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Updated: 4 hours 1 min ago

Not even Jesus is going to save California from this drought

5 hours 9 min ago

California is looking pretty thirsty these days, having gotten less than half the historical average rainfall over the past year. But a few months ago the state began think that a great wet hope might step in to save them: El Niño, the weather system named after Jesus himself. Now the forecasts have changed, however, and it looks like Californians are SOL.

Back in April, scientists said there was a close-to-80 percent chance that an El Niño would form this year. Some believed that all of the pieces were in place for a particularly strong one. And while this would’ve raised certain flavors of meteorological hell, at least the boy would have brought copious amounts of much-needed rainfall.

But over the past few months the probability of an El Niño forming has decreased. And if one does form, it’s becoming clearer that it won’t be a strong one — meaning that it probably won’t bring Californians the break they were hoping for.

From The Economist:

Even if an El Niño does emerge this autumn, it is no longer thought likely to pack the punch needed to bring relief to California. Certainly, no-one expects it to be anything like the “Godzilla of El Niños” that doubled the region’s rainfall in 1997. “The great wet hope is going to be the great wet disappointment”, Bill Patzert, a climatologist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, told the San Gabriel Valley Tribune recently.

Shoot. Maybe that’s why Californians make so much wine, because they know Jesus isn’t gonna to be around to turn water into the stuff. Even if he were, the drought might make it hard for him to preform those kind of miracles, anyway.

Still confused about what El Niño is? Check out the video from my explainer last month:

Filed under: Article
Categories: Eco Buzz

Zappos billionaire wants to turn a dusty Las Vegas wasteland into a thriving urban hub

6 hours 7 min ago

This is part of a series of stories about Las Vegas and climate change. Find the whole collection here.

So I’m in Tony Hsieh’s apartment in downtown Las Vegas talking to a woman with rainbow hair whose bona fide, right-there-on-the-business-card job title is the “Pixie of Positivity,” when I notice the unicorn head on the kitchen counter.

Hsieh, the billionaire founder of Zappos shoes, apparently has a thing for unicorns. They’re all over the apartment building, called the Ogden, where he and dozens of his associates live. Someone has drawn one (replete with rainbow) on the whiteboard Hsieh and his crew use for brainstorming sessions. There’s even a life-size (OK, horse-size) black unicorn lamp in one of the Ogden’s resident lounges. It’s past the Alice-in-Wonderland-inspired hall of mirrors and the black spot someone has painted on the wall and labeled, “HOLE INTO ANOTHER UNIVERSE. COME ON IN!”

Welcome to the wild and wacky world of Tony Hsieh’s grand urban experiment. I’m just a visitor here, along for one of the daily tours of the Big Guy’s flat, and getting the full sales job from the Pixie, whose real name is Heidi Noelle Stamper, and who works for the Downtown Project, a development company Hsieh has set up to orchestrate the complete overhaul of this city’s rundown downtown. (Don’t mistake Downtown with the Strip, which sits to the south, outside official city limits.)

Headquartered here in the Ogden, the Downtown Project has bought up 60 acres of parking lots, seedy motels, and dusty, vacant land that was cleared to make way for more high rises like this one before the economy went belly up and Vegas went into the ditch. Armed with $350 million of Hsieh’s money and more youthful ebullience than you can believe, the project has set out to turn an urban wasteland into what Stamper calls a “live-work-walk-play-eat space.”

If they succeeds, Hsieh and his compatriots will have created a thriving, dare I say sustainable, urban core in a neglected corner of a sprawling desert city. That is, a unicorn.

The economic crash brought Vegas to its knees; climate change could do it again

Sorry, Vegas: You just can’t fake being prepared for climate change

Longtime Vegas water czar warns other cities to brace for climate change

Las Vegas’ binge drinking days are over. Can it survive the hangover?

Las Vegas burning: Lessons in resilience from the nation’s driest big city

Skeptical? You have good reason to be. There are a thousand reasons that this experiment should crash and burn. But then, nobody would have believed Hsieh could reinvent the shoe business, either.

Lord knows, this town could use a little reinventing.

“Our economy has been based on gaming and tourism since Bugsy Siegel threw the Flamingo up on Las Vegas Boulevard in the 1940s,” says Tom Skancke, executive director of the Las Vegas Global Economic Alliance, a regional economic development agency. “Here comes 2008 and the global recession. When banks stopped lending money and the global recession hit, our economy went into the tank. People said, ‘Whoa, we cannot rely on just gaming any longer.’

“Look at Detroit,” he adds, with a nod to what fate can befall a great American city. “Detroit was a one-trick pony.”

The Global Alliance has already helped woo companies such as SolarCity to Las Vegas. (Chaired by Tesla Motors founder Elon Musk, the company installs solar panels on residential roofs, then sells the owners the electricity, rather than the panels.) Skancke says his group wants to build new economic sectors on tech, foreign direct investment, and drones. Many of the U.S. government drones operating overseas are piloted from the nearby Creech Air Force Base, and the Federal Aviation Administration recently selected Nevada as one of six drone test sites.

There are also efforts underway to capitalize on education, health care, and the lessons Las Vegas has learned (and continues to learn) the hard way about water and living with less of the stuff.

But Hsieh and the Downtown Partnership have have done the most transformative work to date. It all started in 2010 when Zappos bought the old Las Vegas City Hall and moved its HQ there from suburban Henderson, Nev., bringing with it 1,500 “Zapponians,” as they affectionately call themselves. The plans just mushroomed from there.

On a wall in Hsieh’s apartment is a map with the Downtown Partnership’s 60 acres highlighted in green. His staff calls it the llama map, because the property boundaries vaguely resemble one, and because Hsieh apparently has a special affection for llamas, too.

Stamper (a.k.a. the Pixie) runs through the partnership’s doings and plans on that land, hardly taking a breath, as she walks us through Hsieh’s apartment. There’s the new elementary school with “a totally revamped curriculum focused on neuroplasticity, social-emotional learning, and entrepreneurialism.” There’s the Container Park, a miniature shopping mall built from shipping containers and guarded by a 40-foot, fire-breathing praying mantis that Hsieh picked up from an artist at Burning Man. There are coworking spaces and a “community wellness center” called Turntable Health that includes a demonstration gym and kitchen. There’s a coffee shop, The Beat, that seems to host business meetups and networking sessions nonstop, day and night. And then there’s Shift, a vehicle “sharing” service that includes bikes, electric golf carts, and 100 Teslas that will be parked around the neighborhood for folks in need of some wheels. (Membership will set you back roughly $400 a month.)

The whole thing is packaged and sold to starry-eyed would-be-entrepreneurs as the best thing since Silicon Valley — better, even, as Vegas is still relatively affordable, and Downtown has Hsieh’s trademark, sunshiny we-can-do-anything shimmer (and many of his millions), plus an air of Burning Man wildness about it. The signature annual event is a festival called Life Is Beautiful that Stamper describes effusively as “a cross between Coachella, South by Southwest, Iron Chef, TED, and Cirque du Soleil.”

Improbable as it all sounds, people seem to be going for it. During my time poking around downtown a few months back, I met a number of young would-be businesspeople, chatting in the coffee shops, attending gatherings organized by the Downtown Partneship, walking through Hsieh’s apartment in the Ogden. It was clear that they were really taken by the notion of a new urban Shangri-la in the heart of the Mojave.

Not everything is proceeding according to plan. Businesses began fleeing the Container Park only months after it opened. A robotics startup that provided early success stories for the Downtown Partnership has decamped for the real Silicon Valley. But a certain amount of failure is built into the business plan.

There does seem to be one gaping hole in the Downtown Project’s vision, however: housing. Just about everyone I talked to during my visit — many of them Hsieh’s employees or the beneficiaries of his largess — expressed dismay over the lack of affordable, and family-suitable, housing. Downtown seems to be missing the “live” portion of the promised “live-work-walk-play-eat space.”

