Eco Buzz

Taking Sustainability Beyond the Company Walls

Triple Pundit - 2 hours 56 min ago
The difference between SABmiller's approach and other company-centered 'efficiency' efforts is the depth of focus outside the company's own walls.
Categories: Eco Buzz

Hip Hop is not down with Monsanto

Gristmill - 8 hours 10 sec ago

And you thought rap was all cars, Riff Raff and Gucci Mane. Yeah, there’s plenty of that, but there are also plenty of rappers still dropping knowledge, as was ubiquitous during Hip Hop’s Golden Age –’88  to ’95 — and without a hint of irony or romantic nostalgia. I’m thinking Common, Talib Kweli, who was out there arguing with cops and CNN in Ferguson, and the homey Jasiri X. Despite rap’s reputation for worst behavior, it’s still one of the last, if only, musical genres that counts social studies, history and science as subjects, even if only as electives.

Hip Hop’s latest course offering: genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. There are plenty of controversial and conspiratorial seeds to spread around with this issue. Indeed, for some rappers, GMOs are part of the larger New World Order agenda for global domination by the deity represented on the back of your dollar bill — Behold Some Pale White Pork. Others have approached the debate with gravitas. I’ll let Grist’s Nathanael Johnson (Who I’ve asked to comment on the songs, below) school you on the real science behind GMOs. Or, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, who’s picked it apart between chessboxin’ matches with GZA. I’m personally GMO agnostic. But some of these rappers have given me some food for thought:

Wise Intelligent of the Golden Age group Poor Righteous Teachers released the song “Illuminati,” in 2011, which was a critique of masonic conspiracy theories. He unpacks a lot in this song, but the third verse is where he hammers away at the issue:

Before they collapse the market, they’re criminalizing farming/They’re silencing you for talking, while turning us all into peasants/Agricultural patents, ConAgra created the famines/Monsanto’s seeds that terminate the natural birthing action/Controlling the food supply, choosing who should live or die/Confusion rules, you choose the lie...

(Nathanial, our GMO guru, says the bolded line is a “reference to the genes that prevent GMO reproduction and spread. If you’re worried about GMO contamination it would be a good thing. They never got it to work.”)

Attempting to outdo Wise Intelligent in song title subtlety comes Immortal Technique, who touches on the subject in his song “Bin Laden” –Apparently GMO food is so bad it’s terrorism. Raps Immortal: They feed us genetically modified garbage, so I repetitively reload the cartridge…

(Says Nathanael: “I mean, content aside, you got to admire the masterful rhyme — the assonance, the meter…”)

In 2004, the indispensable MF DOOM delivered one of Hip Hop’s finest dishes, the album Mm…Food, and no rapper has done more with food metaphors since (Sorry, Action Bronson). In 2012, he joined the modified food fight in his collaborative effort with Jneiro Jarel called JJ DOOM where he addresses the issue dead-on in his song, “GMO,” where he ponders, “Will Frankenfoods kill us?” One choice passage:

Ya partner DOOM is who’ll ride/Or either do or die like farmer suicide/Chew your pride/Might as well start ‘em out in pro boxing/Then force feed them toddler food laced with excitotoxins

Let’s go ahead and give him props now for being, perhaps, the only musical artist in the world to namedrop excitotoxins, something in our food supply that apparently kills your brain.

(Meanwhile, says Nathanael: “Farmer suicide is real and it’s terrible, but it’s facile to say it’s caused by GMOs. It just isn’t.”)

From the more esoteric song title category comes Aesop Rock’s “BMX,” where rhyme partner Blueprint likens fly-by-night pop rap artists to the Astroturf campaigns orchestrated by GMO companies:

Everybody got inentions that they can’t reveal/Major label acts got to act like they don’t have deals/Claiming grassroots, I’m like, Hell no/Your buzz is as organic as Monsanto/I’m going at your beanstalk, ax in hand…

(Says Nathanael: “Hell yes.”)

Sage Francis’s emo-navel-gazery “Over Under” is a break-up song — though I’m not clear if he’s breaking up with a love partner, or with himself. In the second verse he fumes (at someone):

Oh I’m the pig? You trying to strangle me in a blanket, though/You’re a GMO seed of breed in my organic garden, wanting my resources to make it grow…

(Says Nathanael: No comment.)


Filed under: Article, Cities, Food, Living
Categories: Eco Buzz

The Online Artisan Marketplace: A Huge Boost for Handmade Products

Triple Pundit - 8 hours 54 sec ago
The internet has made it far easier for the online artisan marketplace to thrive, allowing many to sell their handmade goods quickly and easily.
Categories: Eco Buzz

The cynical money person’s guide to our renewable energy future

Gristmill - 8 hours 50 min ago

I’ve been covering the carbon divestment movement on and off for Grist since I started here nearly a year ago. Divestment makes unusual waves because it encourages moving money around for reasons of both morality and enlightened self-interest. It also raises a question: If investors are going to divest from the $5 trillion in energy stocks that they currently hold, what should they be investing in instead?

