McKibben to Obama: Fracking May Be Worse Than Burning Coal
If you're a politician, science is a bitch; it resists spin. And a new set of studies—about, of all things, a simple molecule known as CH4—show that President Obama's climate change strategy is starting to unravel even as it's being knit. To be specific: most of the administration's theoretical gains in the fight against global warming have come from substituting natural gas for coal. But it looks now as if that doesn't really help.
In a very real sense it's not entirely the president's fault. When Obama took office in 2008 he decided to deal with health care before climate change, in essence tackling the biggest remaining problem of the 20th century before teeing up the biggest challenge of the 21st. His team told environmentalists that they wouldn't be talking about global warming, focusing instead on "green jobs." Obama did seize the opportunity offered by the auto industry bailout to demand higher mileage standards—a useful move, but one that will pay off slowly over the decades. Other than that, faced with a hostile Congress, he spent no political capital on climate.
But he was able nonetheless to claim a victory of sorts. His accession to office coincided (coincidentally) with the widespread adoption of hydraulic fracking to drill for natural gas, resulting in a sudden boom in supplies and a rapid drop in price, to the point where gas began to supplant coal as the fuel of choice for American power plants. As a result (and as a result of the recession Obama also inherited), the nation's carbon dioxide emissions began to fall modestly.
For a political leader, it was the very definition of a lucky break: Without having to do much heavy lifting against the power of the fossil fuel industry, the administration was able to produce results. In fact, it gave Obama cover from the right, as he in essence turned the GOP chant of "Drill Baby Drill" into "Frack Baby Frack." Not only that, the cheap gas was a boost to sputtering American manufacturing, making it profitable once again to make chemicals and other goods close to home. As Obama said in his 2012 State of the Union address, as his re-election campaign geared up, "We have a supply of natural gas that can last America nearly a hundred years, and my administration will take every possible action to safely develop this energy."
In his second term, Obama has become more vocal about climate change—and even more explicit in his reliance on natural gas to make the numbers work. Here's the State of the Union 2014: "if extracted safely, it's the bridge fuel that can power our economy with less of the carbon pollution that causes climate change."
Shortly after that speech, the president announced his most ambitious climate plans yet, instructing the EPA to regulate carbon emissions from power plants, with the goal of cutting 30 percent from 2005 levels by 2030. This attack on coal was welcome news for those of us concerned with climate change, because it marked the first time (and given his approaching lame-duck status, probably the last) the president had really taken on the issue with actual laws. It was, among other things, an (apparently successful) effort to get countries like China making commitments of their own, and to restart the international negotiations that failed at Copenhagen in 2009.
Whether that strategy pays off or not, one key result is not in doubt: As Forbes magazine pointed out that day, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulations will lead to "the dramatic expansion of natural gas as a fuel for power generation." Some sun, some wind, but an awful lot of gas. In fact, the administration is so bullish on fracked gas that it is both moving to export more of our supply to other nations (it's even been suggested as a way to stand up to Vladimir Putin) and offering many countries technical assistance in learning how to frack on their own. A long list, including India, China, Indonesia, South Africa and Mexico have taken up the State Department on the offer.
Much of the new gas that fracking made profitable was found beneath the Marcellus Shale, a huge formation that runs beneath the Appalachians as far north as upstate New York. Fracking and drilling for gas in this densely populated region was different than doing it in Texas or the Dakotas—people quickly began to notice, and complain. Grassroots opposition to fracking mushroomed, finding its voice in director Josh Fox's provocative documentary Gasland, and its iconic image of a faucet shooting flame.
But because the gas industry had a head start on its critics, and was willing to spend huge sums to influence local and state politicians, fracking was soon firmly ensconced in places like Pennsylvania, which was even leasing state forest land for drilling. The opposition barely managed to draw a line at the New York border, convincing Gov. Andrew Cuomo that it would be politically unwise to lift a moratorium on the practice.
Given the geology—and the intellectual geography—of upstate New York, it was no surprise that Ithaca became a center of the debate—and that the swirling debate began to interest faculty at some of the local institutions: Ithaca College's Sandra Steingraber, for instance, and some of Cornell's best scientists. Among them was Bob Howarth, a biogeochemist who began to wonder about the larger implications of the fracking boom.
And here's where we need to talk chemistry for a minute. Carbon dioxide—CO2, the molecule produced when we burn fossil fuels—traps heat in the atmosphere, causing much of the climate change we see around us. The reason President Obama likes gas more than coal is because it produces half as much carbon dioxide when you burn it.