Even the Pixie herself, who compares living in the Ogden to life in a college dorm, acknowledges that housing is “one of our biggest — I don’t want to say concerns — our biggest challenges.”

Hsieh, for his part, is reportedly not interested in building housing. He apparently figures that if he seeds enough businesses, and attracts enough starry-eyed young urbanites, a housing developer will materialize. “It’s a really dastardly and awesome strategy,” says one local observer. “He’s building on about every-other block, and watching the property values rise on the lots in between.”

And at the end of the day, Hsieh is making a shrewd bet. He’s wagering that he can attract enough young people, from a generation that spurns cars, adores dense, urban neighborhoods, and is increasingly priced out of the tech centers on the coast, to turn this dusty wasteland into a thriving urban hub.

If he succeeds, not only will he have created a unicorn, but he will have turned Vegas into a place that really can teach the rest of the world a thing or two about living sustainably in a time when space and resources are hard to come by.

Filed under: Business & Technology, Cities
Categories: Eco Buzz

This huge corporation is tackling climate change — because it’s a threat to the bottom line

Wed, 2014-07-30 00:07

A few months ago, the international food manufacturing giant General Mills was branded a “clear laggard” by climate activists for not doing enough to cut its carbon footprint. Oxfam International accused the company of dragging its feet on reducing so-called “scope 3″ greenhouse gas emissions — those not directly controlled by the company, but essential in making its products; for example, emissions from a farm contracted by General Mills to grow the oats that eventually wind up in your cereal bowl. Oxfam also faulted the company for not using its clout to engage directly with governments to “positively influence climate change policy.”

General Mills’ worldwide sales total $17.9 billion, and it owns familiar consumer brands like Cheerios, Old El Paso, and Pillsbury.

Monday, Oxfam claimed big victory: General Mills released a new set of climate policies that Oxfam says makes it “the first major food and beverage company to promise to implement long-term science-based targets to cut emissions.”

The policy states unequivocally that General Mills believes that climate change is a big threat to global food security and its future business model:

As a global food company, General Mills recognizes the risks that climate change presents to humanity, our environment and our livelihoods. Changes in climate not only affect global food security but also impact General Mills’ raw material supply which, in turn, affects our ability to deliver quality, finished product to our consumers and ultimately, value to our shareholders.

Here are the key points of General Mills’ announcement:

  • By August 2015, the company has promised to account for emissions across its entire operation and to set clear reduction targets.
  • The company promises to reduce emissions with the goal of keeping the global temperature rise to less than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.
  • The company also aims to achieve “zero net deforestation” in “high-risk supply chains” by 2020. (This doesn’t necessarily mean “zero deforestation,” but rather that destroyed forests are replaced). General Mills says these high-risk supply chains include land that provides palm oil, packaging fiber, beef, soy, and sugarcane.
  • The company will also now disclose its top three suppliers of palm oil and sugarcane.

In another big step, the company also announced Monday that it will join Business for Innovative Climate and Energy Policy “to advocate more closely with policy makers to pass meaningful energy and climate legislation,” according to the company. The group of 31 companies (including big guns like eBay and Starbucks) is run by the nonprofit Ceres, and is designed to help businesses directly lobby policymakers on issues like renewable energy, green transportation, and pollution controls on power plants. Ceres also campaigns to get companies and investors to adopt more sustainable environmental practices.

Oxfam spokesperson Ben Grossman-Cohen believes that his group’s campaign helped motivate General Mills to make the changes. “It is in General Mills’ business interest to address climate change,” he wrote to me in an email. “But there’s no doubt that the public outcry helps ensure that the company’s efforts are as robust as they can be.”

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

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

Oil refinery threatened by sea-level rise, asks government to fix problem

Tue, 2014-07-29 23:58

I pointed out last week that the major oil companies are actually much more willing than Republican politicians to admit the reality of climate change. I offered a few explanations as to why, but left out an important one: If you’re in business, you simply cannot afford to ignore the effects of climate change. The oil industry in particular builds expensive infrastructure, and its scientists and engineers use the best available science to design, situate, and manage that infrastructure. After all, you cannot make smart plans to exploit newly accessible Arctic oil if you don’t admit that the polar ice cap is melting.

Here’s an ironic case in point, via the Sierra Club’s blog: An oil refinery in Delaware is asking taxpayers to pay for protecting it from rising sea levels. The refinery is on the waterfront, and rising tides and extreme storms could threaten it. The federal Coastal Zone Management Act provides grants to states for projects such as building out natural barriers, like dunes, to protect against storm surges. Delaware has such a program in place. And now the oil refinery, after contributing to climate change for more than 50 years , is coming with its hand out. Amy Roe, conservation chair of the Sierra Club’s Delaware chapter, writes:

In Delaware, severe storms are eroding the shoreline and affecting homes and businesses up and down the coast — including the business of an oil refinery. The functioning of the Delaware City Refining Company property just south of New Castle, a division of PBF Energy, is threatened by increasing extreme weather. In other words, climate disruption is hitting the doorstep of its source.

The refinery has tried to get help, submitting an application with the Coastal Zone Management Act seeking shoreline protections due to “tidal encroachment” — which is one way of saying sea level rise.

“The extent of the shoreline erosion has reached a point where facility infrastructure is at risk,” says the permit application from the company.

Roe goes on to argue that this facility is a particularly bad actor even by the standards of oil refineries since it is refining dirty tar sands oil. Moreover, its proposal could direct more storm surges toward Delaware City, the adjacent town.

Delaware City Refining Company and PBF did not respond to my messages requesting comment. But give credit where it’s due: What they lack in shame, they make up for in chutzpah. And at least they aren’t denying climate science!

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


Tue, 2014-07-29 23:19

Many Seattle residents revere Cliff Mass as the Yoda of weather in the Northwest. On his blog and through spots in local media, this professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Washington helps us process our snowpocalypses and measure out Lexapro for 10 months of the year. Now he’s turning his big-weather brain to something regularly on our minds here at Grist: “As global warming takes hold later in the century, where will be the best place in the lower 48 states to escape its worst effects?”

Here’s the short answer from Cliff: 

Cliff MassEveryone stay where you are.

On his blog entry, Mass goes into much more scientific detail on climate effects for the Lower 48 (complete with loads more charts). But even from this map, we can glean a few key takeaways.

  • You’ll notice Mass highlighted most of the Eastern seaboard, the Gulf of Mexico, and sections of California in bright red. Areas of sea-level rise? Ohnonononono. You misunderstand completely. Those are spots where candy will grow on trees — because adaptation! Florida’s famous orange groves will evolve into chocolate orange groves and just work their way up the coast to Connecticut. Delicious!
  • Take a look at all that yellow in the Southwest. Any guesses? Correct: That is precisely where state and local governments are likely to enforce three-day workweeks. And if you worry that moving to Phoenix, Los Angeles, or Austin means you’ll spend every extra-long weekend wearing spikes and riding in a rusty dune buggy on your way to bludgeon the neighbors to death over water resources, here’s a tip: Don’t!
  • Orange! This DOES NOT mean this area gets more oranges (duh, pay attention; that was yellow). It does signify that every day will be Christmas. It also signifies that more Christmases will be wetter, windier, and generally more hurricane-y. P.S. I got you galoshes. (AGAIN, I know. Tee-hee!) Merry Christmas!
  • Purple, purple, purple — Big Purp practically owns the map. Good thing, too, because from Montana to Maine, climate-changed citizenry will THRILL to the incredible cellphone coverage. No more dropped calls in Chicago. No more blips in Butte. Just blazing-fast downloads and crystal-clear audio, from your hot, cracked lips to your heatstroked fingertips. (Caveat: Customers will notice an increase in dropped calls from underground bunkers and heat hovels.)
  • Say what about the green dots? Oh, those are flooding rivers and total shitholes.

