Friday, December 22, 2006

Strolling With Trees

I was reminded of Nathaniel Philbrick's book Mayflower recently, when I read an article about changes the U.S. Forest Service had made concerning national forests and grasslands.

When the Puritans arrived in November of 1620 on a cold, bleak day, in what is today the area of Cape Cod, they observed there were far more trees than what they'd ever seen in Holland or the coast of England. And they hadn't yet discovered the "real" forests that once covered much of North America.

The Forest Service now says that the public will no longer be able to appeal "long-term plans" but will be able to be involved and participate in the planning process from its beginning. It's difficult to say exactly what this means, but given George Bush's environmental record, a healthy skepticism is not unwarranted. It would be wise to let the new Democratic controlled Congress in January know we're not supporting tree farms for the timber industry nor suburban housing on the nation's grasslands.

There is some good news, apparently, regarding forests worldwide. According to a study done within the National Academy of Science, we've had a significant "reforestation" in the past 15 years in almost half of the countries with the most forests.

The study also seems to confirm the connection between general forest improvement and a nation's standard of living, agricultural practices, education and competent government.

At the same time, tropical forests are being destroyed in various developing countries because of greed, corruption, poverty, ignorance and the lack of competent government. We in the developed world have a clear responsibility as consumers--if nothing else. We cannot remain passive bystanders and just look for what is called "cheap." Nothing ultimately is.

While I enjoy hiking and climbing, there are some practical reasons why we want healthy forests everywhere on this planet. Beyond the obvious fact that trees absorb carbon dioxide, forests also encourage biodiversity and slow erosion, essential to our well being as humans. Healthy forests also provide clear economic benefits, whether it's lumber for building homes or paper we use for any number of things.

Find some woods, take a walk and leave the cell phone at home. Be grateful you can stroll with a tree.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Capping or Taxing

Capping and taxing our way to carbon dioxide reductions, the main greenhouse gas, are words now heard more often, even on the silliest cable news station. But that's probably a good thing because we're actually talking about global warming and that, it seems to me, is a very--very--good thing.

This subject has to go way beyond corporate board rooms, academic institutions and most politicians. A "moderately concerned" public here in the U.S. and presumably in the rest of the world need to understand what they can do individually and on a community level, which in the short to intermediate term may be far more important for greenhouse gas reduction than the "big" concepts.

Ever so briefly, capping refers to a cap-and-trade structure, whereby limits are place on emissions. Companies that are able to go below their emission goals can sell "permits" to those companies that could not. Taxing is a straightforward levy that would set a price (a tax) on each ton of carbon dioxide that is discharged into the air. Each side has its advocates and each method has its shortcomings, political as well as technological.

But returning to the individual and the community, it's worth looking at what an increasing number of cities are doing in the United States. Because of the astounding negligence at the national level these past several years, cities have taken the lead in addressing climate change.

Some 350 cities throughout the U.S., encompassing more than 40 million people, have adopted a "climate protection planning process." The goal is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by studying and developing comprehensive plans for such things as energy use, transportation, waste management and overall environmental direction. Specific targets are established.

A central component of these plans is setting up community outreach programs. What can individuals and neighborhoods do? It could be a recycling program or merely replacing incandescent bulbs with compact fluorescent lights. It could be a neighborhood association newsletter or quartely community meetings. But above all it educates people and shows them ways to participate and make a difference.

This is related to efficient energy use. McKinsey Global Institute, a research organization, believes that within some 14 years the annual growth rate of energy demand worldwide could go from approximately 2.2% to about 0.6%. This is not by discovering some new breakthroughs but by using existing technology, whether it's an energy-efficient appliance, insulating one's home or improved commercial building design.

A good place to begin is at the local level. In Kansas City, where I live, our curbside recycling program--in its first year--saved an estimated 156 thousand barrels of oil and possibly enough electricity to run almost 8 thousand homes for a year.

Of course we need global standards. Clearly countries like China and India cannot get some infantile "free" pass. And most definitely the voters in the United States are going to have to take some real responsibility for their actions, beginning by electing competent political representatives.

When General Motors thinks it still makes sense to advertise the Hummer to rich halfwits on Sunday football games, we still have a considerable ways to go. But it does however start with one light bulb at a time. Get busy in your community. Locate the people that can conceive of something different.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Fork in Road

How many times can one individual, one city or one nation reach a fork in the road and have to make a choice about which way to go? I haven't the faintest idea. But those "forks" appear for almost all of us sometime in our existence. Times are starting to appear interesting in the U.S. at the moment, once again. I'm talking about climate change and global warming. What decisions will we end up making? They will likely have an impact on the rest of the world.

We've had a series of reports, commissions and recommendations over the past several months, from various countries and international agencies, outlining what could happen if we don't address global warming. Even some of the global warming skeptics have become less shrill.

Intimately connected with the complexity of global warming issues is the so-called "peak oil" debate. The consensus, as far as I can tell, is that we agree we're going to run out of oil in the not-to-distant future. The argument centers on just when this "future" might occur. The optimists talk about some 100 years from now and the pessimists speak about the next 10 to 20 years. But clearly oil has made modern civilization possible. With very little research it is possible to discover just how many everyday items are derived from petroleum.

An interesting aspect of this "black gold" is the E.R.O.I. or the energy-return-on-investment. It looks like it's going to get more and more expensive to extract it. We're going to have to spend more energy to get more energy, because we likely have gotten most of the accessible oil and gas fields, and now it will become much more difficult and more expensive to extract. More money spent on energy probably means less money for things like education and other areas we undoubtedly consider essential to our welfare.

Cutler Cleveland, an energy scientist at Boston University, estimates that over the past thirty years investment return on oil and natural gas fell from "25 to 1 to about 15 to 1." If we try to extract oil from tar sands, for example, the return could be only 4 to 1 because of the conversion expenses.

Last but certainly not least is coal. The United States has a lot of it and it's relatively cheap. But until we learn how to bury its high carbon dioxide emissions, coal is not going to be our salvation. We can observe China right now and see the extreme pollution caused by the country's frantic construction of coal-fired power plants.

So what's happening right now? The moderately good news is that the Democratic Party controls Congress. But it most definitely remains to be seen what the Democrats will do. At the very least, however, they should be able to stop or slow down the Bush thug's most egregious environmental behavior. And there is a presidential election in 2008.

California with the world's sixth-largest economy has established caps on global warming pollution, requiring a 25% cut in greenhouse gases by 2020. This will have an impact throughout the U.S. and likely with other countries that want to do business with California.

The Bush--yes George Bush--administration is going to establish, after many years of procrastination, energy efficiency standards for numerous commercial and residential appliances, which will likely save significant amounts of energy.

Some 300 cities in the United States have adopted a Climate Protection Planning Process, covering approximately 40 million people. These cities have agreed to develop a specific procedure for assessing energy and transportation needs and overall environmental direction.

More and more business leaders are examining how climate change will affect financial markets and economic development. For example, this Thursday the University of Chicago Business School is hosting a conference on Midwest development. The Midwest, in addition to agriculture, has high concentrations of automotive companies, insurance and power generation. Hurricane Katrina in 2005 resulted in some $45 billion of insured losses. Changing weather conditions and possibly shorter growing seasons in the central part of the U.S. could have a significant impact on agriculture production--which certainly could affect the availability of food worldwide.

We have arrived it seems to me at another fork in the road. We have another chance to make a choice. Stupidity and lazy indifference may again prevail or we may just figure it out this time. Getting organized and getting informed are good first steps. How many chances do we get?