But co2 is not the only molecule that plays this trick. Methane—CH4—is a rarer gas, but it's even more effective at trapping heat. And methane is another word for natural gas. So: when you frack, some of that gas leaks out into the atmosphere. If enough of it leaks out before you can get it to a power plant and burn it, then it's no better, in climate terms, than burning coal. If enough of it leaks, America's substitution of gas for coal is in fact not slowing global warming.
Howarth's question, then, was: how much methane does escape? "It's a hard physical task to keep it from leaking—that was my starting point," he says. "Gas is inherently slippery stuff. I've done a lot of gas chromatography over the years, where we compress hydrogen and other gases to run the equipment, and it's just plain impossible to suppress all the leaks. And my wife, who was the supervisor of our little town here, figured out that 20 percent of the town's water was leaking away through various holes. It turns out that's true of most towns. That's because fluids are hard to keep under control, and gases are leakier than water by a large margin."
Howarth and his colleague Anthony Ingraffea began to investigate. In a paper published in the journal Climate Change in May 2011, they concluded that somewhere between 3.6 percent and 7.9 percent of the methane from fracking wells was escaping into the atmosphere as its made its way from underground to end user. Which is a lot. More than enough, as we shall see, to make fracking worse for climate change than the coal it was replacing.
The attacks began immediately, in the time-honored tradition dating back at least to the time of Rachel Carson. Industry newspapers proclaimed that the Cornell researchers were "junk scientists" and "activists." As the editor of the trade paper Marcellus Drilling News put it, "the only fugitive methane of any significance is the stuff emanating from these two."
Other researchers also went to work trying to disprove Howarth and Ingraffea's hypothesis. Some of the research found lower rates of leakage—though the lowest estimates tended to come from estimates provided by industry, or from examinations of the best-performing wells. Some of the research found much higher rates of leakage—these tended to be from teams flying airplanes over fracking fields and actually measuring how much of the gas was in the atmosphere, and it's likely they focused their flights on worse-than-average wells.
Over time, academic research has done what its supposed to do, providing an ever-narrower range of numbers. In April, Howarth published a review of all the data sets so far, and they showed that his original numbers were pretty likely correct: up to 5 percent of the methane probably leaks out before the gas is finally burned.
Why exactly it leaks is unclear. New research, some of it involving Howarth but led by chemists at Purdue, seems to show that drills can open up gas pockets even before they reach their target in the shale, and that this can send big plumes of methane into the atmosphere. A Canadian panel that evaluated fracking focused, among other things, on the difficulty of effectively sealing wells with cement around the drill pipe, both during production and once they're abandoned.
"It sounds like it ought to be simple to make a good cement seal," says Naomi Oreskes, a Harvard professor who served on the Canadian team. "It seems like it should be trivial, but the phrase we finally fixed on is 'an unresolved engineering challenge.' The technical problem is that when you pour cement into a well and it solidifies, it shrinks. You can get gaps in the cement." As she point out, "all wells leak. Water wells leak. We've drilled millions of wells in North America, and all that time we've never figured it out."
Many of the people who are trying to figure it out work at the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), an environmental group with close ties to industry. They have sponsored a series of studies to find both the source of the problem and to suggest ways that the leaks can be plugged. "It's not a particular piece of equipment, and it's not a particular company, big or small. It's somewhat randomly distributed, which suggests human factors are a big element," says EDF's associate vice president Mark Brownstein.
EDF is convinced that with tight regulation and constant monitoring and inspection, about 40 percent of the leakage can be inexpensively controlled: about a penny per thousand cubic feet of gas, says the group's chief scientist, Steve Hamburg. Federal rules requiring "green completion" of fracked wells will go into effect next year, a step Howarth applauds—though he and others note that enforcement will be largely left to state officials, who often lack both the budget and the zeal to stand up to the fossil fuel industry.
Still, with "unprecedented investment in natural gas infrastructure and regulatory oversight," says Howarth, you might be able to cut leakage in half. And if so, using natural gas rather than coal to generate electricity "might result in a very modest reduction in total greenhouse gas emissions."
Given the news from the South Pole this spring—that the West Antarctic Ice Sheet is showing signs of 'irrevocable' melt—"very modest reductions" in emissions sounds less than comforting. But in fact the situation is probably worse than that. We need to look beyond methane leakage for a moment, and think about the transition to gas in a larger context. Because if we're replacing coal with gas, it means we're not replacing it with something else.
That something else is carbon-free energy. In the official Obama story (one being echoed in Hillary Clinton's climate talking points), natural gas is a "bridge" to a world of solar and wind power, which isn't quite ready yet. But in fact, in just the same years that we've learned to frack we've also learned an awful lot about how to scale up wind and sun. And that means that far from being a bridge, the big investments in natural gas may actually be a breakwater that keeps this new wave of truly clean energy from washing onto our shores.