I think the data is pretty clear, but just in case: STAY AWAY FROM THE WHITE AREAS. Yes, the Pacific Ocean will both slow down temperature rise in the Pacific Northwest and stave off heatwaves (as compared to the rest of the country). Yes, precipitation will remain high (as rain, if not snow). Sea-level rise is less likely to affect the elevated coast, true. Sure, flooding will be contained mostly in river valleys.

But be real with yourself about the negatives. These people lord over newcomers with weird cherries, fresh seafood, and nuclear coffee. The bookstores make your feet hurt. You’ll never be dry again. At least 85 of their 2,675 beers are too hoppy. They play Nirvana in the Seattle airport every. damn. day. Animals.

As someone with experience, trust me: You’re better off wherever you are — climate apocalypse be damned.

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

Think people of color don’t care about the environment? Think again

Tue, 2014-07-29 21:45

I need to get one thing out the way about “The State of Diversity in Environmental Organizations” report launched yesterday. In my blog, I wrote that the report was compiled by a working group called Green 2.0. Actually, all of the research and writing of the 200-plus page report was done by Dorceta Taylor, professor at the University of Michigan’s School of Natural Resources and Environment. She is also the first African-American woman to earn a PhD from the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.

Before the diversity report (which was commissioned by Green 2.0), Taylor authored dozens of articles and studies on how to solve the problem of homogeneity among environmental groups, and about environmental inequities across the board. Taylor’s new book, Toxic Communities: Environmental Racism, Industrial Pollution and Residential Mobility, has barely been out two months and has already been called the “standard-bearer” for the field of environmental justice by Fordham Law Professor Sheila R. Foster.

While it took months for Taylor to pull together all of the data and conduct hundreds of interviews with environmental stakeholders to produce the “State of Diversity” report, it took just minutes for people to attack the report’s findings — that green groups and government agencies can and need to do much better in hiring people of color. (To get a sense of the reaction, check out the comments on my first post about the report.)

I’ll have plenty to say on that over the next week or so, but the first word belongs to the researcher. I spoke with Taylor by phone to clear the air on a few misperceptions about not only her study, but also misinformation on the attitudes of people of color in general when it comes to the environment.

Q. As the bibliography of your report indicates, this topic has been examined at length for decades. From all of your research, what would you say is the single obstruction to action on closing the diversity gap?

A. One that is a constant is the disconnect between the leadership at highest levels of these organizations who are saying, ‘Yes we want diversity,’ and what they have actually done. You don’t see their actions matching with their spoken desires. There have been some internships and hires of people of color, but you do not see among these groups the kind of long-term and sustainable planning, or institutional commitment needed to truly diversify.

The other thing is this long-running perception that people of color don’t care about the environment, or don’t have the skills and academic backgrounds for these jobs. If that’s what an employer thinks, then those aren’t the kinds of people you will go out and recruit and hire. Until those perceptions change, the lack of diversity will continue to be a problem.

Q. Where do these perceptions come from?

A. The perception that people of color don’t care about the environment has existed for a long time, and has been debunked for just as long. We can go back to [historian] W.E.B. DuBois, whose 1898 study on Philadelphia looked at the housing and health conditions of African Americans. People have described it as a sociological study, but if you read it, it is an environmental study, if ever there was one. He looked at the environmental conditions of these communities, but he linked them with social inequality and justice issues.

Before that, look at Harriet Tubman. We tend to think of her as someone only successful on the Underground Railroad, but to be that successful she was steeped in environmental and ecological knowledge. She knew the Chesapeake Bay so well that the U.S. military used her at the head of their ships to identify landmines the Confederates had laid in the water and identified them based off what she understood about disturbances in the water.

Slaves depended on ecological knowledge and were extremely effective at it — they used it to survive slavery. So the notion that we don’t care or know about the environment is just a fallacy.

Q. Some employers will say that there aren’t enough people of color in their applicant pools to hire.

A. One way to come back at that is to say, ‘Where do you advertise your jobs?’ Many of them use word-of mouth or insider referrals to recruit and hire. Some look at those already working in their organizations and ask them to refer someone, or they use their own personal networks. If you use those methods, then you are more likely to replicate the results of who already work on your staff.

We need better ways of advertising these jobs. Many of the organizations don’t advertise in minority media or outlets. if you look at our Multicultural Environmental Leadership Develop Institute (MELDI) website, where we have listed all the minority conferences, and profiles of hundreds of minority professionals in the environmental field, with degrees, who are available for employment or can refer others.

Q. I know a lot of environmental nonprofits cater to their donor base. If their donor bases are mostly white, upper-class, and older, would this have any bearing on their hiring practices?

A. It may or may not. No one has collected data on [donor membership influence on hiring outcomes]. Some donors might assume that people of color don’t want to be members of these organizations or can’t afford to. Yes, there are some who can’t afford it, but if you look at the African-American middle class, with our combined wealth, we would be the ninth or 10th largest nation. When you add Asian Americans and Chicanos, there are even more people who can afford these memberships and should be able to dictate or influence hiring practices for these organizations.

Those people just haven’t been recruited and their interests haven’t been catered to. Some people of color might say, “Why should I pay to be a member when my kids can’t get  a job there or join in on the activities of some of these organizations?” It can become a chicken or the egg problem.

Q. What struck me about your report is that it seeks to answer the question that’s asked a lot lately among climate change activists: What will it take for people to act differently, so that we actually see change? What if people – even the people within these environmental groups – just don’t want to change?

A. We’re banking on the fact that reality will start hitting people in the face. A number of things are indicating that we are heading in that direction. First, demographics, which have changed dramatically since the ‘50s and ‘60s. The forward trajectory is such that if your membership and donors are only white and upper-class then that will be such a small part of the demographic reality that you really will have to start expanding your base. As their core bases shrink, they will have to recalibrate and ask, “How do you reach the working immigrant, the LGBTG community, the millennials, and bring them into the fold?”

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

Don’t believe anything you read at Natural News

Tue, 2014-07-29 21:24

Last week, Mike Adams, who calls himself the Health Ranger and runs the site Natural News, posted a truly insane article which seems to advocate violence against scientists and journalists who support genetic engineering.

I wasn’t going to write about this at first: It’s just so far out there, so beyond the fringe, that I assumed it wasn’t worth anyone’s attention. But Natural News articles pop up on my Facebook feed so frequently that I figured it might be a valuable public service to publish a post about the site for future reference.

My friends who share stories from Natural News aren’t nuts. They just don’t realize how crazy the site is. They’ll see something that aligns with a pet peeve and assume that it must have some basis in reality. (The thinking goes something like this: Aha! I knew antidepressants were bad. I should let my friends know …)

Natural News has 1.2 million followers on Facebook, and it publishes on themes that appeal to people who (like me) worry about effects of technological disruption of natural systems in our bodies and in the environment. But the site is simply not credible. It’s filled with claims that vaccines are evil, that HIV does not cause AIDS, and that Microsoft is practicing eugenics — see this Big Think post, or this Slate article, for a pseudoscience rundown.

The health-science stories have a surface-level gloss of technical language, which make them seem plausible unless you read them carefully. But if you look at some of the articles on politics it becomes a little more transparent: This is nothing but a conspiracy-theory site.

Here are some selections from the Adams oeuvre:

On President Obama’s goals:

“We told ya so” just doesn’t quite cut it anymore. As the American sheeple slept, selfishly refusing to take a stand against tyranny, the Obama administration has been plotting what can only be called a total government takeover of America.

On gun control:

If gun control passes, there will come ‘free speech control’ and the government banning of websites, books and art

On the spymasters:

The NSA might even be the puppet pulling Obama’s strings, as they no doubt have all sorts of dirt on Obama’s history which we already know to be largely fabricated. (Real birth certificates don’t have a dozen layers stitched together in Photoshop.)