There are many, many ways to invest responsibly, including a new batch of fossil-free index funds, and that is a beautiful thing. Less beautiful, but maybe more interesting, is exploring what a totally cynical take on investing in renewable energy looks like.

For this reason, I’ve enjoyed nerding out over white papers on the subject, from Bloomberg’s guide to divestment (divesting from coal is easy; oil and gas, slightly more complicated) to the recent briefing paper released by UBS, the Swiss global financial services company whose assets of $1.5 trillion make it the largest private bank in the world.

The word “divestment” is never mentioned in the paper. Instead it salivates over companies like Toyota, BMW, Hitachi Chemical, Siemens, and Umicore, who have maneuvered themselves into a situation where they’ll profit if certain renewable technologies become widely adopted. When something like reycling is mentioned, it’s only because someone sees money in it.

Below, a few highlights.

Batteries and solar will get way cheaper

The main focus of the report is the way that batteries and solar, when joined together like Voltron, have the power to reshape our utility markets — or, as Grist’s Amelia Urry put it, “make today’s power plants as extinct as the dinosaurs.” This is something that people have been talking about for a while now (and it’s the reason Tesla Motors is starting to seem like more than just a maker of fancy hippie hot rods).

By 2020, the cost of high capacity batteries is expected to have dropped so much that the price difference between an electric car and one with a combustion engine will be negligible. If this happens, it will translate into a lot of electric cars sold, since (a) owners won’t have to pay for gas (or not much of it, if they buy a hybrid) and (b) an electric car can serve double-duty as the backup battery storage for a home solar system.

This will happen more quickly in Europe because gasoline is more expensive there —  the paper says that, by conservative estimate, 10 percent of all new car registrations in Europe will be electric cars by 2025.

Think of big power plants as quaint old factory mills

I’ve been traveling around the east coast lately, which means passing through a lot of old mill towns.  These were where the industrial revolution began in the U.S., and they were built on rivers, because that’s where the power was. The same way that the development of the electrical grid freed factories from the need for a river, solar can free it from the need for the hulking power plants that are now a feature of our landscape.

Writes the report:

Big, centralised power stations will not fit into the future European electricity system, because they are too large and too inflexible — or at least most of them are. Not all of them will have disappeared by 2025, but we would be bold enough to say that most of those plants retiring in the future will not be replaced.

It makes me wonder what might happen to the abandoned power plants of this hypothetical future. They’d make for some pretty strange apartments, that’s for sure.

Clever utilities will figure out how to maneuver into providing access to smart grids, backup power, and value-added services. “These positive drivers should more than offset the gradual extinction of large scale power plants,” writes the report, cheerily, adding that California-based Edison International, in its willingness to spend money building out its electrical grid to accommodate large-scale renewables, is an example of a good utility, and Con Ed in New York, which has done “next to nothing” on solar, will be in trouble.

The wild card here is politics, not technology

Fuel cells, batteries, solar, and smart grid technology keep getting less and less expensive to manufacture. As the theory goes, the lower the cost of batteries, the more people will buy electric cars, rather than the combustion engine variety. Selling so many batteries will make them even cheaper to manufacture, as companies develop economies of scale, and so the price will drop further — sort of like what happened with computer processors. Both Umicore and Tesla have said that they have the science behind batteries down —  all that remains is making enough of them so that they can take advantage of economies of scale. Says the UBS paper (with some hubris):

By 2025, everybody will be able to produce and store power. And it will be green and cost competitive, i.e., not more expensive or even cheaper than buying power from utilities. It is also the most efficient way to produce power where it is consumed, because transmission losses will be minimized.

The drawback to all of this is that as people start pulling less electricity off the grid, it could mean lower revenues for utilities (and definitely for the companies that supply fuel to those utilities). Utilities are moving to protect their bottom lines by jacking up the basic flat fee that they charge to connect to the electrical grid and by lobbying for legislation that would make solar more difficult to install.

It’s hard to say how the solar blocking will go. Last year in Washington, fossil fuel interests spent about thirty times as much on political contributions as alternative energy. When it comes to rooftop solar, the rules around zoning and building codes are so complicated that just navigating them can add thousands of dollars to the cost of system. Yet there seems to be as much effort to streamline rules around solar in some places as there is to put up roadblocks in others.

It’s easier to predict that the rising flat fees are likely to stick around. Writes the paper: “We expect a gradual shift towards flat fee-based grid remuneration, similar to the development seen with broadband internet.” This will strike fear in the heart of any American who has tried to negotiate rates with an internet provider, but less so in the heart of the average European, who has more options when it comes to choosing providers.

Competition — in Europe at least — is going to be intense, since potentially anyone with a solar and battery system could do the things that a utility now handles, “including equipment providers and big data companies, such as Google.” These new utilities would be likely to manage, maintain, or even own their own solar and battery systems, provide ways to help households manage their own energy consumption, and buy cheap electricity in bulk from a variety of sources and set themselves up as “virtual power plants.”