The advances in renewable technology have been, in fact, staggering. Here's EDF president Fred Krupp: "We talk a lot how been there's a 99 percent drop in the price of solar panels over the last 40 years. But the really remarkable thing is that 75 percent of that has come since 2008. It's completely amazing." And in the few places that have taken full advantage of the new technologies, the results have been astonishing.
There have been days in Germany this summer when 75 percent of the electricity has come from solar panels; in the winter, there are days when wind power provides nearly as much. Overall, the Germans think that within the decade, they may get more than half of their total energy from renewables. And in Rick Perry's Texas, there were days this spring when a third of the state's electricity came from wind power.
None of this means that the obstacles to deployment have disappeared: though storage of electricity in batteries big and small is suddenly getting much easier (and we're discovering other ways, like compressed air, to store power), it remains a problem, as does an outdated grid. But more of the obstacles have to do with regulation and vested interest—"We need to clear away a bunch of the dumb rules that states have in place that block this path," as Krupp puts it.
But that won't get at the other big factor slowing growth in renewable energy: the sudden rise in cheap shale gas. Even as the price of solar panels has dropped, inexpensive fracked gas reduces the incentives to convert to sun and wind. And once you've built the pipelines and gas-fired power plants, the sunk investment makes it that much harder to switch: suddenly you have a bunch of gas barons who will fight as hard as the coal barons Obama is now trying to subdue.
As it turns out, economists have studied the dynamics of this transition, and each time reached the same conclusion: because gas undercuts wind and sun just as much as it undercuts coal, there's no net climate benefit in switching to it. For instance, the venerable International Energy Agency in 2011 concluded that a large-scale shift to gas would "muscle out" low-carbon fuels and still result in raising the globe's temperatures 3.5 degrees Celsius—75 percent above the 2-degree level that the world's governments have identified as the disaster line. The head of the UN's environment program, Achem Steiner, said earlier this year that the development of shale gas would be "a liability" in fighting global warming if "it turns into a 20 to 30-year delay" for low-and zero-carbon models.
Energy expert Michael Levi at the Council on Foreign Relations has found that if we wanted to meet that two-degree target (and since just one degree is already causing havoc, we sure should), global gas consumption would have to peak as early as 2020. Which is, in infrastructure terms, right about now—if we want to be moving past natural gas by 2020, we need to stop investing in it now.
The biggest single modeling exercise on this issue was carried out at Stanford in 2013, when teams from 14 companies, government agencies, and universities combined forces. They concluded that, in the words of analyst Joe Romm, "from a climate perspective the shale gas revolution is essentially irrelevant—and arguably a massive diversion of resources and money that could have gone into carbon-free sources." And that study didn't even look at the impact of leaking methane.
With shale, as with many other things, we rushed ahead before we'd fully figured out the science and economics. But now that the analysis has had time to mature, several things are easily apparent:
1. Given what we know about methane leakage, it makes absolutely no sense to convert vehicle fleets to natural gas: that's because, as you go from the well to the car, there are even more places for leaks than when you send the gas to a power plant. An EDF study found that converting even big diesel trucks to natural gas would result "in nearly 300 years of climate damage before any benefits were achieved." Since we already use gas for lots of things like home heating and cooking, there should be a huge priority on plugging the leaks in the ancient pipes that deliver it to our cities, and in converting home gas furnaces to more modern technology like heat pumps.
2. It also makes no sense to export natural gas around the world. This is a live issue: protesters rallied this month at Cove Point in Maryland, site of one of many new proposed terminals for exporting liquefied natural gas from U.S. shale. if they all get built, our exports will grow 14-fold by 2020. Such plans, because they will make big money, have powerful backers: when Heather Zichal left her post as the Obama administration's climate czar, she accepted a $180,000-a-year position on the board of the country's biggest gas exporter.
But the math makes no sense at all: when you chill and rewarm natural gas for shipping, leaks multiply. A study this spring from the Department of Energy—even using leak rates we now know to be too conservative—found that shipping natural gas to China and burning it instead of coal would mean no improvement for the climate.
3. The Obama administration plan to help other countries develop shale gas likely makes no sense either. If the best one can hope for in this country, after intensive efforts at regulation and enforcement, is a barely marginal improvement over coal, then even that gain is unlikely in countries where environmental enforcement is non-existent. You can make a case in places like China and India, where the public health effects of coal smoke are so terrible, that gas is better even if it's not helping the climate—but these are also precisely the places poised to make huge advances in renewables.
