Nationwide GMO labeling bills have another Groundhog Day

Grist.org - Thu, 02/12/2015 - 22:30

Democrats in the Senate and House Thursday introduced bills to make GMO labeling mandatory across the U.S. These bills are slightly tweaked versions of legislation that died in the last Congress.

This is a Hail Mary at best, and a token gesture at worst. As bill sponsor Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) said in a press conference, “A lot of things don’t stand a chance [in Congress], but it doesn’t mean we’re not going to push it.”

The legislation is primarily a project of Democrats, although two Republicans from Alaska, Don Young and Lisa Murkowski, signed on to the previous legislation as co-sponsors. And last time around, as Politico reported, some key Democrats were unenthusiastic about labeling:

[A] handful of key lawmakers from the Democratic party with a reputation for being proactive on food regulation surprisingly expressed concern over the recent push for GMO labeling requirements.

“I’m concerned that mandatory GE labeling could be inherently misleading,” Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) said in his opening statement. Given that the FDA has raised no health or safety concerns with GMO foods, a label could unintentionally appear to imply that the foods are somehow less safe than conventional varieties, he argued.

Waxman has since retired, but other conflicted Democrats remain. The larger problem for the bills is that most of the Republican majority seems to favor a different, voluntary labeling bill instead — which would pre-empt any mandatory labeling laws at the state level. That bill, which also died in the last Congress, will also probably be reintroduced in this session. It might have a slightly better chance with the Republicans now controlling both House and Senate.

I’d like to see either bill pass. Voluntary labeling would give food companies a chance to try GMO labels, and I suspect that they’d find that most people ignore them and the sky fails to fall. Maybe if we got labels we could move on and talk about things that really matter to a healthy diet.

Filed under: Article, Food, Politics
Categories: Environment

These Valentine’s Day cards will show you care and cost you nothing

Grist.org - Thu, 02/12/2015 - 22:04

Love is in the air! Or maybe that’s smog. Either way, don’t celebrate this Valentine’s Day by shelling out your hard-earned dollar bills to some corporate behemoth for meaningless cards and mass-market tulips. Instead, give these Gristy valentines to the love of your life — and if they’re all, “Why no chocolate???,” explain that there’s nothing less romantic than deforestation-causing cocoa production.

To share, right click any of the images below to save them, then post on bae’s Facebook page, tweet it out, email it, whatever. Or, if you’d prefer a 3D V-Day card, right-click “Printable version,” which will take you to a full-size image that you can then print and bestow upon your sweetie like you didn’t forget all about the big day until just now.

Happy Valentine’s Day, folks. May true love blanket the world like so much atmospheric carbon.

Grist / Amelia Bates

You make me “HOT,” Valentine!

Grist / Amelia Bates

Roses are red, and I’m feeling blue, climate change is scary, at least I’ve got you! 

Grist / Amelia Bates

You’re the coal plant to my rising temperature 

Filed under: Article, Living
Categories: Environment

Parts of Louisiana’s sunken coast are resurfacing

Grist.org - Thu, 02/12/2015 - 21:27

This story was originally published by CityLab and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

Louisiana’s coastline is shrinking into nothingness. The erection of levees and industrial ruination — not to mention subsidence and the fastest rate of rising sea levels in the world — have submerged vast chunks of land, with about 16 square miles now going underwater every year.

But in certain places dry land is increasing. And that fact has people wondering if they can at least partially reverse the deterioration of the coast in time for the extreme challenges of climate change.

Louisiana’s coastline, like any coastline, has always been subject to natural transformation. Following the Great Flood of 1927, however, engineers began constructing an immense system of levees and spillways to control the Mississippi River’s wrath. These structures prevented sediment from flowing downstream to the coast, where it used to clump up as new land.

The discovery of oil and natural gas shortly thereafter accelerated the region’s declining health. Explorers drilled some 50,000 wells and carved out more than 10,000 miles of canals, leaving a destructive impact some say accounts for 36 to 60 percent of the coast’s historical disappearance. In total, Louisiana is thought to have lost about 1,900 square miles of coast in the last eight decades — not great news for a state that depends on the wetlands as a buffer against hurricanes.

The staggering effects of humanity’s meddling is well-illustrated in this cartographic comparison from NOAA. Here was the area around Port Fourchon in 1932:

And now the same place in 2011:

Note the green spots — this is new land that developed mainly from “coastal improvements such as shoreline revetments and enriched beach areas,” says NOAA. But this build-up is occurring in other areas due to artificial and natural causes. Take a look at this next comparison showing the mouths of the Wax Lake Outlet and the Atchafalaya River in the Atchafalaya Bay. The waterways had a fairly unobstructed exit in 1984:

By 2014, though, they had acquired robust deltas of mud and sand:

This delta complex is packing on ground at a rate of one square mile per year. So what’s happening? Well, unlike the narrow and leveed-up Mississippi — which speeds up water and sediment so fast it shoots deep into the bay — the Atchafalaya flows wide and slow. That allows debris to settle gently into the wetlands. Dredging and widening operations also add to the growth, shunting sediment downstream to create virginal land.

Scientists are quite interested in studying these processes, as they believe they might help counter today’s leading cause of coastal deterioration: rising sea levels. NASA explains more about what future engineering processes could look like:

With sea level rising rapidly due to natural geological processes, climate change, and human activities, predictions for the future of the Mississippi Delta are grim. Even the land gains in Atchafalaya Bay will do little to offset the losses elsewhere, according to geologists. Most scientists expect the Mississippi Delta Plain to lose roughly 5,000 square kilometers of land over the next 50 years.