It seems, however, that Adams has changed his position on Obama’s birth certificate. He’s replaced a birther story with this explanation:

The article which originally appeared here has been removed because it is no longer aligned with the science-based investigative mission of Natural News … Through scientific investigation powered by university-level analytical instrumentation, Adams found that, much like the majority of the population, he had been suffering over the past several years from chronic exposure to cumulative toxic elements found in the food supply, including in many organics and “superfoods.”

The implication seems to be that Adams was poisoned by “toxic elements” in his food, which caused him to write stuff that even he now recognizes is bonkers.

Look: Every story I’ve ever seen from Natural News has been, at the very least, wildly speculative. Often, the stories are filled with paranoid ravings.

But social media loves Natural News! These days, when people see a headline that seems to confirm one of their suspicions, they tend to click “share” without reading the story, and certainly without investigating the source.

So I offer this post as a quick primer. And the next time friends share something from Natural News, I’ll gently suggest that they might want to find a more reliable source.

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

A century ago, Detroit’s “potato patch mayor” knew how to ride out hard times

Tue, 2014-07-29 18:34

I’d been passing by the statue here in Detroit for days now without noticing it, but today something — the gloomy weather, maybe — made me slow down and read the inscription.

The citizens of Michigan erect this monument to the cherished memory of Hazen S. Pingree. A gallant soldier, an enterprising and successful citizen, four times elected mayor of Detroit, twice governor of Michigan. He was the first to warn the people of the great danger threatened by powerful private corporations. And the first to awake to the great inequalities in taxation and to initiate steps for reform. The idol of the people.

The idol of the people, huh? I had never heard of this guy. Growing up in metro Detroit, I had learned two things about Detroit’s history: 1. Detroit used to be French, and 2. Henry Ford was a genius.

Hazen Pingree became mayor of Detroit in 1890, three years before the worst depression that America had ever experienced (until the 1930s, anyway). The railroads, which had used speculative financing to expand all over the country, began to collapse. So did banks — hundreds of them.

No one knew quite what to do. America had just sprawled itself out along the path of the railroad, without imagining that this amazing technology boom might not last forever. Farmers began to go under because they couldn’t get their goods to market, and people in cities began to go hungry because they couldn’t afford the food that was still being shipped in from the countryside. Nearly half of Michigan’s population was unemployed.

Pingree seems to have practiced the kind of sensible governance that doesn’t usually make the history books. In his book American Odyssey, the historian Robert Conot describes the horrible state of Detroit’s streets when Pingree became mayor: A consortium of lumber dealers had persuaded the previous administration to tear up its perfectly good cobblestone streets and replace them with cedar blocks. The wooden paving turned out to float away in heavy rainstorms, and — even better — catch on fire in the summer.

Pingree repaved the entire city, built the city’s first municipal power plant, added 68 miles of municipal rail lines, and developed a large-scale public works program. He paid for it all by bringing in an assessor to see if property taxes were being calculated fairly all over the city. They weren’t — as it turned out, speculators were being assessed at about half the rate that homeowners were, and companies that were headquartered in Detroit were evading taxes by listing their main business address as a shack built just outside the city limits.

But it was Pingree’s wife, Frances, who came up with the idea that Pingree is most often remembered for. She noticed that the still-growing city was patchworked with vacant lots. If people were hungry and unemployed all over the city, why couldn’t the lots be turned into temporary vegetable gardens until the recession was over?

The measure was popular with would-be gardeners, though less popular with the people who actually owned the vacant lots. Hazen Pingree managed to secure the loan of 500 acres across the city — only a third of the amount needed to supply the 3,000 families that had applied for half-acre garden plots, but still better than nothing. After a call for donations to help pay for seed and equipment yielded minuscule donations, Pingree auctioned off his prize saddle horse as a combination PR stunt/fundraiser/shaming gesture. By the time the autumn harvest yielded a bumper crop, the mayor had a new nickname: “Potato Patch Pingree.”

Pingree served for three terms before becoming governor of Michigan. That didn’t work out as well — Pingree faced well-organized opposition at the state level that blocked nearly all of his legislation. He died shortly after retiring, from an infection that he picked up while on an ill-advised big game hunting expedition.

At the news of his death, the emotional state of Detroit could best be described as verklempt. “He was the type of man behind whom half of medieval Europe might have marched,” wrote the Detroit News, in his obituary on June 19, 1901. “In another state of society, he might have founded a religion or an empire.” Thousands of Detroiters donated dollars and quarters so that a statue in his memory could be installed downtown. The statue of Pingree has sat there, in more or less that same spot, for the 100 years since then, looking down on protestors and dog-walkers and baseball fans and drunken bar patrons and lunching office workers ever since then.

Today Detroit is facing a lot of the same troubles it encountered in Pingree’s day — and its residents are showing a lot of the same resourcefulness. I can’t help wondering: If those of us growing up in Detroit had been told more stories about the city’s past than just “Henry Ford saved us,” maybe we would have been better at navigating the hard times when they did come, the way that they always do.

Filed under: Article, Cities, Politics
Categories: Eco Buzz

This doc about “bomb trains” filled with crude oil will make your head explode

Tue, 2014-07-29 12:33

VICE News just released Bomb Trains: The Crude Gamble of Oil by Raila 23-minute-long documentary investigating the explosive oil trains that regularly run from the Bakken shale to the Pacific Northwest. That might seem a bit long for web video, but you should watch it anyway — mostly because Thomas the Terror Engine is headed to your town, but also because Jerry Bruckheimer has nothing on the terrifying explosions at the 5:09 and 6:00 marks.

Oh, and you can find out if you live near a bomb-train blast zone right here. (Spoiler alert: You probably do.)

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

Your hiking gear might come from a sweatshop. Here’s how you can fix that

Tue, 2014-07-29 12:08

Most of the iconic locations for American outdoorspeople are … outdoors. You’ve got your Half Dome, you’ve got your Muir Woods, you’ve got your Mt. Washington, your Blue Ridge Parkway. But if there’s an indoor mecca, it’s probably REI’s flagship store in Seattle, with its glass-enclosed climbing spire looming over I-5, and its racks of everything from backpacks to snowshoes to collapsible trail-friendly dog bowls inducing a kind of glaze-eyed lust from those of us who are — love of the wilderness aside — still good old-fashioned American gearheads.

It’s a casual, friendly, airy, open space filled with the best kind of dreams — and it’s kind of the opposite of the Rana Plaza garment factory in Bangladesh, which collapsed last year, killing more than 1,100 people. As the New York Times reported, “survivors described a sensation akin to being in an earthquake: hearing a loud and terrifying cracking sound; feeling the concrete factory floor roll beneath their feet; and watching concrete beams and pillars collapse as the eight-story building suddenly seemed to implode.” And of course this was not some one-off tragedy. A few months earlier, 112 workers died in a fire at Tazreen Fashions, and before that — well, it’s a long list, all marked by unsafe conditions, chained doors, and the lethal combination of greedy owners and desperately poor workers with no control over their lives.

The link between dangerous Bangladeshi factories and the cathedral-like Seattle superstore is a little too close for comfort, though. Some of the brands that REI features — North Face, say — are made in those dark satanic mills. And North Face’s parent, the giant VF Brands, is refusing to sign on to the Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety Accord that local unions and human rights activists have demanded to cut the risk of such disasters. Instead, it’s endorsed a rival set of criteria — just as, say, the forestry industry has endorsed its own set of rules for “sustainable” logging, ignoring the ones that environmentalists promote. Bangladesh has enough problems, as sea-level rise forces vast internal migrations; it’s simply cruel to trap already trapped people in dangerous factories.

The group United Students Against Sweatshops has mounted a campaign against VF, the parent company of North Face, which supplies logo gear to many colleges. Its been a spirited effort, but VF boasts that it is weathering the storm. Only a few universities — “we’re talking eight out of a thousand” — have severed ties with the company, VF insists. The intrepid students organizing this campaign say more than a dozen campuses have taken the step.