European geopolitics are also making oil and gas look less attractive right about now

We would not see political tensions between fossil fuel producing and consuming countries as a main argument in favor of our projected 2025 electricity system, but clearly the latest developments in Ukraine and Russia are, if anything, intensifying the political support for renewables and a smart, efficient electricity system.

Is this the future? After I wrote an article about the bidding war over Tesla’s gigafactory, a friend sent me an email about how the fuss over the electric car, in particular, looked like its own bubble — a bid to extend the viability of the private automobile, when the young folks seem to be losing interest in them, entirely, in favor of such retro marvels as that driverless car that is also known as “the bus” or the post-electric green car that we like to call “the bicycle.”

Seen in that light, getting excited about the electric car is like investing in three-piece suits back in the 1960s, on the assumption that everyone in America was going to keep dressing like the cast of Mad Men. But even if it’s not the future, it’s a future, and worth thinking about.


Filed under: Article, Business & Technology, Climate & Energy
Categories: Eco Buzz

Passive House Standard Results in Energy and Cost Savings

Triple Pundit - Mon, 2014-09-01 23:44
Some of the most energy-efficient homes on U.S. soil, Belfast Ecovillage homes use 90 percent less energy to heat and cool.
Categories: Eco Buzz

Despite Bully Tactics, We Can’t Stop Using Uber

Triple Pundit - Mon, 2014-09-01 23:38
Nobody likes a bully. But tell that to Uber, which has made little effort to shroud its back-handed tactics to annihilate its ridesharing competitors, namely Lyft. Leveraging a war chest which now has grown to some $1.5 billion dollars, Uber has done whatever it can to put Lyft down — from gimmicky marketing schemes, attack ads, to even lowering rates. But all of that seems paltry in comparison to Uber’s latest anti-Lyft strategy, which has devolved into outright sabotage.
Categories: Eco Buzz

The Value of Bike Sharing: Looking Beyond Carbon Emissions

Triple Pundit - Mon, 2014-09-01 23:36
When it comes to how green bike-sharing programs are, the focus should be their well-being impact, not their climate impact.
Categories: Eco Buzz

6 Ways Eco-Labels Can Help Us Stay Sustainable

Triple Pundit - Mon, 2014-09-01 23:34
Eco-labels may not sound like the most exciting topic at first. But when you look a bit more closely, it's easy to see that labels and certifications are the backbone of any sustainability claim, whether it's a product or practice. Of course, navigating the wide world of eco-labels can be confusing at times. To clear things up, this week we rounded up six ways eco-labels can help consumers and businesses stay sustainable -- no matter what their interests are.
Categories: Eco Buzz

Green Job Openings More Than Double in the Second Quarter of 2014

Triple Pundit - Mon, 2014-09-01 23:34
More than 12,500 clean energy and transportation jobs were announced in this year's second quarter (Q2 2014), more than double that of Q1, according to a report from Environmental Entrepreneurs released on the eve of the Labor Day weekend.
Categories: Eco Buzz

Survey: Furniture Companies Dropping Flame Retardants

Triple Pundit - Mon, 2014-09-01 23:34
It's been a good month for sustainable furniture advocates in California. The state's recent update of TB 117, which in effect allows furniture manufacturers to drop flame retardants from their product ingredients, is having a noticeable effect on the industry, according to the Center for Environmental Health. At the same time, California Senate took another step toward ensuring new flammability standards will be ready to go by Jan. 2015. All of this was bad news for chemical company Chemtura, which filed suit against the state to stop TB 117. A tentative ruling released last week rejected the criteria for the challenge, calling it "absurd."
Categories: Eco Buzz

Obama to Seek ‘Politically Binding’ Climate Agreement

Triple Pundit - Mon, 2014-09-01 23:32
With a United Nations summit meeting coming up in Paris next year that will attempt to come up with some kind of meaningful global agreement, the president is determined not to show up empty-handed this time.
Categories: Eco Buzz

A Young African-American Banker with Pride

Triple Pundit - Mon, 2014-09-01 23:30
Having been called on as a millennial to share my story for this article, I’m a little less suspicious of the label, and a little more interested in exploring what it means to me and what it might mean for the investment community. All of this talk of identity may seem a little sentimental for an investment publication, but I argue that identity will be a critical consideration for the investment community going forward.
Categories: Eco Buzz

On the EDGE: Gender Equality Certification

Triple Pundit - Mon, 2014-09-01 17:57
Switzerland-based EDGE is banking its gender equality certification will resonate with businesses and consumers. Can it catch on?
Categories: Eco Buzz

Why we really should care about boosting farm yields

Gristmill - Mon, 2014-09-01 12:08

Crystal-ball gazers looking for the future of food often start with this question: How the heck are humans going to grow enough food to feed our teaming masses without wrecking the planet?