“We are looking carefully at the Wax Lake and Atchafalaya deltas as models for building new land and preserving some of our coastal marshlands,” said Harry Roberts, director of the Coastal Studies Institute at LSU. “If we start diverting significant portions of the water and sediment from the main channel of the Mississippi River into adjacent wetlands, lakes, and bays — as happens now in Atchafalaya Bay — we’ll be taking an important first step toward saving a significant part of Louisiana’s coastal plain.”

Filed under: Climate & Energy
Categories: Environment

Meet the man who tackles our fears with stick figures

Grist.org - Thu, 02/12/2015 - 21:09

Is talking on your cellphone dangerous? Are e-cigs safer than smokes? Do you drink stranger pee every time you accidentally sip public pool water?

These are all questions that Andrew Maynard has not only asked himself, but has spent hours trying to answer. Maynard is a professor of environmental health sciences and the director of the Risk Science Center at the University of Michigan. He’s also the voice and artist behind Risk Bites, a YouTube series of stick figure cartoons that examine what we should and shouldn’t be worried about in our daily lives and why.

Through Risk Bites, Maynard has tackled BPA, antibacterial soap, nanoparticles in sunscreen, and HPV vaccines. He’s also addressed more unusual questions like whether wearing a hat will keep you warm if you’re dancing naked in the middle of winter (no, it won’t), whether pregnant women should avoid hair gel (probably not), and whether eating green potato chips is bad for you (maybe, if you ate, like, 60 bags of them in one sitting).

In addition to Risk Bites, Maynard runs a blog called 2020 Science, where he gets into more complex issues like climate change, geoengineering, artificial intelligence, synthetic biology, and other emerging technologies.

Below is an edited and condensed version of a recent conversation I had with him:

Q. How did the videos start?

A. It was my daughter’s fault, actually. My daughter was a teenager. She got heavily involved with YouTube. For two years, she was part of a YouTube collaborative channel, where every week she put out a video. I had assumed YouTube was pretty much a waste of time until I saw this. She made me realize how powerful a medium it was for reaching out to people and connecting with people, even with fairly complex information. It also made me realize that, where she was brilliant at standing in front of the camera and talking, I was absolutely hopeless, so I’d have to find a way of doing it where I wasn’t in front of the camera.

I spent a couple of summers going to VidCon, which is like the Comic-Con for videos, where you have YouTube fans and you have content creators. That’s where I was exposed to people who were doing similar science communication videos. People like Henry Reich, who does “MinutePhysics,” for instance. That made me realize that there’s a niche here using incredibly simple techniques — basically just drawing on a whiteboard and having very strong narratives behind it.

Q. The videos come out looking very clear and simple, but I imagine the research you have to do to make one of these videos is immense.

A. It’s actually a lot of work. Having worked in the field of risk and risk science for many years, I already have a lot of knowledge, and I can also sort of pull together and assimilate knowledge fairly fast. But there are obviously other skills that overlay on that [knowledge], in terms of how you actually make a video, and I had to learn the hard way that it’s not simply a case of coming up with an idea and talking about it. There’s a very very strict process that I’ve developed and a workflow to actually make these work.

Q. How many hours does it take to make one video?

A. I can do them in about eight to 10 hours, but usually it takes a few days mulling over the idea first before I write the script. I had a student working with me a couple years ago who wanted to learn the technique, though, and it took him about 40 hours per video to get one out. It’s surprising how long it takes.

Q. Where do the ideas come from?

A. Multiple places. Sometimes people feed me ideas, which I always find very helpful. I tend to keep a log of things that sort of strike me as being interesting, but quite often I try and look at when people are interested in an issue, what’s hitting the headlines and where there’s a gap in the information that’s available. So for instance, when we had the big Ebola scare, I put a very short video out on Ebola, and that was probably one of the fastest I did. I decided I was going to do it one afternoon and by 12 o’clock that night, the video was up.

Q. Sometimes scientists get flack from their colleagues when they leave the lab to — gasp!– engage with the public. Were you hesitant about making the transition?

A. I was. I was actually more hesitant because I was scared of either making mistakes or being misquoted. I was less concerned about what my colleagues would feel, although I was also very aware that a lot of my colleagues really avoided this because of a fear that they’d be shunned. I haven’t actually found that, but I think it’s partly because I started getting involved with communication much later in my career, when I was a bit more established.

Q. What’s been your favorite video?

A. We did one over a year ago entitled “Could ‘Aliens’ have toxic blood?” It started off with a crazy idea prompted by shows like Star Trek, where we thought, Well, what happens when an alien bleeds on you? Or something like the Alien movies — could an alien really have acid blood that eats through your flesh? So we started off with that crazy idea, but actually you can explore some really interesting science by doing that.

Q. How frightened are you about climate change?

A. Frightened is probably the wrong word. From everything I’ve seen, we have got — by we I mean the whole global society — we have got a major challenge coming, and the indications are still that we’re not rising to that challenge. So inevitably, there are going to be some fairly significant adverse impacts from that, whether you’re just looking at the environmental impacts or what is more in my field looking at the human health impacts and the economic impacts.

Q. Have you stumbled upon any techniques that work particularly well for helping people understand the risks of climate change? 

A. There are a lot of failures here. We know from social science research that when you’re entering a dialogue around something like climate change or any number of other things, people are not swayed by evidence. They’re not swayed by science-based arguments. And the smarter they are, the better they are at finding ways to argue against those arguments. What does work is finding common ground, finding out what really motivates people, what they’re really interested in and addressing that rather than trying to press your point home from the science perspective.