But either way, that’s not enough pressure yet to bring these conglomerates in line with the need for change. So that’s why those of us who are out of college, and making the disposable income to buy nifty parkas and high-tech longjohns, need to remind our dream-merchants to stop trafficking in nightmares. REI sells a lot of that North Face gear — it needs to tell the parent company to sign on to the real safety regulations in countries like Bangladesh, and to do it quickly.

It’s not the fault of your average REI shopper that their high-end gear gets made in dark satanic mills. But since we have the leverage to do something about it, it’s time for us to try. Here’s the very easy link to hit to send the management a message. Do it before you hit the trail.

Filed under: Business & Technology, Living
Categories: Eco Buzz

The latest French fashion: Eating ugly fruits and veggies

Tue, 2014-07-29 11:01

Few things are more unappealing than a lumpy, bruised potato covered in sprouts. But leave it to the French to make it look sexy.

A campaign by the French supermarket chain Intermarché is on a mission to make shoppers see the inner beauty in scarred, disfigured, or otherwise odd-shaped fruits and vegetables. The message: Why throw away perfectly good produce just because it doesn’t meet arbitrary cosmetic criteria — especially when so many families can’t afford to eat the five daily portions of fruits and vegetables recommended by nutritionists?

“Now, you can eat five ‘inglorious’ fruits and vegetables a day. As good, but 30 percent cheaper,” says an Intermarché promotional video, trumpeting the virtues of the “the grotesque apple, the ridiculous potato, the hideous orange, the failed lemon, the disfigured eggplant, the ugly carrot, and the unfortunate clementine.” Here’s an English version of the video:

The French are eating it up like chocolat. After Intermarché launched the campaign in March, it sold out of its ugly fruits and vegetables within the first two days, and saw a 24 percent increase in traffic in participating stores. Now it’s looking to expand the program to its 1,474 supermarkets all over France.

Unnecessary waste

We sure could eat more ugly veggies over on this side of the pond. A report by the Natural Resources Defense Council found that Americans toss a whopping 52 percent of the country’s fruits and vegetables — more than any other food group. A significant part of that loss occurs before the produce ever leaves the field.

Part of the problem is the structure of our industrialized food system. It’s made up of a few large buyers and many suppliers, leading to a situation where the largest purchasers have the power to dictate the terms of a sale. Marketing orders issued by trade associations specify the exact size, diameter, consistency, and color required for a certain product to be considered “grade A,” and if a fruit or vegetable doesn’t make the cut, its retail price drops dramatically.

When prices are too low, it costs a farmer more to harvest his or her field than he or she would make by the sale of the produce. If a field turns up “sub-standard” produce — which sometimes just means carrots half an inch too small — the farmer may be forced not to harvest it, leaving entire crops of perfectly edible, nutritious food to go to waste.

Standards are a necessary trade tool for retailers, for them to know what they’re getting when they buy in bulk quantities, explained Dana Gunders, a food waste expert at the NRDC. The problem, she says, is that today’s standards are ridiculously high.

As California organic farmer David Mas Masumoto put it in The Sacramento Bee, “If we picked our friends the way we selectively picked and culled our produce, we’d be very lonely.”

(Believe it or not, ripeness and taste aren’t part of marketing order standards — which explains why supermarket aisles are chock-full of great-looking, uniform peaches that taste like cardboard. Just sayin’.)

All about marketing

Gunders believes American consumers are far more open to odd-shaped produce than supermarket managers give them credit for. Sure, if given the choice between a great-looking tomato and a lumpy one, most might initially reach for the beauty queen. But enticed with a discount and presented with a light-hearted yet relevant social message, as Intermarché customers were, many will think twice.

“There are and always will be bargain shoppers out there,” Gunders said. “It’s all about marketing, right? Marketing got us into this corner where we’re wasting nearly half of our food, so marketing could get us back out of it.” She added that she’s been sent the Intermarché video by at least 15 different people since the English version first surfaced online, a sign that there is significant public interest in this kind of initiative.


Colorado resident Anna Bundick King, 41, who posted the “Inglorious” video on her Facebook feed, agrees that initiatives like this would find a receptive audience in the U.S. “Being a teacher, I would love to see this idea introduced in schools,” she wrote in an email. “It would be a fun way to teach responsible use of our resources.”

“If I were a U.S. retailer, I’d be jumping all over this,” said Gunders.

American supermarkets may be ready to listen. Lindsay Robinson, a spokesperson for Whole Foods, said the chain’s management had “seen the campaign and they love it.”

“We’re always looking for new ways to bring high quality, delicious produce to our customers,” she wrote in an email.

Omar Jorge Peña, a partner and general counsel at the small, independent East Coast supermarket chain Compare Foods, said his company was “aware of the ‘Inglorious’ fruits and vegetables concept” and would be “further studying its viability” in the company’s markets.

Ugly produce, yummy soups

To seal the deal, the masterminds behind Intermarché’s marketing initiative developed a line of soups and juices made exclusively with “ugly” fruits and vegetables — proof that a crooked carrot or lopsided orange can taste just as good, if not better, than her smooth, spotless neighbor.

And even that lumpy potato can be used to make gorgeous, sexy, golden-crisp French fries, n’est ce pas?

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

Obama’s coal-leasing program is costing taxpayers more than $50 billion

Tue, 2014-07-29 05:11

It is common for the coal industry and its conservative allies in politics and media to complain that President Obama is waging a “war on coal.” It is certainly true that the share of American energy that comes from coal is declining. Obama doesn’t actually deserve much of the credit for that. It’s mostly due to the natural gas boom, helped along by the rise of solar and grassroots organizing efforts such as the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign. Still, Obama is trying to move the energy sector further away from coal in the years ahead through his proposed CO2 regulations for power plants.

But coal extraction keeps chugging along, with much of the coal being exported to Asian countries that are hungry for energy to fuel their growing economies. And a lot of this mining is taking place on federal land. The Bureau of Land Management sells leases to coal companies at far below their market value, and even farther below the cost of their pollution on society. As we’ve previously noted, this is one of the ways the federal government subsidizes fossil fuel production. Such subsidies have actually grown during the Obama administration. Environmentalists say that Obama’s “all of the above” energy policy contradicts his professed commitment to reducing CO2 emissions, and undermines his efforts to do so.

Leasing Coal, Fueling Climate Change,” a report released on Monday by Greenpeace, attempts to quantify the scope and social costs of federal coal leasing. Here are the most important statistic-filled bits:

The Bureau of Land Management has leased 2.2 billion tons of publicly owned coal during the Obama administration, unlocking 3.9 billion metric tons of carbon pollution. This is equivalent to the annual emissions of over 825 million passenger vehicles, and more than the 3.7 billion tons that was emitted in the entire European Union in 2012. …

A ton of publicly owned coal leased during the Obama administration will, on average, cause damages estimated at between $22 and $237, using the federal government’s social cost of carbon estimates — yet the average price per ton for those coal leases was only $1.03. …

The carbon pollution from publicly owned coal leased during the Obama administration will cause damages estimated at between $52 billion and $530 billion, using the federal government’s social cost of carbon estimates. In contrast, the total amount of revenue generated from those coal leases sales was $2.3 billion. …

The federal coal leasing program is the source of 40% of US coal extraction. One BLM field office in Wyoming recently proposed a plan that estimates new coal leases amounting to 10.2 billion tons, which would unlock an estimated 16.9 billion metric tons of carbon pollution.

Part of the reason for the perception that Obama isn’t a friend to the coal industry is that the new leases are not in historical coal country. They are out West, where the BLM’s holdings are concentrated. All of the federal coal leases since 2009 have been west of the Mississippi, with the majority being in Wyoming’s booming Powder River Basin. The state coming in second is Colorado. This may come as cold comfort to West Virginia and Kentucky Democrats struggling to convince their state’s voters that their party has no anti-coal agenda.