There are two assumptions embedded in that question: first, that we’re going to have trouble growing enough food; and second, that we must race to keep food production up to speed with population growth, rather than reining in population growth. In questioning those assumptions over the last two weeks, my focus has shifted. If we want to prevent famine and ecological collapse, we should be thinking primarily about poverty, not food.

However, looking for ways to deal with poverty takes us right back around to increasing food production. If we fail to deal with poverty and hunger, Joel Cohen told me, we are (counterintuitively) consigning ourselves to explosive population growth. To make sure everyone gets a healthy portion of the world’s pie, he said, we’ll need a bigger pie (more food), fewer forks (level off population growth), and better manners (share more equitably). And while each of these approaches has its partisans, Cohen thinks we’ll almost certainly need all three.

As I found previously, if you can help small farmers grow more food, it’s a double whammy: It helps lift them out of poverty (better sharing) and gives us more food (bigger pie).

That means that we really do need to ask, how the heck we are going to feed ourselves? It’s not the main issue (poverty), but it’s an effective lever to work on that main issue. So we still need a contingent of farmers and scientists working on increasing yields. And that’s a problem, because for years countries around the world have been pulling money out of agricultural research.

“For almost thirty years, since the early 1980s, neither the private sector nor governments were interested in investing in agriculture,” wrote Olivier De Schutter, who recently concluded his stint as the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food.

The amount of money that we invested in farming R&D has actually risen a tiny bit every year, but it’s so tiny that the amount has shrunk relative to the size of the farm economy — that is, the size of the investment wasn’t keeping up with the size of the job. Between 1990 and 2000, the world increased agricultural research investment by 1.9 percent a year. That’s about what you’d want for a cost of living increase — it doesn’t leave room for breaking new ground.

Agricultural Science and Technology Indicators – Global Assessment of Agricultural R&D SpendingBIC = Brazil, India, China – click to embiggen

“You need a certain minimum investment in agricultural science that continues year after year, because you don’t answer all the questions the first time, it’s a moving target,” said Melinda Smale, a professor of international development at Michigan State. “You need to invest in scientists, invest in institutions. Things like salaries have a recurring cost.”

When I suggested to Smale that some argue for spending money on one transformative technology that could be used everywhere, rather than pouring money into local institutions every year, she scoffed: “We should dispel this myth of the silver bullet. That’s just bullshit. What works in one place will not work in another. You cannot export a single uniform model.”

The Green Revolution — the modernization of agriculture that occurred between the ’40s and ’60s —  is often the poster child for the single uniform model. After all, Norman Borlaug, the father of the Green Revolution, was able to rapidly spread improved seeds around the world, instead of breeding strains to be adapted to local conditions. But the seeds were only part of the Green Revolution, Smale said. It also relied on tremendous investments from governments around the world to pay for wells, canals, and transportation systems to move harvests and fertilizers.

To build agricultural systems that are truly adapted to local environmental conditions, we’d need enough investment in agriculture to sustain various types of research, and farmer training institutions in each of those environments. The question of what that money should pay for (agroecology research? fertilizer?) is a contentious one, and I’ll get to that soon. But first: there was an increase in agricultural R&D after 2008, when food price spikes scared a modest amount of money out of leaders around the globe.

Were those price spikes a sign that we really we’re closer to running out of food than I’ve suggested here so far? I’ll try to answer that next.


Filed under: Article, Business & Technology, Food
Categories: Eco Buzz

Will I poison myself if I reuse this plastic water bottle?

Gristmill - Mon, 2014-09-01 10:52

Q. Is it OK to reuse the bottles that bottled water comes in? Sometimes when I am at a conference the bottled water they have is in a really sturdy bottle, and it seems like such a waste for it to be single use. But is it safe to refill it from the tap? My primary concern is BPA leaching into the water, but what about sanitation?

Thanks,
Rick C.
York, PA

A. Dearest Rick,

Skip it.

By now, I think the strikes against disposable plastic water bottles are pretty well-established: They’re made from petroleum, require energy to produce and ship, usually end up in the landfill, might leach chemicals into your drink, and can be used to club fuzzy baby seals (okay, I made that last one up). But equally entrenched are the reasons why they’re still so common: Namely, we all forgot our reusable bottles, and we’re thirsty.

So when we’re left with what looks like a perfectly clean empty bottle, many eco-minded folks think like you do, Rick: Wouldn’t refilling this be better than recycling it and grabbing another? Unfortunately, signs point to no.

You’re most concerned about BPA, so let’s start there. The story we’ve all heard by now concerns BPA in polycarbonate plastics (the ones with the #7 on the bottom), which are sometimes used in disposable plastic bottles. And there’s solid evidence to back this story up. One study found increased BPA levels in the urine of people who drank out of them for just a week. Another found that heating the bottles – as one would by washing them with hot water – accelerated the leaching. Longer-term use tends to lead to small scratches in the plastic as well, which also frees BPA to mingle in your drink.

