Don't Blame Climate Change for the Hurricane Harvey Disaster, Blame Society

There is an old adage in disaster studies: "there is no such thing as a natural disaster." This article explains that idea clearly by arguing that nature and climate change are not driving causes of crises like Harvey, but instead the causes originate from social and political structures and human decisions. Kelman writes:

A disaster involving a hurricane cannot happen unless people, infrastructure and communities are vulnerable to it. People become vulnerable if they end up lacking knowledge, wisdom, capabilities, social connections, support or finances to deal with a standard environmental event such as a hurricane.

The socionatural disaster in Houston, as well as in New Orleans during Katrina, were largely caused by uncontrolled sub/urbanization, unregulated development of industry and housing, and as Michael Grunwald, writing in Poltico outlines, by Federal flood insurance policy. However, in Katrina we witnessed the failure of the structural, technological mitigation system and the failed political evacuation, rescue, and rebuilding, which all took its heavies toll on African Americans and the poorest residents of New Orleans and surrounding Parishes. We have yet to see the uneven toll that our social order has taken on the people of Southeast Texas. This will become more clear in the days, weeks, and months, and honestly years. 

What America Looked Like Before the EPA Stepped In

Excellent photo essay depicting how the United States looked before the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and the Clear Air Act and Clean Water Act. To quote an environmental radical, former President Richard Nixon: 

Shall we surrender to our surroundings, or shall we make our peace with nature and begin to make reparations for the damage we have done to our air, to our land and to our water?

Apple's Real Carbon Footprint Is In Manufacturing and It's Dirty

Apple Inc. released its 2015 Environmental Responsibility Report this week. In the report, Apple proudly claims that their data centers are running on 100% renewable energy and that their new headquarters in Cupertino will run entirely on renewables (solar plant in nearby Monterey County). Apple is proud to claim that building operations in the USA are moving to 100% renewable. That's great. However, Apple's real carbon footprint is in the vast, vast amount of energy used and CO2 released in manufacturing all of its physical products, mostly in China. 

For example, of the 34 million metric tons of CO2 Apple claims responsibility for in fiscal year 2014, 24.8 million metric tons are in manufacturing and only 0.4 million tons are in facilities. Put another way, 73% of Apple's carbon footprint is in manufacturing, whereas only 1.1% is in facilities. Sorry Apple, switching facilities to renewables is great optics (and still worthwhile) but it is a drop in the bucket of their CO2 footprint. For Apple to meaningfully contribute to reducing global warming they will need to begin to transition their manufacturing partners to renewables. It seems they are now just taking small steps in that direction.

For now, Apple and other manufacturers, and consumers, are contributing both to the localized pollution crisis in China as well as global CO2 emissions. If Apple wants to be a leading corporate environmental steward, as statements by CEO Tim Cook and Lisa Jackson, Vice President of Environmental Initiatives indicate, then it needs to more fully and quickly address the source of their real carbon footprint: the manufacturing of physical products.

Can Louisiana Hold Oil Companies Accountable for its Vanishing Coastline?

A great photo essay series would be "The Political Ecologies of the Age of Oil." A great place to start would be coastal Louisiana. The next place to go would be the tar sands of Alberta, Canada.

Image via thinkprogress.org

Image via thinkprogress.org

United States and China Enter Into Bilateral Energy Transition Agreement

An historic deal. We'll have to monitor closely to see what actually happens. Here is the gist as reported by Jeff Spross at ThinkProgress:

The pledge commits the U.S. to cut its emissions 26 to 28 percent below their 2005 levels by 2025. This builds on the current target of a 17 percent reduction below that baseline by 2020, and could actually double the pace of emission cuts set by that initial goal — from 1.2 percent a year to as high as 2.8 percent per year. The White House has actually been looking into the possibility of expanding beyond the 2020 target since 2013, and has been involved in occasional interagency meetings to that effect.

For its part, China is committing to get 20 percent of its energy from non-fossil-fuel sources by 2030, and to peak its overall carbon dioxide emissions that same year. China’s construction of renewable energy capacity is already proceeding at a furious pace, and this deal will require the country to deploy an additional 800 to 1,000 gigawatts of zero-carbon energy by 2030. For comparison, 800 to 1,000 gigawatts is close to the amount of electricity the U.S. current generates from all sources combined.

In the US, with virtually no solid Congressional support, it will be interesting to see how such a commitment will fair in the short-term, let alone spanning multiple Congressional and Presidential terms. China, on the other hand, with a centralized one-party rule might be able to enable a more consistent and coherent energy transition strategy. It's also important to remember that most of the carbon in the atmosphere now was put there by Europe and the United States over the past 150 years or so. 

Sun and Wind Alter Global Landscape, Leaving Utilities Behind

This is a great overview of the energy transition thesis (energiewende, in German). It focuses on the German example and highlights the major disruption renewables will have on utilities markets and business models. Many drastic changes and challenges lie ahead. 

Electric utility executives all over the world are watching nervously as technologies they once dismissed as irrelevant begin to threaten their long-established business plans. Fights are erupting across the United States over the future rules for renewable power. Many poor countries, once intent on building coal-fired power plants to bring electricity to their people, are discussing whether they might leapfrog the fossil age and build clean grids from the outset.

See also "While Critics Debate Energiewende, Germany is Gaining a Global advantage."  

 

Pollution Killed 7 Million People Worldwide in 2012

A World Health Organization report found that the fossil fuel economy and industrial civilization is already leading to 1 out of 8 deaths among humans each year (the number would be high for non-humans too). That is an immediate danger, more immediate than what climate change may be contributing to now. In the developing world, the main culprit is burring biomass for cooking and heating, with women being at greater risk than men. In the developed world, the main culprit are fossil fuel automobiles and industrial production.