The truth is that Obama has a split personality on coal: He’s trying to get us to burn less of it even while we continue to mine tons of it. Economically and politically, it seems like a win-win for the country: We get to claim that we’ve reduced our carbon footprint because when our coal is burned in China it is counted as their CO2. It’s a lot better for Western states, though, which can mine the coal and transport it to the West Coast for export, than the Midwestern and Appalachian states that rely heavily on burning coal to power their industrial economies.

It’s also a bait-and-switch on climate change. If we produce enough coal on federal land to create the equivalent annual emissions of 825 million cars, we’re not doing the climate any favors by simply getting someone else to burn it. Yes, China will still need to get its electricity from somewhere. But if we left that coal in the ground, constraining global coal supplies, China might find it too expensive to get energy from coal and instead more aggressively build up its renewable sector or find greater energy efficiencies. (And some of this coal is still burned within the U.S., so we’re not entirely off the hook on that charge either.)

What the country actually needs is a price on carbon that reflects the true social and environmental burden of burning fossil fuels. That would make coal prohibitively expensive. Today’s Congress will never go along with that, of course. But what Obama could do, without congressional approval, is determine that it isn’t in the public interest to give away mineral rights for a fraction of their negative cost to society. That’s why Greenpeace is calling for a moratorium on leasing coal on federal lands, followed by a review of the leasing program and an examination of its climate change cost. This is a good idea that should be extended to all fossil fuels on federal property, both land and sea. Just last week, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management — which, like the BLM, is part of the Department of Interior — announced that it would allow seismic testing off the southern Atlantic coast to search for underwater oil and gas.

This makes no sense if Obama is serious about reducing global CO2 emissions. His administration can’t effectively fight climate change with one hand tied behind its back.

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

When a species poisons an entire planet

Mon, 2014-07-28 23:10

Let me tell you about a catastrophe. I don’t use that word lightly: This event was monumental, an apocalypse that was literally global in scale, and one of the most deadly disasters in Earth’s history.

It began about 2.5 billion years ago (though opinions vary). The Earth was very different then. There were no leafy plants, no animals, no insects. Although there may have been some bacterial life on land, it was the oceans that teemed with it, and even there life was far simpler than it is today. Most of the bacteria thriving on Earth were anaerobic, literally metabolizing their food without oxygen.

But then an upstart appeared, and things changed. This new life came in the form of cyanobacteria, sometimes called blue-green algae.

Cyanobacteria are photosynthetic. They convert sunlight into energy and produce oxygen as a waste product. Back then, the Earth’s atmosphere didn’t have free oxygen in it as it does today. It was locked up in water molecules, or bonded to iron in minerals.

The cyanobacteria changed that. But not at first: For a while, as they produced free oxygen as their waste, iron would bond with it and the environment could keep up with the production.

At some point, though, as cyanobacteria flourished, the minerals and other sinks became saturated. They could no longer absorb the oxygen being produced. It built up in the water, in the air. To the other bacteria living in the ocean — anaerobic bacteria, remember — oxygen was toxic. The cyanobacteria were literally respiring poison.

A die-off began, a mass extinction killing countless species of bacteria. It was the Great Oxygenation Event. But there was worse to come.

Up until this time, the atmosphere was devoid of the reactive molecule. But as oxygen abundances increased, some of it combined with methane to create carbon dioxide. Methane is a far more efficient greenhouse gas than CO2, and this methane was keeping the planet warm. As levels dropped, the Earth cooled. This triggered a massive glaciation event, a global ice age that locked the planet in its grip.

Things got so bad the cyanobacteria themselves were threatened. Their own numbers dropped, along with nearly all other life on Earth. The mass extinction that followed was vast.

But there was an exception: Some organisms could use that oxygen in their own metabolic processes. Combining oxygen with other molecules can release energy, a lot of it, and that energy is useful. It allowed these microscopic plants to grow faster, breed faster, live faster.

The anaerobic species died off, falling to the oxygen-burning plants, which prospered in this new environment. Certainly, anaerobes didn’t vanish from the Earth, but they were vanquished to low-oxygen environments such as the bottom of the ocean. They were no longer the dominant form of life on Earth.

It was perhaps the first of the mass extinctions life would face on our planet, and its impact resonates through the eons (and of course there is quite a lot of detail to this story). To this day, our atmosphere is rich in oxygen, with most multicellular life on Earth descended from the upstart oxygen breathers, and not the anaerobes.

It’s an interesting tale, don’t you think? The dominant form of life on Earth, spread to the far reaches of the globe, blissfully and blithely pumping out vast amounts of pollution, changing the environment on a planetary scale, sealing their fate. They wouldn’t have been able to stop even if they knew what they were doing, even if they had been warned far, far in advance of the effects they were creating.

If this is a cautionary tale, if there is some moral you can take away from this, you are free to extract it for yourself. If you do, perhaps you can act on it. One can hope that in this climate, change is always possible.

This story first appeared on Slate as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

Filed under: Climate & Energy
Categories: Eco Buzz

Netflix is about to hijack our evenings with grim environmental films

Mon, 2014-07-28 22:13

Netflix has already burned weeks of our lives with its early ventures into original programming. You know what I’m talking about. Every episode of House of Cards or Orange is the New Black left you tearing out your hair screaming, “I NEED JUST ONE MORE, PLEEEASE!”

Now that the good people at Netflix have come to realize their power, they’re going to try to use it to show us something even more unnerving than murderous politicians: real life. As part of their new documentary push, they bought the rights to two films focused on the state, and fate of our planet — Mission Blue (watch the preview above) and Virunga.

From the makers of The Cove, Mission Blue follows oceanographer Sylvia Earle – the first female chief scientist of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration who has logged more than 7,000 hours underwater (you know, only one of the heroes of my adolescent self). In Mission Blue, Earle lays out the ways in which we’re screwing the oceans over – and puts forward her vision for a network of wilderness-like ocean preserves.

Virunga, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in April, is about the Herculean toils involved in protecting a National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and its endangered mountain gorillas. Poaching, skeevy oil companies, corruption, war … clearly part of Netflix’s plan is to make you feel so bad that you’ll need to pick yourself back up by browsing the site’s comedy section once its over.

Mission Blue will premier in New York, L.A., and on Netflix on Aug. 15. Stay tuned for my interview with Earle in Grist before then. Virunga will air on Netflix later this year.

Filed under: Living
Categories: Eco Buzz

Earth Ball: So much fun, you’ll want to destroy the planet twice!

Mon, 2014-07-28 20:32

Who needs a planet when you can have Earth Ball? Each kit comes with a spray bottle of acid rain, spillable mini-barrels of oil, and printouts of irrelevant environmental legislation (ouch! My heart!). Practice up, kiddos. If you’re ever going to keep up with your parents, you have a lot of terrible habits to learn.

Thanks to the kids big and small at the Upright Citizens Brigade for the too-real video.

Filed under: Living
Categories: Eco Buzz

This gigantic urban “skyfarm” looks like a tree and grows food for the masses

Mon, 2014-07-28 17:32

I know what you’re thinking, but Skyfarm is not the latest Tom Cruise sci-fi failure. Skyfarm is one possible solution to a lot of the problems with high-density urban living.

Concieved by the folks at Aprilli Design Studios for Seoul, South Korea, the Skyfarm would be a massive techno tree rising amongst the skyscrapers. The concept would provide arable space to grow crops in a tightly packed city while also providing public green spaces, producing energy, purifying water, and cleaning the air — and the structure’s great height will get that air cleaning up where it’s needed most.

Stu Roberts at Gizmag has the scoop:

The primary structure has a large, root area at its base to provide stability and spread the weight of the Skyfarm out across the ground. A trunk section rises up from the root and spreads out into eight vertical branches that are connected together by trusses to provide structural reinforcement.

The branches each support 60-70 farming decks, which can be described as the leaf sections of the tree. The decks are spread out as much as possible to ensure they receive adequate exposure to sunlight. Each deck has heating and LED lighting systems that are used to create “optimal environmental conditions” for farming.

