Posts Tagged ‘conservation’

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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No, I did not misspell cities…It’s CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.  So, what is the cities/transport guy doing talking about wildlife?  Well…I like plants and animals and care about their protection, and will be touching on similar topics from time to time.  This is our second crunchie of the year, and I’m going to try and break down what CITES is, and why you should care.

Can you identify all 14 species in the CITES Logo? Click on the image to get the answers

What is it, and what does it do?:  In 1963, member nations of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) drafted a new resolution that ultimately led to the creation of of CITES ten years later.  The goal of the convention was to ensure that the trade in plants and animals did not threaten the survival of these species in the wild.  Flora and Fauna (that’s fancy talk for plants and animals) species around the world have been disappearing or declining in numbers due to a number of factors, but one large one being the trade in that species or products made from that species.  In order keep this from happening, CITES designates different levels of  protection to different species (currently more than 34,000!)  Now, CITES works as a “framework” or “guideline”, providing member countries (called Parties) with a means to adopt the convention into its national laws.  CITES does not function as an international law in and of itself, and because of this, enforcement of the convention is dependent upon the individual country governments, which in most cases is lacking, or the penalties are not sever enough to deter behavior.  Of all of the member countries in the United Nations, only 17 have not ratified the convention (that leaves 193 that have!)

Why is it important?:  CITES is important because it helps protect plants and animals that are being exploited and who run the risk of becoming severely endangered or even extinct.  Without some kind of international agreement between countries, the responsibility of stoping the activities that are threatening the a plants or animals falls completely on the county in which the activities (hunting, poaching, logging, etc.) are occurring, without putting any pressure on the countries where the demand for these products is, and thus fueling the killing or logging.  Under CITES, animals such as all African rhinoceros species, tigers, and shortnose sturgeon, and plants such as bigleaf mahogany and the Guatemalan fir tree, are protected outside of their country of origin by restricting and enforcing their entry into foreign markets.  This lets countries work as a team to not only tackle the activities on the ground, but also to work to change behavior to decrease demand.  (For a list of the plants and animals listed under CITES, please click here.)

Back Rhinoceros

What does the USFWS do to enforce CITES?:  In the US, the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) is responsible for enforcing CITES and the Endangered Species Act (ESA).  The ESA is the US’s very own law that manages and protects endangered species within its boarders while CITES extends past its boards.  The USFWS works closely with agencies from other countries responsible for protecting wildlife and enforcing CITES.  These relationships have helped strengthen the capacity of these agencies, ultimately helping to protect more animals.

Lion meat anyone?:  An example of what can happen when an animal whose numbers are plummeting in the wild due to a lack of protection is the African lion.  The populations have been diminishing for the last 20 years, with some estimates showing a decline from 100,000 to 47,000 since the 1990s, (that’s a decline of more than 50%!)  While there has been a huge public backlash to the sale of lion meat in the US, there were a few restaurants that just until recently were selling lion meat steaks and burgers.  Technically, lion meat is not baned and is legal to sell as per the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).  If the species were listed as endangered and protected under CITES, the sale of lion meat around the world, and especially in the US, would end almost over night.  This has become the goal for many conservation groups around the world who believe that lions need to be protected worldwide.

In a nutshell:  CITES is cool, but far from perfect.  Because it is merely an agreement and the framework for restricting the trade in plant and animals, the real job of enforcement still falls on individual countries, and most countries lack the capacity to do this.  Some countries, such as the US, have developed their own strategies and laws that help reinforce the international convention.  While there is controversy out there that CITES has in fact hurt some plant and animal species, that was certainly not its goal.  The convention has helped bring countries together to help fight the loss of species on this planet, and that’s pretty awesome in my book.

Other Sources of Information:

The CITES Website

The USFWS’s website on CITES 

World Wildlife Fund’s Take on CITES 

The African Lion’s conservation status on IUCN 

Lion meat no longer on the menu 

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As I’ve mentioned before, under the mental sub-heading “confessions of a quasi-hippie,” I”m not always perfect when it comes to spending my money on the greenest products.  I try, but somehow those non-organic vegetables and conventional skin care products keep cropping up in my apartment.  Why?

It usually comes down to this dilemma: have you ever been out shopping, buying something that should be simple, and suddenly found yourself really, unnecessarily overwhelmed by the number of choices?  Sometimes, crunchy brands are prohibitively expensive, or even if they’re not, it’s hard to justify spending two or three times the amount you would for a conventional brand without knowing exactly why.  On top of it, there’s greenwashing.  It can be tricky to know what products are worth the extra cash when so many are labeled “green” or “natural” without any evidence to substantiate the claim.  Unless you’re going to go through the effort to research a brand in detail, it’s pretty hard to know which products have a rap sheet that you’d want to avoid and which to buy into.  What’s a hippie to do?


This time, “Make love not war” isn’t the right answer. Try again!