So are you in the clear if the bottles at your conference sport a #1, for PET plastic (polyethylene terephthalate), instead? Not so fast. A 2010 study found that PET (probably the most common plastic used in throwaway bottles) may also leach endocrine-disrupting substances. It gets worse: Still another study discovered that pretty much every kind of plastic tested leached estrogenic chemicals – including the ones trumpeted as BPA-free.

And even if you didn’t care a whit about BPA, Rick, I’d still point you and your plastic bottle away from the tap. The bottles are moist, enclosed, and getting a lot of full-body contact with your hands and lips: In other words, they’re bacterial breeding grounds. A study of elementary-school kids’ water bottles detected high bug levels in almost two-thirds of samples. The situation gets worse with extended use, as bacteria love to hang out in the same scratches that leach chemicals. You’d need to wash your bottle out with soap (and probably a bottle brush) and air-dry it completely to vanquish the bugs, and we now know what happens when hot water meets plastic.

Will you face dire bodily consequences if you refill your water bottle once over the course of the day? I’m no doctor, but probably not. You will, however, be consuming a throwaway (recycle-away?) plastic when you could have sipped from a neverending fount of pure refreshment: a reusable bottle made from stainless steel or glass. Following the BYOB (bring your own bottle) philosophy also means you don’t have to worry about estrogenic anything sneaking into your water, which makes the practice pretty darn hard to beat.

All you have to do is remember to pack it: Store it in your briefcase, set a reminder on your phone, clip it to your pants – whatever it takes to get in the habit. And if you find yourself at another conference sans bottle? You can always get up and go for the fountain. Your legs could probably use a stretch anyway.

Of course, it would be even better if everyone at your conference did the same (I presume you’re not in the bottled-water business, Rick?). In a perfect world, organizers would plan for plastic-free events by providing glassware, selling reusable bottles on-site, or even soliciting a slew of donated bottles to pass out. You might want to put a bug in the ears of your next conference gurus on this subject. You’d be saving boatloads of plastic, and perhaps preventing a few intestinal infections along the way, too.

Steriley,
Umbra


Filed under: Food, Living
Categories: Eco Buzz

Four reasons that ice bucket challenge went crazy viral

Gristmill - Mon, 2014-09-01 10:40

At a certain point last week the knowledge that people I knew were dousing themselves with buckets of ice water became inescapable.

Other things that have gone viral this summer include #yesallwomen, a Kickstarter for potato salad, and a donation fund for a police officer who shot and killed an unarmed teenager. How they’ve done this is mysterious — while there are entire ad agencies devoted to “viral advertising” and you can pay your way into the “trending” section of Twitter these days, all of the above seemed to spread without any Machiavellian strategy behind them.

What made the ice bucket challenge stick, when so many other fundraisers and attention-getters haven’t?

A few theories.

1) Say my name

It doesn’t just work for Destiny’s Child! The fact that each person who posted an ice bucket video could call on three other people to take up the challenge turned it into, basically, a chain letter.

Chris Christie challenges Mark Zuckerberg!

Mark Zuckerberg challenges Bill Gates!

Bill Gates challenges Elon Musk and Ryan Seacrest!

And so forth….

2) Exploit social networks.

This is also the secret behind Mary Kay, Amway, and nearly every fundraising campaign on earth. We are social creatures, and we’re absolutely more likely to give to or volunteer for organizations that our friends are involved with already.

The fact that ice bucket challengers could challenge anyone — friend, foe or complete stranger — made it more amusing, but the way the phenomenon spread was through social networks. Facebook’s decision last December to set up video posts so that they played automatically made the whole social aspect of the ice bucket challenge even harder to ignore. Check Facebook and there it was in the background, everywhere — just as hard to ignore as those special people in your life when you encounter them in actual meatspace.

3) Keep it simple, stupid.

In general, fads with real sticking power (hula hooping, frisbee) don’t take much skill to master, while the ones that take real dedication (rollerblading, swing dancing) tend to flash and disappear.

There are very few actions that are more simple than dumping a bucket of ice water over your head. You don’t even have to hold your own bucket. If only the rest of life could be that easy.

In this sense, the ice bucket challenge has a lot in common with other ease-of-adoption do-gooder measures, like 350.org’s International Day of Climate Action (directions: Spell out “350” with something; take a picture of it) and Movember (directions: If you can, grow a mustache).

4) Allow room to get weird.

Part of the reason that the ice bucket challenge took off is that it’s already viral — people have been doing variants of this stunt for years, modifying it to suit their own purposes, before it acquired the perfect combination of qualities that made it go big.

Because it didn’t have a clear, set format, people improvised. Bill Gates designed an ice bucket dumping machine for his. Those concerned about drought turned it into the rice bucket challenge, the dirt bucket challenge, and so forth. Compare this to the very well-intentioned but also very rule-bound video campaign for Al Gore’s Climate Reality Project. I am sure Al’s lawyers made the Climate Reality Project put all that boilerplate in there, but still — it’s like reading a rental car agreement.