Q. Are there particular technologies that you think will be more important than others in fighting climate change?

A. Certainly, if you look at either curbing climate change or adapting to it, there are a lot of technologies on the horizon that, if used responsibly, can do that. Geoengineering, obviously, is highly controversial, so that worries me simply because we’re now talking about technologies where there’s no fallback plan. You do a global experiment, and if it goes wrong, you’ve altered the globe; you can’t go back to how we were before we did the experiment. But there are other technologies, whether you’re looking at carbon sequestration or clean energy or reduced energy usage, that I think can be successfully developed and deployed.

I have colleagues who will call me a techno-optimist, which means I do to some degree believe that technology can help address a number of things, although I hope I’m realistic enough to realize that technology alone won’t address modern problems we face.

Q. Today, we look back and cringe at past risky behaviors like putting lead in paint and emitting tons of CFCs. Are we more careful now, or will we be shaking our heads in 50 years? 

A. I do worry. Part of that worry is that if you look at the rate of innovation now, the rate of new technology and new products coming along, it’s absolutely going through the roof, which means that even though governments and industry are catching up in terms of safe ways of doing business, the probability of something going wrong just because things are so complex is also increasing very rapidly.

The other side of that is we’re finding that the regulations that were set up 10, 30 years ago just don’t apply to some of the new technologies, so there are regulatory loopholes that these things just slip straight through, and that’s a problem.

Q. Do you have a favorite emerging technology?

A. I’ve worked many years with nanotechnology, which I am excited about, but some of it gets a little old after a while. Synthetic biology — actually, this is crazy because there are so many things that really excite me as I get into it — but you think about synthetic biology, so it’s the idea that you can take an organism and basically upload its genetic sequence into a computer and start playing around with it just like you can manipulate videos or photos, and then once you’ve got that genetic sequence to make the organism as you like it, you can download it into real life again. That I find absolutely mind blowing, and that’s one of those technologies that I think people haven’t really wrapped their heads around yet how much we can do with it.

Q. Is there an emerging technology that you’re particularly fearful of or hesitant about?

A. No. But let me qualify that. There are technologies emerging that if they’re not developed responsibly can cause an awful lot of harm. It’s very hard to think of technologies that are more dangerous than others. The obvious example would be nuclear physics with the bomb. That was very clearly a technology that once you’ve sort of stepped beyond a certain point, you have a terrifying potential. It’s very hard to identify similar technologies to that.

Some people are getting concerned about artificial intelligence at the moment, and that may be one that really begins to look very scary, but probably not for the reasons that people think. Another one — this isn’t really a technology, but I’ve been in meetings where people have almost blanched at this — is issues around cybersecurity. People I speak with are very scared that we’re building highly complex cyber systems that are incredibly vulnerable to attack.

Filed under: Article, Business & Technology, Climate & Energy, Living
Categories: Environment

Exclusive: Mac DeMarco performs “Salad Days” with a little help from his friends

Grist.org - Thu, 02/12/2015 - 16:00

With his sunny voice and slightly off-kilter guitaring, gap-toothed Canadian indie-rocker Mac DeMarco might leave you jonesing for summer. So to tide you over ’til warmer times, here he is performing an acoustic version of “Salad Days” at last year’s Pickathon. We’re not quite sure what exactly is tied to the end of his guitar, but we’d listen to that day-dreamy croon any day.

More: Grist presents the Pickathon On the Farm series
More: Woods performs “Ain’t It Easy” — in the woods
More: Mandolin Orange’s intimate “Wake Me” performance

Filed under: Article, Living
Categories: Environment

We did the math on clean coal, and it doesn’t add up

Grist.org - Thu, 02/12/2015 - 12:01

The Kemper County energy facility in rural Mississippi is a technological wonder: Among other things, it’s the first coal-fired power plant in the United States designed to capture its carbon emissions. But as I discovered during a months-long investigation of the plant, some aspects are less than wondrous. The biggie: There is serious doubt among energy experts that this technology will actually produce a net benefit for the climate.

The Kemper plant’s climate bona fides are built on a what’s known as “carbon capture and sequestration,” or CCS — a highly technical process that scrubs the carbon dioxide emissions from power plants and other industrial sources and stores them deep underground. Keeping carbon dioxide out of the air is critical if we’re going to avoid the worst effects of climate change. That’s why so many world energy leaders are calling for the development of this kind of technology.

But some analysts have called CCS by what seems to be, at least for now, a somewhat more accurate name: “Carbon Capture and Something.” That’s in part because, so far, most CCS power plant projects intend, very openly and explicitly, to sell their captured carbon dioxide to companies that will use it to extract oil. Through an industry practice called “enhanced oil recovery,” or EOR, these companies will “flood” tapped-out oil fields with the captured CO2, forcing out a few more barrels of petroleum.

And that’s where the argument that carbon capture and sequestration is a win for the climate starts to unravel.

A petroleum engineer from Denbury Resources — the company that plans to buy the Kemper facility’s CO2 for use in enhanced oil recovery — estimates that oil companies inject between .52 and .64 metric tons of CO2 into the ground to recover a single barrel of oil. But that barrel, he says, will release .42 metric tons of CO2 into the atmosphere when it’s burned. Divide .42 by .64, and you’ll see that at best, the oil cancels out 65 percent of anything we’ve gained for the climate by putting that CO2 in the ground; at worst, we’re losing over 80 percent.