Wind Beat Natural Gas As America's Fastest-Growing Power Source in 2012

This, in addition to renewables being the fasted growing energy sector last year. And the IEA declaring that renewables will be the worlds second largest energy source by 2015. Encouraging signs; long road ahead.

2013 Motor Trend's Car of the Year...

is the Tesla Model S. It is the first time an internal combustion engine automobile has not won the award. To quell any squabbling that this is eco-hype, Motor Trend says, "At its core, the Tesla Model S is simply a damned good car you happen to plug in to refuel."

image via motortrend.com

image via motortrend.com

 

Mining the Great Ocean Landfill

 
Image via  Dwell

Image via Dwell

Method's new Ocean Plastic line of soap strikes me as classic greenwashing. But, hey, if they want to commodify and mine the gigantic floating island of plastic trash out in the Pacific Ocean, go ahead. However, making and buying these products does not strike me as a good solution to the plastic problem. File under: Shopping Our Way to Safety.

Organic: It's never been about nutrition

Organic agriculture is been about the elimination of pesticides, herbicides, growth hormones, and monoculture.

There is a new meta-analysis (aggregate of other scientists' studies) out from scientists at Stanford that the New York Times and others are running, which states that there are no nutritional benefits of organic produce and meats. Problem with the headlines: no serious proponent of organic produce and meats, and organic farming in general, was saying that the products were more nutritious. This always bugged me when I saw people, proponents or opponents, making this claim.

Organic agriculture has always been about rejecting pesticides, hormones, and industrial farming techniques (large inputs and monoculture), not about how the produce was more nutritious. 

Hottest month, ever, in the USA

I recently returned from a cold, rainy vacation to Souther Germany, now I'm roasting in the CA sun, which is actaully not on the charts for records. It's just hot here in Northern CA. Other parts of the country are roasting and in drought.

Check out the charts Grist has assembled.  

 

 

Climate Change, a Killer of an Ancient Civilization

Albeit, this was not human induced climate change, but nonetheless, evidence points to the collapse of the urbanized Indus civilization (Harappans) due to changes in the climate. Charles Choi reports, 

Eventually, over the course of centuries, Harappans apparently fled along an escape route to the east toward the Ganges basin, where monsoon rains remained reliable.

This change would have spelled disaster for the cities of the Indus, which were built on the large surpluses seen during the earlier, wetter era. The dispersal of the population to the east would have meant there was no longer a concentrated workforce to support urbanism.

Jarred Diamond uses these as cautionary tales for our own civilization(s), but I'm not convinced of the similarities and the fruitfulness of the comparison between global society now and the relatively isolated civilizations of millennia ago. However, one thing humans never seem to remember is that nothing is stable, and that the current condition, whether political, economic, or socio-natural, is ever changing. We tend to think the way it is for us, is the way it will be forever. Not so.

The Anthropocene is older than you think

Interesting article about how early humans may have caused species decline in large mammalian carnivores in Africa 2 million years ago. If true, and coupled with research on pre-industrial and pre-agricultural or small scale agrarian societies and their effects on local and regional biomes, it suggests that humans began shaping new ecological relations long before industrialization began in the past two hundred years. For sure, the rate and scale of change accelerated in the past two hundred years, but the trajectory of human history is one of changing the environment for our advantage. The idea of pristine nature for which we can return continues to lose credibility.

Take That Honeywell

Nest Labs officially responds to Honeywell's patent infringement lawsuit:

Nest's new legal council Richard Lutton Jr. says,

As reported in prior litigations, Honeywell has a pattern of trying to stifle new market entrants with unfounded legal action. Instead of filing lawsuits, Honeywell should use its wealth and resources to bring innovative products to market. Nest will defend itself vigorously in court and we’ll keep our company’s focus where it should be – on developing and delivering great products for our customers.

Nest CEO Tony Fadell says, "Honeywell is worse than a patent troll," because instead of trying to get money out of Nest, Honeywell is trying to kill the competition [via The Verge].  

Trouble on the rails

The problem with train travel in the US is largely the rail network. I traveled from Central California to San Diego this week and the train had to stop and wait repeatedly. The trip took entirely too long. We had to wait for other Amtrak trains, MetroLink trains, and freight trains. We were stopped for up to 20-30 minutes at times, and were once stopped about 100 yards from a major station as we waited for a freight to pass.

If train travel is ever going to be competitive, efficient, or convenient the issue of track space and track right of way needs to be addressed. Imagine if while on a plane the captain said, "Ok folks, we've got to land at the next airport because the airway is being used by another plane. We'll be down and up off the ground as soon as we can." Amtrak has a disadvantage because it doesn't control its network, and its network is not prioritized like airspace or freeway networks by state and federal government.

Our rail network is not built or optimized for passenger rail, but rather for freight. Faster trains and cheaper fares won't make up for the notion and reality that you don't arrive on time and that it takes longer than it should to get from city 1 to city 2. Europe doesn't have this problem.

That said, there really are some nice benefits of train travel: little to no lines to wait in (show up minutes before departure), no security checks, more eco-friendly, can be cheaper, and I think it's more relaxing than flying.

Solar Rising

According to new reports by the solar industry (ok, that's problematic) the solar industry had a record year in 2011. Lori Zimmer, posting on Inhabit, writes, 

The study, released by GTM Research and the Solar Energy Industries Association showed that the solar industry pulled in $8.4 billion last year. Installation of photovoltaic panels continues to grow, with solar projects totaling 1,855 megawatts in 2011 alone, compared to just 887 megawatts the year before. These projects ranked the United States as the fourth largest solar market in the world, a jump that just a few years ago did not seem possible.