (As an aside, failure to act on climate and energy could have profound negative impacts for both international politics as well as the economy, so I’ve always seen the issues as linked – but that hasn’t been the case with popular opinion.)

Of course, whether or not these individual events ARE directly caused by climate change is not as clear-cut as we’d like it to be.  Evidence is strongest that increased precipitation as well as heat waves are a result of climate change.  Wind patterns are also shifting, which could be the cause of the recent increase in the number of tornadoes. But, as with most environmental issues, the science isn’t what sways public opinion.  After all, the scientists have been beating the drum for years. We’ve seen the Keeling Curve showing the increase in CO2 detected by Manua Loa observatory in Hawaii.


(But just in case you haven't, here it is again.)

We’ve all seen photos of flooding in Bangladesh, and sad pictures of polar bears trapped on a single block of ice. But it hasn’t done much.  What sways public opinion, if past is precedent, is when people start to be impacted.  When it’s my town, my home, my family, my friends, my job, or my future that is on the line, people start to sit up and listen.  The issue, at that point, is real.


So is this polar bear. Hey, I had to include at least one.

And that’s precisely why many advocacy groups are jumping on shifting weather patterns as an opening.  Groups like 350.org, Sierra Club, Environmental Defense Fund, and other advocacy organizations see this as a way to grab public attention and increase momentum towards action.  Perhaps for the first time, climate change is no longer a far-off warning that we might not live to see, but something that could actually impact our daily lives.  That’s a new thought for a lot of folks, I think.

While it’s a shame that the past few decades politicized the issue and drowned out the voice of the scientific community, many are wondering if this real shift is what we need.  For years, climate change deniers could point to the fact that there was ‘no concrete evidence’ as a way of poking holes in scientific data.  Now, it seems events might be shifting to fall in favor of the other size of the fence.

Of course, whether or not any action comes of it remains to be seen.  If not, we’ll just be buying those sustainable bikinis in January, right?

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First of all – whoa – hi guys.  It’s Friday.  How did that happen?  Where did the week go? Why do I still have 13 things on my to-do list that I cannot cross off?  Should I just cross them off anyway and pretend?

All of these questions have probably crossed your mind, including “where the heck are those spinach kids, anyway?”  Our most sincere apologies for this week.  It appears that we took a petite vacance,as the French would say.  We were actually here:


South Pacific: Not just a musical about what your grandfather was doing during WWII.

Just kidding.  We were actually just out to lunch.  For three days.


Om nom nom.

But we’re back! And since we’ve got vacations on the brain, I thought that this would be a good time to talk about my life-long dream #5, which is to take three months off of life at some point and travel around Australia, Fiji, Papua New Guinea, and the rest of the south Pacific.


In this canoe.

As it turns out, I might want to bump that dream up a little higher on the list and place it above running the Iditarod and through-hiking the Appalachian Trail.  While it’s not exactly imminent (don’t worry, I’m not going to quit my day job and leave tomorrow), some of those island nations are already preparing themselves for the impacts of climate change.  As reported by the Washington Post, the entire Pacific nation of Kiribati is currently preparing contingency plans for what to do if sea level rise makes their island quite literally disappear below those perfect blue-green waters.

In case you’ve never heard of Kiribati before today, or looked for it on a map, this is where you can find it:


If you get lost on the way, just keep swimming.

But a side-view topographic map should give us a bit more of an idea why they’re so worried about sea level rise.


Yup – Kiribati is an archipelago, and many of the atolls and small islands that the people live on there could be very quickly underwater with only very minor sea level rise.  Two islands of Kiribati have already been covered due to the impacts of rising sea level, and their leaders are preparing and planning for what to do with their population of 103,000 if it gets worse.

It’s an interesting thing for us to think about, over here in North America, where we think that the impacts of climate change might just mean a few more hurricanes and some strange days where it decides to be 70 degrees in the middle of February.  Now, truth be told, sea level fluctuation is a natural process.  Across the course of geologic time (i.e., the entire history of the Earth), sea level has changed with glacial and interglacial periods – USGS has a great fact sheet summarizing what the impacts of this could be in the modern era.  So, we always have to remember that the Earth we live on is a dynamic system: the continents are moving, mountains are being formed and eroded, tectonic plates are shifting, and our climate is not stable across millions of years.

The problem?  Climate scientists generally agree that anthropogenic climate destabilization is accelerating this process, causing sea levels to rise more quickly than they naturally would have.  We’re not going to talk about that here (as I always say, leave the science to the scientists).  But, this interactive map gives you an idea how this would impact land availability around the world.  Keep in mind that our population has arrived at the 7 billion mark, meaning that we now have decreasing space for an increasing number of people.

Which brings us to the critical question – one which is policy and not scientifically based: what do we do about this?  How will we as a global community respond to the idea of ecological refugees: people who have been displaced from their homeland because of the impacts of climate change, including sea level rise, natural disasters, and shifts in land, energy, and water resources.  Where do these people go?