Put another way, by pairing CCS with enhanced oil recovery, we’re getting only 20 to 35 percent of the climate benefits from the carbon capture process, according to the oil industry’s numbers. Combine that with the fact that a CCS coal plant requires about 20 to 30 percent more coal than a traditional plant (capturing and sequestering carbon takes energy, after all), and your gains begin to look pretty slim.

And while Denbury’s numbers are theoretically possible, the research paints a less rosy picture, says Sean McCoy, an energy analyst for the International Energy Agency. McCoy co-authored a 2009 study that analyzed the overall carbon footprint of five different CO2-EOR projects in the U.S. and Canada. (The industry has been doing enhanced oil recovery for decades, using CO2 pumped from natural formations underground.) The study is among the few out there that attempt to account for the carbon footprint of the oil burned as well as other emissions factors. And guess what? If you include enhanced oil recovery in the carbon equation, you actually end up worse off than you were without this whole thing. 

Check it. The key paragraph, 4th page, my emphasis:

We calculated that between 3.7 and 4.7 metric tons of CO2 are emitted for every metric ton of CO2 injected. The fields currently inject and sequester less than 0.2 metric tons of CO2 per [barrel] of oil produced. In order to entirely offset system emissions, e.g., making the net CO2 emissions zero, 0.62 metric tons of CO2 would need to be injected and permanently sequestered for every [barrel] of oil produced.”


Note, however, that if the Denbury Resources engineer cited above is right, and if oil companies can, in fact, inject and sequester .64 metric tons of CO2 for every barrel of oil produced, then even this rather damning analysis suggests we might be out of the red. But just barely. And only if everything goes absolutely perfectly. (As you might imagine, sometimes this process doesn’t go perfectly.)

And one more caveat: The above analysis doesn’t include the head-achingly complex aspect of “displacement.” That is, if we’re talking about the globe here, the real question in terms of an overall carbon footprint is whether or not a CCS-EOR system is taking the place of a more carbon-intensive system, or if it is simply adding another power plant, and its attendant CO2, to the mess.

As Table 5 on page 5 of McCoy’s study suggests, if this kind of system in fact replaced, instead of added to, more carbon-intensive forms of energy production, then it’s possible we’d see an overall net reduction in carbon emissions. But co-author Michael Griffin, a professor of engineering and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University, argues that this is not how the energy economy has operated to date. The argument in favor of a CCS-EOR system is often that the process “would keep another barrel of oil somewhere else in the world in the ground,” but, Griffin says, “I find that kind of a ludicrous idea. You see it right now: We’re producing oil like crazy and the price goes down. What happens is people use more oil.”

On Mississippi Power’s website, the company claims that the Kemper County energy facility “will increase U.S. oil output by two million barrels per year, playing an important role in reducing Mississippi’s and America’s use of foreign oil.” Increase U.S. output? So we’re in fact capturing carbon dioxide to produce more carbon dioxide than we would have? And even if that reduced America’s use of foreign oil, what effect, if any, does that have on the world’s use of said oil?

“It gets really hard,” says Sean McCoy. When it comes to CCS-EOR life cycle analyses, he says, “very reasonable people can have completely divergent opinions about what’s happening.”

Howard Herzog, a senior research engineer at MIT who probably knows as much or more about this stuff than anybody on earth right now, says he looks at “CCS and EOR as distinct operations” because “oil will get produced anyway.” In other words, we will continue to pump oil from the ground, regardless of whether we’re using CO2 from coal-fired power plants for EOR. What’s more important, he says, is how much CO2 we actually store in the ground.

And that is far from certain. The EPA’s proposed rules for new power plants set a cap of 1,100 pounds of CO2 emitted per megawatt hour of electricity produced, but that cap “is determined exclusively by the tons of CO2 captured,” according to the rules’ text. “The tons of CO2 sequestered … are not part of that calculation.” The EPA also “acknowledges that there can be downstream losses of CO2 after capture, for example during transportation, injection, or storage.”

If we really want the “S” in “CCS” to actually stand for “sequestration,” Herzog says, “we will need much stronger climate policy to drive it.”

In the meantime, the gains — if they even exist — seem terribly minuscule. And the costs? At $6.17 billion and counting, the Kemper facility is among the most expensive power plants ever built in the United States. Other, similar projects have been delayed or canceled due to cost overruns. Surely we could get a far bigger bang for our buck if we invested in something else.

Filed under: Article, Business & Technology, Climate & Energy
Categories: Environment

Are there any eco-friendly credit card companies?

Grist.org - Thu, 02/12/2015 - 11:01

Q. I was appalled to find out that the credit card company I am using, Bank of America, is one of the biggest funders of oil and coal projects. I did a bit of research into socially just or environmentally friendly credit cards only to find “green” versions of the card from the same big companies you’d expect. In the movement to divest, I want to start with myself and feel good about my own personal spending habits. Are there good (read: green, local, socially just) credit card companies out there?

Celina S.

A. Dearest Celina,

Money, as they say, talks. And when you really listen, you might find you don’t like what yours is saying. We here at Grist talk a lot about making your green even greener by supporting environmental causes (including, ahem, this one) and buying earth-friendly products. But when you swipe your credit card to do so, are you inadvertently financing dirty deeds, too?

Our too-big-to-fail banks haven’t been looking so great lately, what with their predatory lending, sketchy criminal dealings, and, you know, that whole worldwide recession thing. For a lot of people, that financial tomfoolery was enough to convince them it was time for a change — but we can also add environmental concerns to the list. As you’ve discovered, Celina, the big banks that issue many credit cards also support mountaintop mining operations and other coal projects, with Bank of America, JP Morgan Chase, City, Morgan Stanley, and Wells Fargo coming up as the worst offenders in a recent assessment by the Sierra Club, Rainforest Action Network, and BankTrack. That means that any fees the bank collects on your credit card (interest, transfer fees, annual fees, etc.) go into the pot that funds these climate-changing practices.