Earlier this month, the ALS Foundation moved to copyright the Ice Bucket Challenge. Whether or not it would have been able to is debatable, but it made the right choice when it ultimately withdrew the effort.  If there’s one thing a virus needs to survive, it’s the ability to keep changing.


Filed under: Article, Living
Categories: Eco Buzz

Health Care Savings Will More Than Cover the Cost of Reducing Emissions

Triple Pundit - Mon, 2014-09-01 07:09
A cost-benefit study conducted by a team of MIT researchers and published in the journal Nature Climate Change looked at three different climate intervention scenarios, taking into account the health care cost savings. What they saw was that in one scenario, the health care cost savings achieved were actually ten times greater than the cost of implementing the scenario.
Categories: Eco Buzz

Climate Denial Smokescreen Now Extends to South Asian Food Challenges

Triple Pundit - Mon, 2014-09-01 00:48
Numerous international aid agencies, as well as ratings services like Standard & Poors, have stated that the areas of South Asia and Southeast Asia are among the most vulnerable to the impacts of global warming. Yet a recent article assures its readers that not only is there nothing to worry about, but things are going to get far better, since the increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is causing a boom in food production.
Categories: Eco Buzz

Do not buy oceanfront property

Gristmill - Sun, 2014-08-31 11:55

The Canadian couple on my television screen tours a small home on the north shore of the Dominican Republic. The couple, on HGTV’s Beachfront Bargain Hunt, are hoping to buy a vacation home for $300,000 or less — something in a secure neighborhood and with an ocean view. This home looks ideal, with a modern kitchen and infinity pool, the back gate just feet from the ocean.

What’s never mentioned are the piles of sandbags sitting between the back fence and the high-tide line. Does the house flood during storms? During exceptionally high tides? Is the ocean eating away at the land?

Home and garden shows sell dreams, not reality. According to them, anyone can have that perfect kitchen with granite countertops, an open-plan first floor, a master bathroom bigger than most New York City apartments — or a home just steps from the ocean.

The first three may empty your bank account, but the fourth is truly dangerous. Sea level is on the rise. What’s oceanfront this year could soon be sitting in the water. The beach is one of the most reckless places to invest in property.

Despite this, recent home shows have capitalized on people’s fantasies of beach living and encouraged them to buy waterside. They follow the formula of the home-buying genre, in which a couple is shown three or four properties and the drama lies in which one they decide to purchase. The difference is only in location—beach towns in the United States, Caribbean, or sometimes farther afield. Beachfront Bargain Hunt and Buying the Beach are on TV now, and a similar show, Island Hunters, aired over the winter. Like a lot of reality TV, these shows aren’t that realistic. (The archetype of these home-buying shows, House Hunters, certainly isn’t.) And avoiding reality is perilous when it comes to the sea.

Buying a home on the ocean has always been something of a gamble. Hurricanes have wiped whole towns off the map. Beaches and barrier islands have never been permanent structures; instead, they wax and wane and move over time. Measures to fix the land in place, such as seawalls and jetties, may protect a home or beach for a bit, but usually at the cost of someone else’s property.

Buying the Beach actually does a decent job of mentioning some of the dangers of coastal living, such as hurricanes, and how to protect waterfront property with features such as sand dunes or stilts. One episode even highlights the moving of the Cape Hatteras lighthouse in response to beach erosion. Incorporating the fact that sea level is rising wouldn’t be out of place.

But discussing sea-level rise means mentioning climate change.

Climate change is altering sea level in a couple of ways. As the oceans soak up heat, the water expands. And when glaciers and ice sheets melt, that water drains into the sea.

Sea levels rose mere inches in the 20th century, but scientists estimate that oceans could rise 2 to 7 feet by 2100. Even 1 foot — possible in some places within the next few decades, or less than the length of a 30-year mortgage — will eat away at beaches and destroy homes. Nuisance flooding has already increased significantly on all U.S. coasts, with no hurricanes or other storms required, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported in July.

Just play a bit with Climate Central’s Surging Seas sea-level manipulation map and it’s easy to see why coastal areas might be risky places to invest in. Even a tiny increase puts swaths of beach and waterside land at risk of being drowned.

Many buyers believe that flood insurance will save them from losing on this gamble. On one episode of Buying the Beach, two brothers are looking to purchase a home on the Alabama shore. Daniel wants a place where he can park his boat; Mitch wants one where he can relax on the sand. As they discuss a house on Dauphin Island, Daniel notes that it’s right on the beach. “That’s just another thing that’s got me concerned,” he says, already not happy with the lack of a boat slip. He was right to worry — the barrier island has repeatedly flooded during hurricanes, washing homes out to sea. But Mitch disregards the concern, saying, “Well, that’s what insurance is for.”