Turns out, there’s a team who already realized this problem existed — came up with a solution.  In one of my earliest posts here at Spinach, I blogged about the Transparency Toolbar that I read about on The Lazy Environmentalist blog.  It’s a nifty toolbar that you can install which guides your internet shopping, ranking products on a scale of 0 – 10 in three categories: health, society, and environment.  You can also screen products based on your own core values: for example, whether or not a product is vegan, or if a company engages in animal testing.

I discovered today that it actually gets better.  The Transparency Toolbar is actually one of a line of products (including their website and and mobile app) developed by GoodGuide.  They use the same system to rate brands as a whole online, which you can read about on their website.  In addition, their mobile app allows you to scan the bar code of an item and see the ratings for that specific product. The methodology is explained online, so you can learn about the system and what they’re using for scoring.

As a side note, I’m actually a big fan of their ranking system in general.  Ideally, all of our consumer goods would be produced in a method that is environmentally and socially responsible.  Ideally, they’d also avoid being harmful to human health.  I was skeptical at first of how they’d rank this last category, but their methods section reveals that they use a ratio of healthy to harmful nutrients as well as the presence of potentially harmful additives to determine the health rating.  It’s basically telling you how much bang you’re getting for your caloric buck – i.e. how much of what you’re consuming will have actual nutritional value associated with it, and how much is fluff – plus whether or not there are ingredients that you might want to avoid.

I don’t know how extensive their list is, given the enormous number of products on the market, but what they have online represents a pretty substantial start with some very well-known brands.  And, with the ability to tailor rankings to you own particular values, this could be a huge asset to those of you who want to make sure your money is going to the right places.

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My grandma is a world traveler. Last summer she traveled to a few western U.S. national parks and monuments including Mount Rushmore, Grand Tetons National Park and Crazy Horse Memorial.  She showed me all the pictures and said “Ryan, everyone wants to travel overseas but we have so much here.” After looking at the pictures, I could not have agreed more and appreciated the unique beauty we have here in the U.S.  I mentioned this story because it is National Park Week!

Yogi Bear, now that’s Amurica.

You only have till Sunday to celebrate, so go to your closest national park now (just kidding). There are 84 million acres of national park land in the U.S., AND because it is National Park Week admission into any park is free!  National Geographic has put together a nice photo tribute to our nation’s parks, it’s a great lunch break distraction; I must also admit I have a soft spot for Nat. Geo. due to a family subscription that has been passed down from my grandfather to my father to me.  You can find the closest national park near you here. Take your family, your spouse, or friends to our nation’s greatest treasures and get outdoors.  See our nation’s great lands before you take that Euro trip.  You can thank President Theodore Roosevelt for his great conservation efforts in the early 1900s for creating the National Park Service and conserving the park land we all love to enjoy today. Cheers.

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We get pretty steeped around here in energy and policy and what Kara had for breakfast. But every once in a while we like to go outside. Especially this time of year – and specifically during a freakishly warm winter – when the weather warms and we SpinachHeads get to leave the cannery and spend more time in the fields, if you will.

Today’s topic: wildlife corridors, and whether or not they actually work to unite populations of species despite development of roads and highways and ongoing growth of cities. The idea is a brainchild of friend-of-the-blog (in our dreams) E.O. Wilson, who hypothesized back in the 60s that the biggest threat to species survival was habitat isolation, and the more we cut off major parts of habitat, the more dire some species’ peril becomes.

So do they work? That’s the question Fred Pearce at New Scientist asked earlier this week. And it got us thinking. There really isn’t much academic evidence we’ve come across to show that corridors indisputably work as intended.

There is, Pearce points out, lots of proof that species like to travel through tunnels (do they hold their breath?!) and travel. But there’s little to show that these things show genetic diversity across geographic distances. It’s a question of time and breeding. Is the population expanding faster than lone animals are using the corridors? If so separate populations won’t become united. The reverse is that animals of different populations are interbreeding faster than the overall population expands. That second scenario would make the corridors effective.

Problem is, it’s looking more and more to be the first scenario. One of the most comprehensive studies on the topic looked at marsupials in a narrow forest corridor in Queensland, Australia. Despite the expensive engineering, researchers found that genetically distinct populations had persisted. Ergo, over time, the populations would continue to grow apart.

The $64,000 question – and don’t worry, we can hear you asking it – is why the heck does this matter? Surely we have more important environment and wildlife issues to consider than whether a bunch of moose use tunnels, right?

Only partly true (and don’t call me Shirley). Corridors have long been the key argument by developers and contruction companies for continued growth. They nip at the core of how we reconcile our growth with the broader health of the environment are our terrestrial counterparts. As long as we keep habitat protected and allow species to roam wild and free, we can do whatever we want to the planet, the thinking goes. Yet this series of studies seems to offer a rather firm rebuke of that rationale.

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