It’s enough to make one want to open an account with the Locked Box Buried in the Backyard Bank, but luckily we don’t need to go to such extremes to feel good about money management. There are indeed greener, more socially responsible credit cards out there, which fall into three basic categories.

One, we have so-called affinity cards (I suspect these are the ones you’ve looked into already, Celina). Biggie banks issue these in partnership with nonprofits, such as The Nature Conservancy or the World Wildlife Fund, and a percentage of your purchases go straight to the nonprofit. But the rest of your card fees still go into the bank’s investment funds, so we haven’t solved the problem of your cash going toward coal development. Experts also caution that affinity cards might not have the lowest fees or the best rates and rewards, so you might be better off choosing a different rewards card and simply donating directly to your nonprofits of choice.

You may also be able to get a credit card through a local credit union, a nonprofit financial institution that doesn’t have to worry about making money and pleasing fat-cat shareholders. Credit unions often have great interest rates and spend their money on local investments like loans, not international tar sands projects, which make them very popular with the folks behind campaigns like Bank Transfer Day. This could be an easy and convenient choice to make your plastic more fantastic, Celina.

There’s one more option to think about, though: community development banks. These are federally insured operations with the express goal to support low-income clients, finance small local businesses, and lend money to cool, if lower-return projects like putting solar panels on company roofs or starting community gardens. They’re considered the gold standard for groups like Green America, a nonprofit with a focus on making your money work for eco-friendly and just causes and the force behind Break Up with Your Mega-Bank. They’ve done lots of legwork to sniff out the best community development bank credit card options, too. You can find their list of suggested cards, some of which support things like permaculture projects in New Mexico and ecosystem protection in the Northwest, here.

Now that you know your better credit options, I hope you’re ready to charge ahead and pick the best card for you, Celina. In no time, your money will be spouting things like “I love affordable housing and local tomatoes!”


Filed under: Business & Technology, Climate & Energy, Living
Categories: Environment

Meet Lewis Latimer, the African American who enlightened Thomas Edison

Grist.org - Thu, 02/12/2015 - 01:34

We’re interrupting your regularly scheduled programming on gentrification to bring you this Black History Month profile on Lewis H. Latimer, the African-American renaissance man who in the late 19th century helped not only invent the lightbulb, but also create the electric industry as we know it today. Yes, it’s common knowledge that Thomas Edison was the lightbulb’s inventor. And with today being Edison’s birthday, the electric industry won’t let us forget that, either:

Today is Thomas Edison’s birthday—A terrific reminder that our industry & the innovations that we power all started w/ one man’s vision—Kuhn

— EEI (@Edison_Electric) February 11, 2015

It’s a bit generous to credit all of this to “one man’s vision.” There were competing visions all throughout the 1800s on how to efficiently distribute light, beyond a candle, and on how to power growing urban centers. Populations in northern American cities began exploding in the closing decades of the 19th century not only because of immigration from Europe but also because of migrating African Americans emancipated from slavery. Edison gets technical credit for patenting the first “practical incandescent” lightbulb during this time, and also, as the Edison Electric Institute (EEI) reminds us, creating the first electric light power station.

Edison created the first electric light power station: Pearl Street Central Power Station in lower Manhattan. #HappyBirthdayEdison

— EEI (@Edison_Electric) February 11, 2015

But while Edison got the patent on those, he got there with a lot of help from Latimer, who literally wrote the book on both. Latimer’s Incandescent Electric Lighting: A Practical Description of the Edison System is a bit more deferential to Edison than perhaps necessary. That was likely a reflection of the times when big ideas couldn’t possibly be ascribed to non-white people, especially when the burgeoning eugenics movement was considered serious science. But Latimer had already been involved in a major invention, having helped Alexander Graham Bell patent the telephone in 1876. In 1880, Latimer began working for the United States Electric Lighting Company, which was run by Edison’s rival Hiram S. Maxim.

A biography on EEI’s site states that while working for Maxim, “Latimer invented and patented a process for making carbon filaments for light bulbs,” and helped install broad-scale lighting systems for New York City, Philadelphia, Montreal, and London. Latimer holds the patents for the electric lamp, issued in 1881, and for the “process of manufacturing carbons” (the filament used in incandescent light bulbs), issued in 1882. It was roughly 1885 when he finally joined forces with Edison and began improving upon his boss’s invention.

Latimer had no formal training in science, but believed technology and innovation could help advance the plight of African Americans still reeling from slavery. That whole “STEM will save people of color!” cause is nothing new. The important thing, though, is that unlike peers like Booker T. Washington, he didn’t believe that simply learning a trade or two would be black people’s ticket to freedom. He understood how power worked structurally to disenfranchise and disempower black people, immigrants, and the poor in general. This is evidenced in both the prose and poetry he wrote during his time about electricity and society.

“The lamp embodied the relationship of art and science, and its improvement promised benefits for all classes of society,” wrote Bayla Singer, a professor at Rutgers University, in an article on Latimer and his work. “The electric light was a cause well worth serving. All of Latimer’s inventions, patented and unpatented, relate to improving the quality of life.”

His aforementioned book Incandescent Electric Lighting demonstrates an understanding of how the new technology could bring electricity to those who previously couldn’t afford it. On the electric lamp he wrote, “Like the light of the sun, it beautifies all things on which it shines, and is no less welcome in the palace than in the humblest home.”