The Skyfarm design uses a hydroponic system for growing crops, instead of using a soil-based approach. The higher, external leaf sections would be used for fruit trees and larger scale vegetables that need more exposure to air and sunlight, while lower, internal growing areas would be available for items that might thrive better indoors, such as herbs.

Ahh the future, a place where we will abandon all of the long accepted terms used in engineering and architecture and replace them with marketing appropriate nomenclature. Building a Skyfarm? “Superstructure” becomes “trunk.” Building a frat house? “Floor” is now known as “bro-Bedding.”

Cheesy nomenclature aside, the concept is actually pretty rad, although the roughly 13 acres of hydroponic growing space doesn’t sound like it’d make much of a dent in Seoul’s food needs. Still, it’s a start, and it’s certainly cooler than a 20-story parking lot, and I’ll finally get a chance to combine my two great passions, jetpacks and gardening.

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

Inside the huge solar farm that powers Apple’s iCloud

Mon, 2014-07-28 17:29

The article was reported by the Guardian’s Suzanne Goldenberg, and the video was produced by Climate Desk‘s James West.

The skies are threatening to pour on the Apple solar farm but as the woman in charge of the company’s environmental initiatives points out: The panels are still putting out some power. Apple is still greening its act.

The company, which once drew fire from campaigners for working conditions in China and heavy reliance on fossil fuels, is now leading other technology companies in controlling its own power supply and expanding its use of renewable energy.

After converting all of its data centers to clean energy, the Guardian understands Apple is poised to use solar power to manufacture sapphire screens for the iPhone 6, at a factory in Arizona.

And in a departure for its reputation for secretiveness, Apple is going out of its way to get credit for its green efforts.

“We know that our customers expect us to do the right thing about these issues,” Lisa Jackson, the vice-president of environmental initiatives told the Guardian.

This week, the company invited journalists on a rare tour of its data center in North Carolina to showcase its efforts.

Until a year ago, the telegenic Jackson was the front woman for Barack Obama’s environmental ambitions as the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Now she is leading the effort to shrink Apple’s carbon footprint — and make sure customers realize the company is doing its bit to decarbonize its products and the internet.

Data centers require huge loads of electricity to maintain climatic conditions and run the servers carrying out billions of electronic transactions every day.

With Apple’s solar farm, customers could now be confident that downloading an app or video-chatting a friend would not increase carbon pollution, Jackson said.

“If you are using your iPhone, iPad, Siri or downloading a song, you don’t have to worry if you are contributing to the climate change problem in the world because Apple has already thought about that for you. We’ve taken care of that. We’re using clean energy,” she said.

The company is also moving to install solar and geothermal power at a plant in Mesa, Ariz., that has been manufacturing sapphire glass. Apple would not directly comment on the Arizona factory but the state’s governor, Jan Brewer, has publicly praised the company’s decision to relocate there and to use solar and geothermal in manufacturing.

“We are aware that almost 70 percent of our carbon footprint is in our supply chain,” Jackson said. “We are actively working on the facilities that we have here in the United States.”

The initiatives mark a turnaround for Apple, which was criticized in the past for working conditions and the use of toxic chemicals at its factories in China and for its heavy reliance on carbon intensive sources such as coal to power the cloud.

Greenpeace now says the company is out ahead of competitors like Google and Facebook, which also operate data centers in North Carolina.

“They are the gold standard in the state right now,” said David Pomerantz, a senior Greenpeace campaigner. “There are a lot of data centers in North Carolina and definitely none has moved as aggressively as Apple has to power with renewable energy,” he said.

The 55,000 solar panels tracking the course of the sun from a 400,000 square meter field across the road from Apple’s data center in Maiden were not in the picture seven years ago when Duke Energy and local government officials sought to entice Apple to open up a data center in North Carolina.

Duke Energy, which has a near monopoly over power supply in the Carolinas, set out to lure big companies like Apple, Facebook, and Google to the state with offers of cheap and reliable power for the data centers that are the hub of internet.

Data centers, with their densely packed rows of servers and requirements for climatically controlled conditions, are notorious energy hogs. Some use as much power as a small city. In Apple’s case, the North Carolina data center requires as much power as about 14,000 homes — about three times as much as the nearby town of Maiden.

Charging up a smartphone or tablet takes relatively little electricity, but watching an hour of streamed or internet video every week for a year uses up about as much power as running two refrigerators for a year because of the energy powering data centers elsewhere.

That made data centers a perfect fit for Duke, said Tom Williams, the company’s director of external relations. With the decline in textile and furniture factories that had been a mainstay in the state, the company had a glut of electricity.

“What the data centers wanted from Duke was low cost and reliable power. Those two things — cost and reliability — are fundamental to their operations,” he told the Guardian. “What we like about these data centers is that it’s an additional load on our system.”

In the early days, Apple bought renewable energy credits to cover the center’s electricity use. In 2012, the company built its first solar farm across the road from the data center.

Apple built a second solar farm, and announced plans this month for a third, all roughly about the same size, to keep up with the growing use of data. It also operates fuel cells, running on biogas pumped in from a landfill. All of the power generated on-site is fed into the electricity grid.

“On any given day 100 percent of the data center’s needs are being generated by the solar power and the fuel cells,” Jackson said.

The company has been less successful in its efforts to get other companies to switch to solar power. Duke, in cooperation with Apple, launched an initiative last year to encourage other big electricity users to go solar but so far there have been no takers.

Renewable energy accounts for barely 2 percent of the power generated in North Carolina, and Duke does not see the share growing significantly by 2020.

Meanwhile, consumer groups accuse Duke of offering Apple cheap energy at the expense of ordinary residential customers and of blocking rooftop solar.

“We think Duke is actually trying to tamp down the solar industry in this state. They are accommodating big customers like Apple who want to do solar farms, but as far as rooftop solar or other solar developments they are doing things that hurt solar,” said Beth Henry, who sits on the board of NC Warn, a local environmental group.

It’s also questionable whether Apple can ever operate entirely off the grid. On bright sunny days, the solar farms generate excess power. But Apple still needs a backup.

“They are still hooked up to our grid,” Williams said. “They are still a very important part of our system. We provide back-up power. I expect it in times of a storm.”

One morning during last winter’s deep freeze — the so-called polar vortex — was a case in point, Williams said. “With the polar vortex we reached an all-time peak in the winter time,” he said. “There was no solar on our system at all.”

What is clear is that Apple and the other big tech companies are in a race to control and clean up the cloud.

Google uses renewable energy to power about a third of its data centers. Facebook says its new Iowa data center will run entirely off wind power when it comes on-line in 2015.

Microsoft earlier this month announced a second wind farm in Illinois to power its data centers.

That expansion of renewable energy on the cloud is likely to continue, Jackson said.

“There is an opportunity in getting ahead of the trend to move towards being self-sufficient on energy and in using clean energy,” she said.

“It’s something our customers value. They ask about corporate values around things like climate change and we are really proud to be able to say that we acknowledge climate change is a problem and that more than just being a problem we are actually doing something about it.”

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

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

In Michigan, the drilling wars are infesting the Twitter stream

Mon, 2014-07-28 17:21

I’ve been in Michigan for the last few days, researching Detroit’s water crisis. Yesterday, it became pretty obvious that my phone had figured out that we had arrived in the Mitten State:

Why no, I was not aware that “energy development” contributes $15.8 billion to Michigan’s economy each year! It’s super thoughtful of you to bring this to my attention, because I often spend my Sunday mornings drinking coffee, doing the crossword, and trying to quantify the exact dollar value that a vague phrase gives to the equally slippery word “economy.”

Twitter’s pricing structure is a little mysterious, but the cost of a promoted tweet campaign like this is pretty modest — a small sum debited from a budget each time the message is retweeted or favorited. So imparting this fun fact to me and the few thousand other Michiganders scrolling through our feeds on Sunday to see if any of our friends had more fun than we did last night probably only cost Energy Citizens a few bucks.