The island of Kiribati is already chewing on this very question, because they are concerned about the future of their younger generations.  The proposed solution currently making headlines is to quite literally move the entire nation to….Fiji.

Doesn't look so bad in this photo, but somehow I don't think they're moving there because the snorkeling is better.

This in theory seems like an interesting solution, but it raises all kinds of questions.  Would the people of Kiribati remain their own nation, or would they become a part of Fiji?  How would they be moved?  Who would pay for the cost of new land?  How do you even place a value on land when it becomes a declining resource; a thing of scarcity in that particular region of the world?  And what impacts would there be on these people as they adapt and build new lives?

The drama of this is probably fairly far down the road, but the questions are very real.  As Kara has pointed out several times, when it comes to climate change adaptation, isn’t it better to think ahead?  The world has a long history of political and social turmoil over natural resources.  Plenty of wars have started because, on a most basic level, somebody had something that somebody else didn’t have and wanted (food, water, land, dare I say it, oil?)  Plenty of other wars have started because of the social issues that arise when a minority population is displaced or takes up residence in a new county.  While outright conflicts may be a good way off, that doesn’t mean the possibility isn’t there and that we shouldn’t be planning and asking these questions.

 International organizations such as the World Bank have already started considering the impact of climate change on small island nations.  Myriad problems are anticipated, including not only the disappearance of land, but profound impacts on groundwater sources, agricultural land, erosion patterns, flooding, changing tidal patterns, and public health impacts related to contamination of food and water sources and changing disease vectors.

I wish I could come up with a snarky caption, but this kind of just makes me sad.

What’s more than a little, depressing when you stop think about it, is the fact that the best solution some American leaders can come up with is….”Drill, Baby, Drill!”  So to make you all feel better, I’ll leave you with a nice romantic picture of a beach in Kiribati.  Maybe that’s something you can keep in mind next time you’re trying to decide whether you should walk to the grocery store or drive.

Things that are sexy: Kara in a bikini, this beach, reading our blog, and reducing your carbon footprint. Dan in a bikini, not so much.

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After a brief departure from our discussion of unconventional oil, welcome back.  It’s February 29th, it’s pouring rain here in D.C., and because I’m already grumpy, I’m going to talk about something which makes me even more grumpy, which is unconventional oil.  Today’s feature: oil shale.


Actually, I just wanted to talk about lighting things on fire.

What is oil shale?  Oil shale refers specifically to a fine-grained, sedimentary rock containing sufficient kerogen to produce burnable hydrocarbons.  What the heck is kerogen?  It’s just a fancy term for the carbon-based organic matter that makes up a portion of sedimentary rocks – something we only care about because, when heated to a high enough temperature, causes liquid oil to separate from a combustible gas.  Author’s note: oil shale is different from shale oil, and is also different from oil sands and tight oil.

Why is oil shale a big deal?  Every time gas prices go up, people start complaining, and Newt Gingrich starts making things up about how it’s Obama’s fault that gas costs a single penny over $2.50 per gallon.  When this happens, or when Iran starts making noises that we don’t like, politicians begin to talk about domestic energy.  Oil companies such as Exxon, Shell, and Chevron are all too eager at that moment to talk about how areas of the American west – Colorado, Utah and Wyoming in particular – have vast quantities of oil shale that could be exploited as a domestic source of energy.  Which they certainly could.

Why is this a bad idea? As with all unconventional forms of oil, extracting oil shale is an extremely intensive process.  Because the energy source is in a solid form, it must be either (1) mined, and then heated, or (2) large amounts of heat must be generated hundreds of feet below the Earth’s surface for sufficient time to liquify fuel reserves so that they can then be pumped to the surface.  If option 1, mining, is taken, the shale is removed in open-pit or strip mining, which looks something like this:


Colorado is beautiful! Let's go hiking.

Of course, if you want to go with option 2, you’re going to have even bigger problems on your hands.  Take the debate about hydraulic fracturing (which is used as part of the oil shale extraction process) and multiply it by ten, and that’s about what you have.  Most of these in-situ extraction methods are still somewhat experimental, but they involve injecting large volumes of water as well as heat sources underground, and then drilling to pump the resulting oil to the surface.  It’s very involved.

What are the environmental risks? Oh, where to begin.  To enumerate a few: land use issues (from strip/surface or open pit mining), water quality issues (from mine tailing disposed of in rivers, lakes, streams, and critical headwaters), water use issues (it can take two to three million gallons of water per well to perform hydraulic fracturing), greenhouse gas emissions (both during extraction and during the use of this energy source, which when burned releases more greenhouse gasses than conventional petroleum), increased erosion and soil quality problems, air quality concerns resulting from the release of mercury, sulfur, and particulates, acid mine drainage….

I’ll stop there.

What does this have to do with gas prices?  I can’t resist hitting on this point, because it’s just too good to leave alone.  There is a perception in America that the price of gas at the pump – and the price of oil per barrel – is related directly to supply and demand.  If we produce more domestic oil of any sort, we think that the prices will go down.  We also like to think that Europeans pay more for gas because they don’t have any of their own.