4. Most contentiously, environmentalists in the U.S. should all be doing what they can to slow the spread of fracking. As the science has mounted, this has been the trend: The nation's biggest environmental group, the Sierra Club, went from accepting major contributions from the nation's biggest gas developer to turning down that money and vocally opposing increased fracking. EDF is the main group that hasn't come out in favor of moratoriums in places like New York, instead working with industry to come up with new regulations and saying it's up to local communities to decide whether they want to frack.
To be sure, Krupp, EDF's leader, talks about gas as "an exit ramp" not a bridge, and in a debate this spring said it was imperative to avoid "lock-in" to the fuel. Still, EDF's work with industry angers many anti-fracking activists, who feel that it will help expand the practice: When Krupp and former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg called for new fracking regulations in a New York Times op-ed earlier this year, gas producers (who realize that such rules will help reduce opposition to the practice) cheered it. Efforts to regulate existing wells would be more useful if EDF were to also come out against an expansion of fracking: We will, after all, continue to produce natural gas in this country (if nothing else, massive quantities are required to produce fertilizer) and there is no need to leak more methane than we have.
The importance of this debate has grown the more we've learned about methane—and one of the things we've learned is how fast it acts. Unlike CO2, which can last in the atmosphere for a century or more, methane disappears relatively quickly. Which means that its power at trapping heat is concentrated in a very short burst.
Twenty years ago, when scientists first started calculating how much to worry about methane, they said that molecule for molecule, it trapped 25 times as much solar radiation as co2. But now, over a more appropriate 20-year time frame, that ratio is reckoned to be about 86 times as much. At that rate, more than a third of the greenhouse gas that America produces is methane (not all of it from gas wells—a fair amount comes from cattle). And that means that while the Obama administration boasts about cutting carbon, it's poised to leave behind a huge burst of methane as its greatest climate legacy.
It turns out, in other words, that there's no easy bridge to a working climate future—no way to avoid angering powerful interests, no way to put off actually building the clean energy we desperately need. It's time to stop searching for a bridge and simply take the leap.
Next week marks the second Earth Day of the coronavirus pandemic. While a year of lockdowns and travel restrictions has limited our ability to explore the natural world and gather with others for its defense, it is still possible to experience the wonder and inspiration from the safety of your home.
Here are three new films to watch this Earth Week that will transport you from pole to pole and introduce you to the scientists and activists working to save our shared home.
Where to Watch: Apple TV+
When to Watch: From April 16
The coronavirus pandemic has brought home the stakes of humanity's impact on the environment. But the lockdowns also proved how quickly nature can recover when humans give it the space. Birds sang in empty cities, whales surfaced in Glacier Bay and capybara roamed the South American suburbs.
The Year Earth Changed captures this unique year with footage from more than 30 lockdowned cities between May 2020 to January 2021. Narrated by renowned wildlife broadcaster David Attenborough, the film explores what positive lessons we can take from the experience of a quieter, less trafficked world.
"What the film shows is that the natural world can bounce back remarkably quickly when we take a step back and reduce our impact as we did during lockdown," executive producer Alice Keens-Soper of BBC Studios Natural History Unit told EcoWatch. "If we are willing to make even small changes to our habits, the natural world can flourish. We need to learn how to co-exist with nature and understand that we are not separate from it- for example if we closed some of our beaches at for a few weeks during the turtle breeding we see that it can make a huge difference to their success. There are many ways that we can adapt our behavior to allow the natural world to thrive as it did in lockdown."
Where to Watch: San Francisco International Film Festival
In 1989, Will Steger led an international team of six scientists and explorers to be the first humans to cross Antarctica by dogsled. Steger and his team weren't just in it for the adventure. They also wanted to draw attention to the ways in which the climate crisis was already transforming the icy continent and to rally support for the renewal of the Antarctic Treaty, which would keep the continent safe from extractive industries.
In After Antarctica, award-winning filmmaker Tasha Van Zandt follows Steger 30 years later as he travels the Arctic this time, reflecting on his original journey and once again bringing awareness to changes in a polar landscape. The film intersperses this contemporary journey with footage from the original expedition, some of which has never been seen before.
"Will's life journey as an explorer and climate activist has led him not only to see more of the polar world than anyone else alive today, but to being an eyewitness to the changes occurring across both poles," Van Zandt told EcoWatch. "But now, these changes are happening in all of our own backyards and we have all become eyewitnesses. Through my journey with Will, I have learned that although we cannot always control change, we can change our response. I feel strongly that this is a message that resonates when we look at the current state of the world, as we each have power and control over how we choose to respond to hardships, and we all have the power to unite with others through collective action around a common goal."