How easily he dismisses the potential loss of everything he owns. He seems to think the Federal Emergency Management Agency will just send him a check the day after a disaster to cover everything he lost. After every storm, homeowners quickly learn that this is not the case and that insurance may cover only a fraction of their losses. That’s aside from the question of whether taxpayers should be subsidizing the rebuilding of homes that have a high chance of being damaged again and again.

What’s most disturbing about these shows is that they are aimed at people who are least prepared for the financial consequences of losing a home or investment property. The buyers usually aren’t wealthy; they’re just regular people who’ve been diligently saving for their dream. “We’ve been working for several years, just saving up every penny we can, that way we can afford to buy something on the beach,” says Matt, a young buyer from Colorado, on an episode of Beachfront Bargain Hunt.

Even if their properties don’t end up in the ocean, homeowners may lose money on their investments when enough other people finally begin to comprehend rising sea levels. That could happen within a decade or two, according to some estimates, quickly undermining coastal property values.

Wealthy people are better prepared to withstand the financial blow of the loss or devaluing of a beach house — and they may also be more likely to get government help to protect their investments. A group of high-end homeowners in South Carolina recently persuaded legislators to change a law that banned seawalls, which will let them rebuild their crumbling protection. And an NBC investigation revealed earlier this year that FEMA had moved the lines on flood maps to the benefit of wealthy oceanside landowners. (The FBI is investigating.)

Of course, telling people about reality doesn’t ensure they will make good decisions. On Beachfront Bargain Hunt, a woman from Annapolis, Md., considers properties in Kitty Hawk, on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Her real estate agent tells her that one property that has no dune between the back door and the ocean is a “nonconforming home.” That means that if storm damage amounted to more than 50 percent of the house’s value, she would not be able to rebuild. “So I could spend $300,000 on a house and not be able to rebuild and have nothing? … That’s very scary.” Yes, it is.

The agent also notes that the house has been there for 60 years. “It could last another 60 years,” she says. “You never know.” (What the agent doesn’t say is that the water was a lot farther away in the 1960s — the Outer Banks are eroding steadily on the ocean side.)

When it came to making a final decision, “I’m willing to take the risk with it,” the buyer said. “It was everything I wanted. It was really important to have a house on the beach, toes in the sand.” For now, at least, the house still stands.

I wasn’t surprised by the decision. People come to the beach on vacation, in lovely weather. They just don’t realize the extent of the bad storms, said Frank Jennings of the North Carolina Division of Coastal Management earlier this year when I was visiting the Outer Banks on a reporting trip with the Institute for Journalism and Natural Resources. A nor’easter was parked just offshore, and one night, 50-mile-per-hour winds scoured my face with sand.

In the past few decades, McMansions have replaced salt-box homes that could have been easily picked up and moved away from the water, Jennings noted. In the past, people “built what you thought you could lose.” That’s not bad advice.

Even with climate change, the beach will still be a great vacation destination. The sun and sand will still be there. Kids will still play in the waves and make sand castles. And nothing will stand between you and a great tan (except a healthy respect for skin cancer). But if you want to ensure you have a stress-free time — maybe you should rent.

This story was produced by Slate as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.


Filed under: Climate & Energy, Living
Categories: Eco Buzz

Do not buy oceanfront property

Gristmill - Sun, 2014-08-31 11:55

The Canadian couple on my television screen tours a small home on the north shore of the Dominican Republic. The couple, on HGTV’s Beachfront Bargain Hunt, are hoping to buy a vacation home for $300,000 or less — something in a secure neighborhood and with an ocean view. This home looks ideal, with a modern kitchen and infinity pool, the back gate just feet from the ocean.

What’s never mentioned are the piles of sandbags sitting between the back fence and the high-tide line. Does the house flood during storms? During exceptionally high tides? Is the ocean eating away at the land?

Home and garden shows sell dreams, not reality. According to them, anyone can have that perfect kitchen with granite countertops, an open-plan first floor, a master bathroom bigger than most New York City apartments — or a home just steps from the ocean.

The first three may empty your bank account, but the fourth is truly dangerous. Sea level is on the rise. What’s oceanfront this year could soon be sitting in the water. The beach is one of the most reckless places to invest in property.

Despite this, recent home shows have capitalized on people’s fantasies of beach living and encouraged them to buy waterside. They follow the formula of the home-buying genre, in which a couple is shown three or four properties and the drama lies in which one they decide to purchase. The difference is only in location—beach towns in the United States, Caribbean, or sometimes farther afield. Beachfront Bargain Hunt and Buying the Beach are on TV now, and a similar show, Island Hunters, aired over the winter. Like a lot of reality TV, these shows aren’t that realistic. (The archetype of these home-buying shows, House Hunters, certainly isn’t.) And avoiding reality is perilous when it comes to the sea.

Buying a home on the ocean has always been something of a gamble. Hurricanes have wiped whole towns off the map. Beaches and barrier islands have never been permanent structures; instead, they wax and wane and move over time. Measures to fix the land in place, such as seawalls and jetties, may protect a home or beach for a bit, but usually at the cost of someone else’s property.