Not so.  As CNNMoney (note that this is a mainstream news source, not EcoLooney Weekly) reports, in virtually every country – even OPEC nations – gas prices are determined by whether or not the government (1) taxes, or (2) subsidizes oil.  Energy subsidies mean that the government is floating part of the bill, keeping prices artificially low for consumers when compared to actual value of the commodity.  The U.S. government floats between $4 billion and $10 billion a year towards production of established fossil fuels – coal, oil, and natural gas.

So, what’s the bottom line? The bottom line is that right now, we’re looking at a technology that is still highly experimental (the methods of extracting oil shales are still in the experimental phase in nearly every major oil company.)  While they’ve got some big dollars behind them from the oil giants, they’ve also got some big hurdles to clear.  The areas of the arid west where oil shale is abundant already face ongoing issues with water scarcity in the face of growing population and growing demand.  In Estonia, which is the largest user of oil shale, 91% of the country’s water resources go to extraction of oil shales.  That’s a big yikes, and that’s not even looking at the impacts regarding climate change, air quality, and land use.  And no, it won’t make the price that you pay at the pump go down.

Oil shales are a tempting prospect because of their abundance, but one that is likely not worth the risk.  If we’re going to develop a new technology, let’s make it both clean and renewable.

Some resources for anyone who wants to read more about oil shale are here and here.

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This morning, when I woke up, I was really unhappy that I had to get out of bed.  As I lay in my bed, comfortably snuggled under my flannel sheets (why yes, I am approximately 11 years old at heart, thank you for asking), thinking about how much I didn’t want to move, I decided that someone should look into the scientific relationship between sleep and happiness.  I found myself wondering if there ever comes a point where more sleep does not make me more happy, and also what Kara had for breakfast.  And then I got out of bed.

Which has only one thing to do with today’s post, which is about SCIENCE. 


Oh come on. I had to.

Recent reports are coming out about a new scandal rocking the world of climate science, this time involving the famously climate-skeptic think tank Heartland Institute.  Although their funding sources were already somewhat suspect (hint: ExxonMobil is a huge one), a leak of insider documentation show that much of their “research” was nothing of the sort.  Direct quotes from the leaked documents indicate that Heartland Institute wasn’t relying on science at all to prove their point, but in fact directly and overtly operated “disinformation” campaigns specifically aimed at muddying the waters on climate science and confusing the public.  Of their efforts, perhaps the most abhorrent is their specific and direct effort to promote elementary education programs, sponsoring programs that would “focus on providing curriculum that shows that the topic of climate change is controversial and uncertain – two key points that are effective at dissuading teachers from teaching science.

Whoa, Nelly.  Interestingly enough, Heartland Institute was also responsible for manufacturing and trumpeting most of the information about the “Climategate” scandal. I can’t say I’m upset that these leaks are being made public – it is disgusting that with our country already so far behind in educating in math and science that they would attempt to continue that trend and manufacture confusion in order to achieve their own ends.  Pathetic, Heartland Institute.  Pathetic. 

And yet, equally upsetting is the news that the individual responsible for these leaks was a sting operation run by Peter Gleick, a prominent member of AGU and climate scientist. Gleick has already owned up to the situation, as reported by Huffington Post and The Washington Post.  Which is also sad – since when do scientists have to lie and cheat in order to make their voices heard?

What’s frustrating about this situation is the following: where is the real science, anyway?  And since when did research become so clouded by political motives that scientists – educated, accomplished researchers – feel they have to resort to sting operations to make the their results heard?  When did science stop being what it is supposed to be: a world in which the results of experiments are objectively analyzed by a team of educated researchers in a peer-review process and discussed in a forum that is not motivated by politics, corporations, and a who’s who of political funding?  Since when did science become like politics, where money is the only thing that talks, and your “answer” to a question is determined by who is paying your bills?

It’s a shame that we’ve gotten to this point.  It’s a shame that our country is so afraid of what the truth might be that entire operations will try to cover it up, and it’s a shame that those who should be flying the banner of ivory-tower objectivity resort to dishonest measures themselves to expose these operations.  What we should be keeping in mind is the following: climate science and climate policy are two different things.  They are related, certainly, but they are not the same.  The former is the domain of the experts; those who have spent years researching and studying and learning.  Scientists have their own method of evaluating models, testing results, questioning process, evaluating assumptions, and honing in on the most accurate answer. 

As for policy, that is public forum, open for debate, conversation, and the opinion of the general public.  I am always a supporter of more conversation on policy. But that doesn’t mean inventing our own facts, or trying to cover them up – it means taking the best possible information that we have access to (FROM THE EXPERTS, not from things that we made up), and then debating what to do about them.

There is no one in this situation who is right, but you can read an excellent take on the situation here. Then, maybe we should think about whether or not it’s time to leave the politics to the politicians and the science to the scientists. 


Like this one, the portrait of objectivity. If only Dr. Sheldon Cooper could fix this mess....






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