After Antarctica is available to stream once you purchase a ticket to the San Francisco International Film Festival. If you miss it this weekend, it will screen again at the Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival from May 13 to May 23.
Tasha Van Zandt
Where to Watch: Virtual Cinema
While many films about the climate crisis seek to raise awareness about the extent of the problem, The Race to Save the World focuses on the people who are trying to stop it. The film tells the story of climate activists ranging from 15-year-old Aji to 72-year-old Miriam who are working to create a sustainable future. It follows them from the streets to the courtroom to their homes, and explores the impact of their advocacy on their personal lives and relationships.
Emmy award-winning documentary filmmaker Joe Gantz told EcoWatch that he wanted to make a film about climate change, but did not want to depress viewers with overwhelming statistics. Instead, he chose to inspire them by sharing the stories of people trying to make a difference.
"Unless millions of people take to the streets and make their voices heard for a livable future, the politicians are not going to get on board to help make the changes needed for a sustainable future," Gantz told Ecowatch. "I think that The Race To Save The World will energize and inspire people to take action so that future generations, as well as the plants, animals and ecosystems, can survive and thrive on this planet."
Check back with EcoWatch on the morning of Earth Day for a special preview of this inspiring film!
By Michael Svoboda
For April's bookshelf we take a cue from Earth Day and step back to look at the bigger picture. It wasn't climate change that motivated people to attend the teach-ins and protests that marked that first observance in 1970; it was pollution, the destruction of wild lands and habitats, and the consequent deaths of species.
The earliest Earth Days raised awareness, led to passage of new laws, and spurred conservation. But the original problems are still with us. And now they intersect with climate change, making it impossible to address one problem without affecting the others.
The 12 books listed below remind us about these defining interconnections.
The first three focus on biodiversity and on humanity's fractured relationships with the animals we live with on land.
The second trio explores the oceans and, at the same time, considers social and cultural factors that determine what we know – and don't know – about the 75% of our planet that is covered by water, perhaps the least well understood part of the climate system.
Agriculture and food security are examined by the third tranche of titles. This set includes a biography that may challenge what you think was/is possible, culturally and politically, in the American system.
Finally, there is the problem of waste, the problem of single-use plastics in particular. These three titles offer practical advice and qualified hope. Reducing litter might also reduce emissions – and vice versa.
As always, the descriptions of the works listed below are drawn from copy provided by the publishers or organizations that released them. When two dates of publication are included, the latter is for the paperback edition.
A Life on Our Planet My Witness Statement and Vision for the Future, by David Attenborough (Grand Central Publishing 2020, 272 pages, $26.00)
See the world. Then make it better. I am 93. I've had an extraordinary life. It's only now that I appreciate how extraordinary. As a young man, I felt I was out there in the wild, experiencing the untouched natural world – but it was an illusion. The tragedy of our time has been happening all around us, barely noticeable from day to day – the loss of our planet's wild places, its bio-diversity. I have been witness to this decline. A Life on Our Planet is my witness statement, and my vision for the future. It is the story of how we came to make this, our greatest mistake – and how, if we act now, we can yet put it right. We have one final chance to create the perfect home for ourselves and restore the wonderful world we inherited. All we need is the will to do so.
Beloved Beasts: Fighting for Life in an Age of Extinction, by Michelle Nijhuis (W.W. Norton 2021, 352 pages, $27.95)
In the late 19th century, as humans came to realize that our industrializing and globalizing societies were driving other animal species to extinction, a movement to conserve them was born. In Beloved Beasts, science journalist Michelle Nijhuis traces the movement's history. She describes the vital role of scientists and activists such as Aldo Leopold and Rachel Carson; she reveals the origins of organizations like the Audubon Society and the World Wildlife Fund; she explores current efforts to protect species; and she confronts the darker side of conservation, long shadowed by racism and colonialism. As the destruction of other species continues and the effects of climate change escalate, Beloved Beasts charts the ways conservation is becoming a movement for the protection of all species – including our own.
How to Be an Animal: A New History of What It Means to Be Human, by Melanie Challenger (Penguin Random House 2021, 272 pages, $17.00 paperback)
How to Be an Animal tells a remarkable story of what it means to be human and argues that at the heart of our existence is a profound struggle with being animal. We possess a psychology that seeks separation between humanity and the rest of nature, and we have invented grand ideologies to magnify this. In her book, nature historian Melanie Challenger explores the ways this mindset affects our lives, from our politics to our environments. She examines how technology influences our relationship with our own animal nature and with the other species with whom we share this fragile planet. Blending nature writing, history, and philosophy, How to Be an Animal both reappraises what it means to be human and robustly defends what it means to be an animal.