And yet his book’s preface notes how this new industry he and Edison were creating was admittedly shifting society from one of independent or localized power to a more centralized version:

While these central [power] stations cheapen the production of the light, and bring it within the reach of those who otherwise could not afford it, it does away with the large number of isolated plants, which formerly afforded the curious an opportunity to inspect the generation, distribution and utilization in light, of this form of energy.

Today we are no longer confined to combusting coal to power our lighting and heating devices. We now have the technology to take that “light of the sun” Latimer wrote about to energize our endeavors. Not only that, but through rooftop solar power, we find ourselves arriving back at a place where “the curious” can generate and distribute their own energy, through net metering and similar enterprises.

EEI finds itself caught in the middle of these advances today, purporting to invite the kind of innovation praised by Latimer and Edison, but worried that the energy independence or energy democracy that comes with solar distributed generation will cut into electric utilities’ profits.

In a briefing today for Wall Street analysts, bankers, and investors, EEI executives acknowledged the spread of solar and other renewable energy sources, but assured everyone that the electric utility companies would remain at the forefront and continue to profit no matter what.

“A number of pending and proposed regulations will transform the way that electricity is generated, delivered, and consumed,” said EEI Vice President David Owens, who’s been co-opting black and Latino organizations in an effort to make rooftop solar more expensive. “The bottom line: Customers expect us to develop and sustain a grid that supports all of these needs, while giving them flexibility and choice in how they use energy. As the grid continues to transform, we need to make sure that it is managed with expertise and system know-how.”

Meaning, they will be making sure EEI’s expertise is managing those efforts, even as they approach headwinds from an energy democracy movement that no longer wants to be dependent on the centralized utility station system. Organizations like the Center for Social Inclusion, the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, and Grid Alternatives are pushing solar distributed generation as a way to empower historically under-resourced communities and create wealth for them in the process. Because right now, the wealth from generating electricity is flowing to the monopolized utilities.

Richard McMahon, EEI’s vice president of energy supply and finance, told the Wall Street crowd today that investor-owned utilities posted a higher average return than the Dow Jones Industrial Average and the S&P 500 in 2014. “Over the longer term, electric utilities’ total returns have continued to reward investors more handsomely than the broader market,” he said.

More handsome profits means EEI gets to dole out perks to black and Latino groups to carry out their agenda, which the L.A. Times picked up on recently. Visitors of the lauded Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem might get a sense of this when they see that a gallery there named after Latimer is funded in part by the Consolidated Edison Company utility, an EEI member and one of the largest investor-owned utility companies in the nation. Though, to be fair, Consolidated Edison is one of the few investor-owned utilities that has pledged to discontinue building additional, unnecessary power stations and get out of the way of expanding local solar generation.

Still, we haven’t seen EEI and its members step outside their silos to show support for causes to improve the lives of people of color beyond their electric bills. Rather, we see them peddling resolutions that appear to be ghostwritten by the American Legislative Exchange Council, a group behind controversial policies like “stand your ground” laws, which have been blamed for the death of the unarmed, black teenager Trayvon Martin.

Latimer likely would’ve been disappointed in these stances and alliances. For all of his passion for scientific innovation, he didn’t neglect racial justice. In a letter he wrote in 1895 in support of the National Conference of Colored Men, a “My Brother’s Keeper”-like initiative for that time, Latimer wrote:

If our cause be made the common cause, and all our claims and demands be founded on justice and humanity, recognizing that we must wrong no man in winning our rights, I have faith to believe that the Nation will respond to our plea for equality before the law, security under the law, and an opportunity, by and through maintenance of the law, to enjoy with our fellow citizens of all races and complexions the blessings guaranteed us under the Constitution.

That’s what we’d call true enlightenment.

Filed under: Article, Business & Technology, Climate & Energy
Categories: Environment

How Chicago’s Little League scandal cheats city kids

Grist.org - Thu, 02/12/2015 - 00:15

I’m sad today.

I’m sad because Jackie Robinson West, the Little League team from Chicago that won the U.S. championship last summer, will have its title taken away. Turns out the coach may have signed up some players that resided outside the area that the team represents, the South Side of Chicago.

The Jackie Robinson West squad was one of the feel-good sports stories of 2014. A team of African-American, inner-city kids, from one of the most violent areas of Chicago, makes it all the way to the Little League World Series final. The team of 12- and 13-year-olds dazzle with their sharp play and sportsmanship. The entire city of Chicago rallies around them. Talk of a resurgence in young, urban, African-American baseball players ensues.

And now, the feel-good story feels just plain bad.

Jackie Robinson West was more than just a group of young baseball players on a hot streak. The club represented hope. Hope that more inner-city kids might get out and play baseball rather than fall prey to their rough surroundings. Hope that more young African Americans might engage in a sport that has seen a decline in African-American participation in recent decades.

As we’ve written before at Grist, we need more excuses for city kids and young people of color to get outside, period. Poor people and communities of color often don’t enjoy the access to parks and green spaces that whiter, more affluent communities do. That lack of access brings higher rates of obesity and other ills. Some young city dwellers fear the great outdoors.

Baseball, on the other hand, fosters a connection to the outdoors.

As a kid, I played Little League baseball. I was good at it, too. I didn’t grow up in the city. I hail from a Jersey suburb about 50 miles outside of New York City. I am, however, African-American. Mixed, if you want to get technical. For me, the baseball field was my connection with nature. Sure, my parents took my brother and me to local parks and the beach. We had school trips to local farms. But my immediate family members weren’t hikers or skiers or surfers. It was outside, digging my cleats into the dirt, awaiting grounders at third base, where I felt most at peace with the earth.