Buying the Beach actually does a decent job of mentioning some of the dangers of coastal living, such as hurricanes, and how to protect waterfront property with features such as sand dunes or stilts. One episode even highlights the moving of the Cape Hatteras lighthouse in response to beach erosion. Incorporating the fact that sea level is rising wouldn’t be out of place.

But discussing sea-level rise means mentioning climate change.

Climate change is altering sea level in a couple of ways. As the oceans soak up heat, the water expands. And when glaciers and ice sheets melt, that water drains into the sea.

Sea levels rose mere inches in the 20th century, but scientists estimate that oceans could rise 2 to 7 feet by 2100. Even 1 foot — possible in some places within the next few decades, or less than the length of a 30-year mortgage — will eat away at beaches and destroy homes. Nuisance flooding has already increased significantly on all U.S. coasts, with no hurricanes or other storms required, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported in July.

Just play a bit with Climate Central’s Surging Seas sea-level manipulation map and it’s easy to see why coastal areas might be risky places to invest in. Even a tiny increase puts swaths of beach and waterside land at risk of being drowned.

Many buyers believe that flood insurance will save them from losing on this gamble. On one episode of Buying the Beach, two brothers are looking to purchase a home on the Alabama shore. Daniel wants a place where he can park his boat; Mitch wants one where he can relax on the sand. As they discuss a house on Dauphin Island, Daniel notes that it’s right on the beach. “That’s just another thing that’s got me concerned,” he says, already not happy with the lack of a boat slip. He was right to worry — the barrier island has repeatedly flooded during hurricanes, washing homes out to sea. But Mitch disregards the concern, saying, “Well, that’s what insurance is for.”

How easily he dismisses the potential loss of everything he owns. He seems to think the Federal Emergency Management Agency will just send him a check the day after a disaster to cover everything he lost. After every storm, homeowners quickly learn that this is not the case and that insurance may cover only a fraction of their losses. That’s aside from the question of whether taxpayers should be subsidizing the rebuilding of homes that have a high chance of being damaged again and again.

What’s most disturbing about these shows is that they are aimed at people who are least prepared for the financial consequences of losing a home or investment property. The buyers usually aren’t wealthy; they’re just regular people who’ve been diligently saving for their dream. “We’ve been working for several years, just saving up every penny we can, that way we can afford to buy something on the beach,” says Matt, a young buyer from Colorado, on an episode of Beachfront Bargain Hunt.

Even if their properties don’t end up in the ocean, homeowners may lose money on their investments when enough other people finally begin to comprehend rising sea levels. That could happen within a decade or two, according to some estimates, quickly undermining coastal property values.

Wealthy people are better prepared to withstand the financial blow of the loss or devaluing of a beach house — and they may also be more likely to get government help to protect their investments. A group of high-end homeowners in South Carolina recently persuaded legislators to change a law that banned seawalls, which will let them rebuild their crumbling protection. And an NBC investigation revealed earlier this year that FEMA had moved the lines on flood maps to the benefit of wealthy oceanside landowners. (The FBI is investigating.)

Of course, telling people about reality doesn’t ensure they will make good decisions. On Beachfront Bargain Hunt, a woman from Annapolis, Md., considers properties in Kitty Hawk, on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Her real estate agent tells her that one property that has no dune between the back door and the ocean is a “nonconforming home.” That means that if storm damage amounted to more than 50 percent of the house’s value, she would not be able to rebuild. “So I could spend $300,000 on a house and not be able to rebuild and have nothing? … That’s very scary.” Yes, it is.

The agent also notes that the house has been there for 60 years. “It could last another 60 years,” she says. “You never know.” (What the agent doesn’t say is that the water was a lot farther away in the 1960s — the Outer Banks are eroding steadily on the ocean side.)

When it came to making a final decision, “I’m willing to take the risk with it,” the buyer said. “It was everything I wanted. It was really important to have a house on the beach, toes in the sand.” For now, at least, the house still stands.

I wasn’t surprised by the decision. People come to the beach on vacation, in lovely weather. They just don’t realize the extent of the bad storms, said Frank Jennings of the North Carolina Division of Coastal Management earlier this year when I was visiting the Outer Banks on a reporting trip with the Institute for Journalism and Natural Resources. A nor’easter was parked just offshore, and one night, 50-mile-per-hour winds scoured my face with sand.

In the past few decades, McMansions have replaced salt-box homes that could have been easily picked up and moved away from the water, Jennings noted. In the past, people “built what you thought you could lose.” That’s not bad advice.

Even with climate change, the beach will still be a great vacation destination. The sun and sand will still be there. Kids will still play in the waves and make sand castles. And nothing will stand between you and a great tan (except a healthy respect for skin cancer). But if you want to ensure you have a stress-free time — maybe you should rent.

This story was produced by Slate as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.


Filed under: Climate & Energy, Living
Categories: Eco Buzz
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