Ocean Speaks: How Marie Tharp Revealed the Ocean's Biggest Secret, by Jess Keating, Illustrated by Katie Hickey (Tundra Books 2020, 34 pages, $17.99)
From a young age, Marie Tharp loved watching the world. She loved solving problems. And she loved pushing the limits of what girls and women were expected to do and be. In the mid-twentieth century, women were not welcome in the sciences, but Marie was tenacious. She got a job at a laboratory in New York. But then she faced another barrier: women were not allowed on the research ships (they were considered bad luck on boats). So Marie stayed back and dove deep into the data her colleagues recorded. At first the scientific community refused to believe her, but her evidence was irrefutable. The mid-ocean ridge that Marie discovered is the single largest geographic feature on the planet, and she mapped it all from her small, cramped office.
Science on a Mission: How Military Funding Shaped What We Do and Don't Know about the Ocean, by Naomi Oreskes (University of Chicago Press 2021, 744 pages, $40.00)
What difference does it make who pays for science? After World War II, the US military turned to a new, uncharted theater of warfare: the deep sea. The earth sciences – particularly physical oceanography and marine geophysics – became essential to the US Navy, which poured unprecedented money and logistical support into their study. In Science on a Mission, historian Naomi Oreskes delves into the role of patronage in science, what emerges is a vivid portrait of how naval oversight transformed what we know about the sea. It is a detailed, sweeping history that illuminates the ways funding shapes the subject, scope, and tenor of research, and it raises profound questions about American science. What difference does it make who pays? A lot.
Dark Side of the Ocean: The Destruction of Our Seas, Why It Matters, and What We Can Do About It, by Albert Bates (Groundswell Books 2020, 158 pages, $12.95 paperback)
Our oceans face levels of devastation previously unknown in human history due to pollution, overfishing, and damage to delicate aquatic ecosystems affected by global warming. Climate author Albert Bates explains how ocean life maintains adequate oxygen levels, prevents erosion from storms, and sustains a vital food source that factory-fishing operations cannot match. Bates also profiles organizations dedicated to changing the human impact on marine reserves, improving ocean permaculture, and putting the brakes on heat waves that destroy sea life and imperil human habitation at the ocean's edge. The Dark Side of the Ocean conveys a deep appreciation for the fragile nature of the ocean's majesty and compels us to act now to preserve it.
The Planter of Modern Life: Louis Bromfield and the Seeds of a Food Revolution, by Stephen Heyman (W.W. Norton 2020, 352 pages, $26.95)
Louis Bromfield was a World War I ambulance driver, a Paris expat, and a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist as famous in the 1920s as Hemingway. But he cashed in his literary success to finance a wild agrarian dream in his native Ohio. There, in 1938, Bromfield transformed 600 badly eroded acres into a thriving cooperative farm, which became a mecca for agricultural pioneers and a country retreat for celebrities like Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. This sweeping biography unearths a lost icon of American culture. While Bromfield's name has faded into obscurity, his mission seems more critical today than ever before. The ideas he planted at his utopian experimental farm, Malabar, would inspire America's first generation of organic farmers and popularize the tenets of environmentalism years before Rachel Carson's Silent Spring.
Food Fights: How History Matters to Contemporary Food Debates, edited by Charles C. Ludington and Matthew Morse Booker (University of North Carolina Press 2019, 304 pages, $32.95 paperback)
What we eat, where it is from, and how it is produced are vital questions in today's America. We think seriously about food because it is freighted with the hopes, fears, and anxieties of modern life. Yet critiques of food and food systems all too often sprawl into jeremiads against modernity itself, while supporters of the status quo refuse to acknowledge the problems with today's methods of food production and distribution. Food Fights sheds new light on these crucial debates, using a historical lens. Its essays take strong positions, even arguing with one another, as they explore the many themes and tensions that define how we understand our food – from the promises and failures of agricultural technology to the politics of taste.
Our Changing Menu: Climate Change and the Foods We Love and Need, by Michael P. Hoffmann, Carrie Koplinka-Loehr, and Danielle L. Eiseman (Comstock Publishing Associates 2021, 264 pages, $21.95 paperback)
Our Changing Menu unpacks the increasingly complex relationships between food and climate change. In it, Michael Hoffmann, Carrie Koplinka-Loehr, and Danielle Eiseman offer an eye-opening journey through a complete menu of before-dinner drinks and salads; main courses and sides; and coffee and dessert. Along the way, they examine the escalating changes occurring to the flavors of spices and teas, the yields of wheat, the vitamins in rice, and the price of vanilla. Their story ends with a primer on the global food system, the causes and impacts of climate change, and what we can do. Our Changing Menu is a celebration of food and a call to all – from the common ground of food – to help tackle the greatest challenge of our time.