Baseball is a sport that teaches you to deal with the elements (unless you play in a boring dome). Wind, sun, weather, and field surface all play a role. A hit ball skips a little differently toward a fielder on dirt that it does on grass or artificial turf. A summer thunderstorm can end an otherwise beautiful day at the ballpark. And there is just something zen about standing out in the field, breathing the outdoor air, waiting for a batter to strike the ball. For a moment, it’s just about you, the outdoors, and the ball.

Which is why the news about Jackie Robinson West has me bummed. Here was an opportunity to encourage more urban youngsters to get outside, play, and kick up some dirt with peers. The kids from Chicago had won the ultimate prize, something I and so many other young baseball players have envisioned: a trip to bucolic Williamsport, Pa., for a shot at the Little League World Series title. Now, there’s a shroud of doubt and scandal surrounding not just the team, but urban youth baseball. Jackie Robinson West is affiliated with Little League Urban Initiative, a program that supports baseball in cities. What began as a story about role models is now a story about foul play.

Maybe there’s more to Jackie Robinson West’s story that we don’t yet know. Maybe the coach or the program made an honest mistake. Maybe cries that a team of African-American kids came under heavier scrutiny because of skin color are true. Or maybe this is a case of adults cheating the system at the expense of outstanding young athletes.

Regardless, of all that I’ve read about Jackie Robinson West today, the words that stick in my mind come from Carol Thomas, who, according to the Chicago Tribune, lives across the street from JRW’s ballpark and is a longtime fan. From the Tribune:

“This breaks my heart,” Thomas said, patting her chest as she became emotional. “Those boys worked so hard. They brought together an entire city.”

Breaks my heart, too.

Filed under: Article, Cities
Categories: Environment

Big Oil is desperate for your love. Watch their silly plea in this insane video

Grist.org - Wed, 02/11/2015 - 22:00

Big Oil would like you to know: Bill McKibben is evil and your punk friends want you to break up with your coal-fired girlfriend.

With the fossil fuel divestment movement gaining momentum and Global Divestment Day(s) coming up this Friday and Saturday, dirty energy’s devoted spin doctors are throwing desperation punches. This misinformational video, from the conservative Environmental Policy Alliance, wants you to believe that breaking up with the fossil fuel industry this Valentine’s Day will leave you in a cold, dark cave with no clothes or gadgets.

The video does make a good point: Basically everything we do and have relies on fossil fuels. All the more reason to show we don’t support dirty energy companies — because, you know, climate change — by divesting!

The point of the divestment movement is obviously not to quit using fossil fuels cold turkey, as the video suggests. As Naomi Klein explained in a recent interview, it’s about making it clear that the oil and natural gas industry is “a rogue sector, that their business plan is at odds with life on earth.” In short, these companies plan to sell enough fuel to emit five times more carbon than the atmosphere can handle without warming more than 2 degrees C.

This bizarre short isn’t the only frantic move in the fossil fuel industry’s last-ditch offensive against divestment. Just this week, the American Energy Alliance released a report called, “Coal: Bedrock of modern life,” and another study, commissioned by the Independent Petroleum Association of America, suggests that U.S. universities could lose money by divesting, based on the really stupid assumption that the future of the stock market will look like the past 50 years.

Damian Carrington writes in his Guardian blog that the leaders of that research have their heads stuck in the tar sands:

The overwhelming majority of the economic evidence I have seen shows the exact opposite. Here are some studies, not funded by the oil industry, which indicate recent divestment would, if anything, have had a positive impact on returns and can reduce investment risk: MSCIAdvisor PartnersImpaxAperio, S&P Capital IQ and BNEF. I have seen one report, from Mercer, that said “divestment is likely to have up-front and recurring costs.”

The fossil fuel industry is scared. As it should be.

Filed under: Climate & Energy, Politics
Categories: Environment

Apple to spend $850 million on solar energy

Grist.org - Wed, 02/11/2015 - 21:50

This story was reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

On Tuesday, Apple CEO Tim Cook announced a massive new investment by the company in solar energy: an $850 million installation that will cover 1,300 acres in Monterey County, Calif. Apple is partnering with First Solar — the nation’s biggest utility-scale installer — on the project, which will produce enough power to supply 60,000 California homes, Cook said.

According to a press release from First Solar, Apple will receive 130 megawatts from the project under a 25-year deal, which the release describes as the largest such agreement ever.

Cook called it Apple’s “biggest, boldest and most ambitious” energy project to date, designed to offset the electricity needs of Apple’s new campus, the futuristic circular building designed by Norman Foster, and all of Apple’s California retail stores. “We know at Apple that climate change is real,” he said.

Cook made the announcement during a Goldman Sachs technology conference, and First Solar’s stocks shot up Tuesday afternoon on the news:

#FirstSolar all smiles on announced #Apple deal, in which the co. will partner on an $850M #solar farm. $FSLR $AAPL http://t.co/SeXutQNvQq

Tyler Davis (@TylerAuggieD) February 10, 2015

Apple has already made huge commitments to solar. The Guardian reported last year that the company planned to use solar power to manufacture its new “sapphire” screens for the iPhone 6 at a factory in Arizona. Last year, Climate Desk joined the Guardian during a press visit to the biggest solar field then in Apple’s portfolio. The Maiden, N.C., facility has 55,000 solar panels that track the sun across a nearly 100-acre field, offsetting the electricity sucked up by Apple’s data center across the road:

Apple’s new investment continues the startling growth of solar in America, which my colleague Tim McDonnell has reported on previously: By 2016, solar is projected to be as cheap or cheaper than electricity from the conventional grid in every state except three. Over the past decade, the amount of solar power produced in the United States has grown 139,000 percent.

