Tuesday, May 29, 2007

More Snake Oil

The latest news out of the U.S. Congress is that "coal" legislation is working its way through the various committees in the House and the Senate. The coal industry is lobbying hard and politicians from the coal producing states are working just as hard to make sure it becomes law, the sooner the better.

The coal industry wants large loan guarantees (public subsidies) for construction of plants, the type of facility that can convert coal to liquid fuel, a technology that has been around for some time. "Energy independence" is the siren's song whispered in the politician's ear, like the magic of corn-based ethanol that was touted among Midwestern ethanol producers and their pliable politicians not so long ago.

Dr. James Hanson, in an address to the National Press Club last February, recommended five steps we as a country--and ultimately the globe--need to take if we want to address global warming in a serious way. The first recommendation was a "moratorium" on coal-fired power plants until sequestration can be done on a commercial basis, probably some five to ten years away.

Send your Washington politician a friendly reminder that he or she cannot talk about legislation to deal with greenhouse gases and renewable energy and, at the same time, consider passing billions of dollars in subsidies for the construction of power plants that release huge amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Products Not Micronized

I never knew there were so many "organic" sunscreens until I read dozens of e-mails recently on a list-serve-discussion group. Most of the products were supposedly all natural ... Earth friendly ... essential oils of plants and above all, better for you.

I learned that grapefruit seed extract might have "high antimicrobial" properties. I was informed that I probably should look for products that contain zinc oxide and titanium dioxide--but--which are not micronized or nanoparticles, because they might pass through the cell walls and into the bloodstream. Last but not least some of these "good" sunscreens/sunblocks could be contaminated with parabens.

Green products and green businesses are popping up everywhere, which is hardly news to most people. And of course, the expression carbon-neutral is seen frequently in print nowadays as well as discussed on television. The question remains however just what is carbon-neutral and what products are genuinely good. Above all, who is actually determining the Truth?

What we do know is that the market obviously believes that "green" is growing and likely to be very profitable in the not too distant future. But is there the possibility of moving from a healthy skepticism to mere cynicism toward all these various claims? Yet, should we not be happy that a kind of environmental consciousness is slowly spreading to the general population, regardless of whether or not some assertions may be exaggerations?

Related to all this "greenness" is the debate regarding cap and trade and carbon taxation. Andrew Revkin of The New York Times, in an article he wrote a couple of weeks ago, raised the question: "But is the carbon-neutral movement just a gimmick?"

What Revkin is asking is whether or not we're merely avoiding the obvious and the inevitable. Greenhouse gases are rising around the world and will for some time to come. Voluntary, unregulated markets are springing up that buy and sell these supposed "offsets."

You can fly your private jet to Paris for some shopping or an environmental conference and then write a check to an organization that promises to offset the amount of greenhouse gases your plane travel created (the actual dollar offset for our Paris flight could vary from one organization to another), perhaps through tree planting in Africa, building solar panels in Arizona or possibly even constructing a bike path in Des Moines, Iowa.

I don't know which sunscreen is the best nor do I believe carbon offsets should be dismissed out-of-hand. Is not some green better than no green and is not an offset better than doing nothing? But then again....

If rising greenhouse gases threaten the existence of our planet why don't we just cut through the smoke and mirrors? Why not have a carbon tax? Fossil fuels would be taxed based on their carbon content, one standard and no exception. And, yes, what about our sunscreen? How do you know it isn't Earth friendly?