Plastic Free: The Inspiring Story of a Global Environmental Movement and Why It Matters, by Rebecca Prince-Ruiz and Joanna Atherhold Finn (Columbia University Press 2020, 272 pages, $28.00)
In July 2011, Rebecca Prince-Ruiz challenged herself and some friends to go plastic free for the whole month. Since then, the Plastic Free July movement has grown from a small group of people in the city of Perth into a 250-million strong community across 177 countries. Plastic Free tells the story of this world-leading environmental campaign. From narrating marine-debris research expeditions to tracking what actually happens to our waste to sharing insights from behavioral research, Plastic Free speaks to the massive scale of the plastic waste problem and how we can tackle it together. Interweaving interviews from participants, activists, and experts, it tells the inspiring story of how ordinary people have created change in their homes, communities, workplaces, schools, businesses, and beyond. Plastic Fee offers hope for the future.
Can I Recycle This? A Guide to Better Recycling and How to Reduce Single Use Plastics, by Jennie Romer (Penguin Books 2021, 272 pages, $22.00)
Since the dawn of the recycling system, men and women the world over have stood by their bins, holding an everyday object, wondering, "Can I recycle this?" This simple question links our concerns for the environment with how we interact with our local governments. Recycling rules seem to differ in every municipality, leaving average Americans scratching their heads at the simple act of throwing something away. Taking readers on an informative tour of how recycling actually works (setting aside the propaganda we were all taught as kids), Can I Recycle This gives straightforward answers to whether dozens of common household objects can be recycled. And it provides the information you need to make that decision for anything else you encounter.
Zero Waste Living: The 80/20 Way: The Busy Person's Guide to a Lighter Footprint, by Stephanie J. Miller (Changemaker Books 2020, 112 pages, $10.95 paperback)
Many of us feel powerless to solve the looming climate and waste crises. We have too much on our plates, and so may think these problems are better solved by governments and businesses. This book unlocks the potential in each "too busy" individual to be a crucial part of the solution. Stephanie Miller combines her climate-focused career with her own research and personal experience to show how relatively easy lifestyle changes can create significant positive impacts. Using the simplicity of the 80/20 rule, she shows us those things (the 20%) that we can do to make the biggest (80%) difference in reversing the climate and waste crises. Her book empowers busy individuals to do the easy things that have a real impact on the climate and waste crises.
Reposted with permission from Yale Climate Connections.
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Over the past year, Amazon has significantly expanded its warehouses in Southern California, employing residents in communities that have suffered from high unemployment rates, The Guardian reports. But a new report shows the negative environmental impacts of the boom, highlighting its impact on low-income communities of color across Southern California.
The report, from the People's Collective for Environmental Justice (PCEJ) and students from the University of Redlands, shared with The Guardian, is meant to serve as an "advocacy tool to help raise awareness related to the warehouse industry's impacts on Southern California's air pollution issues," Earthjustice noted.
California's Inland Empire, 60 miles east of Los Angeles, has emerged as one of the largest "warehousing hubs" in the world in just the past few decades, according to Grist. Since establishing its first warehouse in the region in 2012, Amazon has become the largest private employer in the region, where 40,000 people now work in Amazon warehouses, picking, packing, sorting and unloading, as well as driving trucks and operating aircrafts, The New York Times Magazine reported.
"The company is so enmeshed in the community that it can simultaneously be a TV channel, grocery store, home security system, boss, personal data collector, high school career track, internet cloud provider and personal assistant," The New York Times Magazine added.
In just the last year, Amazon has tripled its delivery hubs in the region due to the demand for online shopping during the COVID-19 crisis. But despite the economic boom, heavy air pollution mainly from trucks going in and out of the warehouses infects nearby communities, the new research showed, according to The Guardian.
The research found, for example, that the populations living within a half-mile of the warehouses are 85 percent people of color, while California's overall population is 64 percent people of color, The Guardian reported. The research also found that communities with the most Amazon warehouses nearby have the lowest rates of Amazon sales per household.
"Amazon has boomed in 2020 and tripled the amount of money it's making, and it is happening at a cost to the folks who live in these communities," Ivette Torres, a PCEJ environmental science researcher and analyst, who helped put the research together, told The Guardian.
The research also demonstrated that the top 10 communities with the most warehouses in the region also experience pollution from other facilities, like gas plants and oil refineries, Earthjustice wrote in a statement.