Wow. How did you know that I care so much about jobs? I mean, everyone cares about jobs, but anyone who grew up in the state of Michigan — especially anyone who lived through the year 1990 — has a Pavlovian response to the word. We know firsthand what it’s like when no one has one. It’s like you know me better than I know myself, promoted tweet! It’s like you focus-grouped my solid, self-sufficient Midwestern people, at great expense and effort.

I’m sure it comes as no surprise to the average reader that Energy Citizens is a front group backed by the American Petroleum Institute (API). The API, historically, is an organizer of opposition to any kind of legislation related to clean air or clean water. It approaches this work with such ardor that, even if it can’t marshal much actual popular support, it has simply stocked rallies with its own employees.

Why is the API so interested in Michigan? Well, the state has oil and gas reserves that people have been trying to figure out how to get out of the ground for years. This has been complicated by the fact that the state is also home to the largest aboveground freshwater system on earth, which Michiganders are so proud of you would think they glaciated the Great Lakes basin themselves or something.

In the last few years, Michigan’s state government has come up with some pretty pro-drilling legislation, like the state law passed three years ago that makes it nearly impossible for local municipalities to put limits on drilling for oil and gas the way that towns in New York have done.

The upcoming election could change that. People have already noticed a lot of out-of-state money pouring into the state Senate race. I suspect that a promoted tweet campaign like this is just a drop in the bucket compared to what Energy Citizens (and the API) are going to be laying on Michigan in the next few months.

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

New report expounds on old problem: Lack of diversity in green groups

Mon, 2014-07-28 14:44

President John F. Kennedy once told an audience of American University grads, “We can help make the world safe for diversity. For in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air.”

That was 1963. We did not inhale the same oxygen then, and we certainly don’t now. In 2011, scientists found that American counties with the worst levels of ozone had significantly larger African-American populations than counties with less pollution. A recent study from the University of Minnesota found that black and brown Americans are more often trapped in neighborhoods laden with nitrogen dioxide than their white fellow Americans.

And despite civil rights laws, organizations whose mission is to clean the air don’t seem to have grown much more hospitable to people of color. A new report, released today, shows that the staffs of mainstream green groups have been overrepresented with white men despite the groups’ intentions to be more colorful. One of its most damning findings is that “the dominant culture of the organizations is alienating to ethnic minorities, the poor, the LGBTQ community, and others outside the mainstream.”

The report, called “The State of Diversity in Environmental Organizations,” is billed as “the most comprehensive report on diversity in the environmental movement.” It was compiled by a working group of thought leaders on environment and race called Green 2.0, led by University of Michigan professor Dorceta Taylor. The report explores the history of tension between green activism and racial justice, and the many attempts at rapprochement.

From Earth Day 1970 until today, the report says, the majority of the people directing, staffing, and even volunteering at green groups have not only been white men, but they also hail from wealthier households with elite educational pedigrees. A 1972 study of 1,500 environmental volunteers nationwide showed that 98 percent of them were white and 59 percent held a college or graduate degree. Compare that to Taylor’s more recent demographic profiling of environmental orgs where, based on data collected on 166 mainstream organizations from 2004 to 2006, she found that minorities comprised just 14.6 percent of their staffs.

People of color make up 37 percent of the U.S. population today. Census figures predict that white Americans will no longer be the majority as early as 2043.

The most recent data on people of color hired by green organizations is reflected in this infographic below, from the Green 2.0 report:

Click to embiggen.

The report also found a gap between white environmental leaders’ desires and their actions when it comes to diversity. Of the near-300 people surveyed — from major environmental groups, foundations, and federal environmental agencies — 70 percent expressed interest in ideas to include more people of color and low-income in the workforce, but only 50 percent of environmental org and foundation members said they’d actually act on such ideas if proposed. For federal government agencies, it was 40 percent.

Green 2.0Click to embiggen.

This is far from the first indictment of the environmental movement on this front, but the Green 2.0 group says it plans to hold the movement accountable. Its recommendations for finally moving the needle on this problem include creating diversity assessment plans with transparency for tracking progress, and increasing resources for diversity initiatives (one finding of the report is that not one green foundation has a diversity manager).

More on this later throughout the week as I make my way through the rest of the report, which you can find at the Green 2.0 website.

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

Ask Umbra: What’s that stuff dripping out of my neighbor’s air conditioner?

Mon, 2014-07-28 10:59

Send your question to Umbra!

Q. Is the water dripping from my upstairs neighbor’s air conditioner full of chemicals? I often sit out on my fire escape and wonder if I should be concerned about the water dripping not only on me but also on my potted herbs and salad greens (which I eat).

Jersey City, N.J.

A. Dearest Kate,

Your letter gives me an idea for the next great superhero movie: Our mild-mannered heroine sits out on the fire escape, eating salad while unknowingly absorbing drip after drip of radioactive goo from the upstairs AC unit. The next morning, she wakes up with superpowers and bounds off to battle villains, protect the innocent, and restore peace to Jersey City. Is that blockbuster material or what?

Unfortunately for my prospects of summer-movie success but fortunately for your health, Kate, air-conditioner water will no sooner hurt you or your garden than it will enable you to swing between skyscrapers. The stuff dribbling out of the neighbor’s AC is essentially pure, distilled water, not chemical-ridden toxic waste. That doesn’t mean you can drink it, mind you, but there’s no need for you to rig up an umbrella out back, either.

Those drops don’t indicate your neighbor’s AC is broken or leaky, by the way – window units are designed to drip. What’s happening is this: In order to cool your home, the AC pulls hot, humid air out of the building and passes it over chilled cooling pipes. This temperature plunge forces the moisture to condense out of the air (the water we’re talking about is often called “air conditioner condensate”) and collect in the unit, where it’s then channeled out of the machine through a pipe and onto your fire escape. So really, AC both cools and dehumidifies the home, an effect most appreciated on those sticky summer nights.

But while AC condensate is generally free of heavy metals or other worrisome contaminants, it might still contain some nasty bugs. Internal leaks or clogs can create stagnant pools inside the unit, forming a sort of beach party for bacteria. (In fact, the infamous 1976 outbreak of Legionnaire’s disease was traced back to a hotel’s AC system.) So it’s not considered potable, but the splish-splash is OK to use to irrigate plants – just wash them carefully before eating. And to be safe, Kate, I wouldn’t sit where the water hits your face or hands, and a soapy wash afterwards is a good idea.

Now, I certainly don’t mean to scare you and your plants off the back porch. In fact, your inadvertent reuse of AC condensate is a great example of smart water conservation. A home AC unit can suck anywhere from two to 10 gallons of perfectly good water out of the air every day – so why just dump it all on the ground? Some savvy gardeners already capture the drips from their units, using strategies as simple as sticking a bucket under the outflow pipe, and as elaborate as building automatic watering systems over their beds. Think of it as a cousin to the rain barrel: using water from the sky so you don’t have to turn on the tap.

Plenty of larger-scale operations have wised up to the water savings draining out of their windows, too. Innovative systems in jungle-y climates like Texas capture hundreds or even thousands of gallons of water every day: In San Antonio, a mall reuses about 250 gallons per day in its cooling towers, and the library saves up to 1,400 gallons daily to water the grounds. At the University of Texas, a combined rainwater-condensate system collects up to 110,000 gallons per day, and Texas A&M reuses AC water from many campus buildings. There’s lots more potential for setups like this, especially in wiltingly muggy places from Atlanta to Chicago — including, I’d wager, Jersey City.

Mind you, this isn’t my blessing to crank the AC willy-nilly. Arctic air in the summertime requires loads of energy, and the overheated have myriad other options in a heat wave. But if you’re going to use AC, you might as well find the silver lining in the dreadfully humid weather and gobble up all the free water you can.


Filed under: Living
Categories: Eco Buzz