"The Inland Empire, probably more than any region in the United States, has disproportionately [borne] the brunt of the environmental and economic impact of goods movement, and Amazon is driving that now in the Inland Empire," Jake Wilson, a California State University, Long Beach, professor of sociology, told Grist.
Last year, the San Bernardino International Airport Authority ratified a decision to allow an air cargo facility development at the airport, allowing Amazon to operate more flights out of the region, Grist reported.
Among the local residents to oppose the decision was Jorge Osvaldo Heredia, a resident of San Bernadino in Southern California since 2005. "This whole region has been taken over by warehouses," Heredia told Grist, and commented on the "horrible" air quality in the city on most days. "It's really reaching that apex point where you can't avoid the warehouses, you can't avoid the trucks," he added.
Advocates who published the research are pushing on the South Coast Air Quality Management District, a local air pollution regulatory agency, to move forward with the Warehouse Indirect Source Rule, which would require new and existing warehouses to take action to reduce emissions locally each year, The Guardian reported. Some solutions include moving towards zero-emissions trucks and mitigation fees.
"Last year, we saw some of the worst air quality, with wildfires adding to it, and the trucks were still in and out of our communities. So this is a huge change that we need right now, and that we actually needed yesterday," Torres concluded, according to The Guardian.
Scientists at the University of Purdue have developed the whitest and coolest paint on record.
Painting buildings white to help cool down cities has long been touted as a climate solution. However, the white paints currently on the market reflect only 80 to 90 percent of sunlight and cannot actually cool a roof to below air temperature, The Guardian reported. However, this new paint can.
"Our paint can help fight against global warming by helping to cool the Earth – that's the cool point," University of Purdue Professor Xiulin Ruan told The Guardian. "Producing the whitest white means the paint can reflect the maximum amount of sunlight back to space."
The new paint, introduced in ACS Applied Materials & Interfaces on Thursday, can reflect up to 98.1 percent of sunlight and cool surfaces by 4.5 degrees Celsius. This means it could be an effective replacement for air conditioning.
"If you were to use this paint to cover a roof area of about 1,000 square feet, we estimate that you could get a cooling power of 10 kilowatts. That's more powerful than the central air conditioners used by most houses," Ruan said in a University of Purdue press release.
The new paint improves upon a previous paint by the same research team that reflected 95.5 percent of sunlight. Researchers say it is likely the closest counterpart to the blackest black, "Vantablack," which can absorb as much as 99.9 percent of visible light. The new paint is so white for two main reasons: It uses a high concentration of a reflective chemical compound called barium sulfate, and the barium sulfate particles are all different sizes, meaning they scatter different parts of the light spectrum.
White paint is already being used to combat the climate crisis. New York has painted more than 10 million square feet of rooftops white, BBC News reported. Project Drawdown calculated that white or plant-covered roofs could sequester between 0.6 and 1.1 gigatons of carbon between 2020 and 2050. The researchers hope their paint will enhance these efforts.
"We did a very rough calculation," Ruan told BBC News. "And we estimate we would only need to paint one percent of the Earth's surface with this paint — perhaps an area where no people live that is covered in rocks — and that could help fight the climate change trend."
The research team has filed a patent for the paint and hope it will be on the market within two years, according to The Guardian. However, Andrew Parnell, who develops sustainable coatings at the University of Sheffield, said it would be important to calculate the emissions produced from mining barium sulphate and compare those with the emissions saved from using the paint instead of air conditioning.
"The principle is very exciting and the science [in the new study] is good. But I think there might be logistical problems that are not trivial," Parnell told The Guardian. "How many million tons [of barium sulphate] would you need?"
Parnell thought green roofs, or roofs on which plants grow, might prove to be a more ecologically friendly alternative.
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Less than three years after California governor Jerry Brown said the state would launch "our own damn satellite" to track pollution in the face of the Trump administration's climate denial, California, NASA, and a constellation of private companies, nonprofits, and foundations are teaming up to do just that.
Under the umbrella of the newly-formed group Carbon Mapper, two satellites are on track to launch in 2023. The satellites will target, among other pollution, methane emissions from oil and gas and agriculture operations that account for a disproportionate amount of pollution.
Between 2016 and 2018, using airplane-based instruments, scientists found 600 "super-emitters" (accounting for less than 0.5% of California's infrastructure) were to blame for more than one-third of the state's methane pollution. Now, the satellite-based systems will be able to perform similar monitoring, continuously and globally, and be able to attribute pollution to its source with previously impossible precision.
"These sort of methane emissions are kind of like invisible wildfires across the landscape," Carbon Mapper CEO and University of Arizona research scientist Riley Duren said. "No one can see them or smell them, and yet they're incredibly damaging, not just to the local environment, but more importantly, globally."
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