In another portion of Cook’s appearance, the CEO boasted about the ways Apple’s new iWatch could help improve health by reminding you when you’ve become too sedentary:

Apple Watch can save your life? Tim Cook has his watch tap him if he's sitting too long, says "sitting is the new cancer" $AAPL

Julia Boorstin (@JBoorstin) February 10, 2015

Creepy, or cool?

Filed under: Article, Business & Technology, Climate & Energy
Categories: Environment

Why we need to fix our crumbling roads, not build new ones

Grist.org - Wed, 02/11/2015 - 20:21

The United States road system is knit together like a Forever 21 cardigan: marginally functional, mass-produced, and likely to fall apart shortly after first usage. These days, our roads are wearing out — probably because, much like the pieces of trash fashion rapidly deteriorating at the back of your closet, they’ve been built to break.

Past transportation spending has mostly been directed to construction rather than repairs. But this ends up doing more harm than good because, as we’ve reported before, more roads equal more traffic jams. Economists call the concept “induced demand,” or, when supply of something (i.e. roads, cars, tribal-print jumpsuits) is increased, people will buy it — and then want more.

Vox senior editor Brad Plumer wrote an excellent explanation on why the U.S. needs to redirect transportation dollars to fixing what’s old rather than building something new — which is where, as he reports, more than half of state road funds go. This is because misdirected dollars end up causing “excessive sprawl,” says Plumer, which does “little to alleviate traffic congestion or deterioration.” We couldn’t agree more!

Here’s more from Vox:

If all these new roads were beneficial, [building new ones] might make sense. But, as [Streetsblog’s Angie Schmitt] points out, that’s not always the case. One study by the Center for American Progress found that 50 percent of U.S. roads don’t even generate enough traffic to pay for themselves in gas taxes. With driving on the decline and the National Highway System reaching the end of its natural lifespan, there’s a good argument for devoting more scarce resources to repairing the expensive and dilapidated system we already have.

There’s a dollars-and-cents case for allocating more money to repairs, too: Taking care of a damaged road early on is much cheaper than trying to deal with it when it’s near-destroyed. However, an even more economical — and green — solution in the long term could be building improved public transit networks.

We’re living in a nation that’s trying to reduce carbon emissions by 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025 — but that’s going to mean changing our long-held habits, like a transportation system that’s built around personal cars. The fact is, we need more new roads like we need that adorable cat sweater. Really, put the sweater down, and walk away.

Filed under: Article, Cities, Living
Categories: Environment

We’ll need more vaccines in a warming world

Grist.org - Wed, 02/11/2015 - 19:20

This story was reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) has suggested that vaccines cause “profound mental disorders.” Paul has also said he’s “not sure anybody exactly knows why” the climate changes. So the likely presidential contender would probably find this fact pretty confusing: According to leading scientists, vaccines are among the “most effective” weapons in our arsenal for combating the threats that global warming poses to human health.

In its landmark report last year, the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that global warming poses a range of health threats — especially in the developing world. Warmer temperatures and changes in rainfall will reduce crop production, leading to malnutrition. Foodborne and waterborne illnesses will become a bigger problem. And, some scientists argue, diseases like malaria will spread as the insects that carry them migrate to new areas.

So how should humanity adapt to these dangers? The IPCC report lays out a slew of public health interventions, including widespread vaccination:

The most effective measures to reduce vulnerability in the near term are programs that implement and improve basic public health measures such as provision of clean water and sanitation, secure essential healthcare including vaccination and child health services, increase capacity for disaster preparedness and response, and alleviate poverty.

There are a number of reasons that vaccines will play an important role in our efforts to adapt to a warming world. The most obvious is their ability to protect vulnerable populations from diseases that will be made worse by climate change.

A prime example is rotavirus, a vaccine-preventable disease that can cause severe diarrhea. It killed roughly 450,000 children in 2008 — mostly in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, according to the World Health Organization. “There is evidence that case rates of rotavirus are correlated with warming temperatures and high rainfall,” according to Erin Lipp, an environmental health professor at the University of Georgia and a contributor to the IPCC report. This is particularly true in developing countries with poor sanitation and drinking water sources, Lipp explained in an email.

There are other, less direct, ways in which climate change can exacerbate a wide range of existing public health problems. Take measles, which is currently making a comeback in the United States — thanks in large part to the unscientific claims of the anti-vaccination movement. Measles killed nearly 150,000 people worldwide in 2013; it’s particularly common in parts of sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia that have extremely low vaccination rates — areas that will be hit especially hard by the impacts of climate change.

Unlike with rotavirus, there’s no direct relationship between measles and global warming. But Kirk Smith — an environmental health expert at UC Berkeley, and a lead author of the IPCC chapter on health impacts — points out that “a child weakened by measles is more likely to die from the malnutrition caused by climate change.” In other words, anything we can do to reduce the impact of existing health problems will be even more important in a warming world. And vaccinating children, he says, is one of the most cost-effective public health tools we have.

Diseases like measles pose another threat, as well, says Alistair Woodward, who is also a lead author of the IPCC chapter. Woodward, an epidemiologist at the University of Auckland, points out that extreme climate events — crop failures in Africa, flooding in Bangladesh, and even storms like Hurricane Katrina — can displace large numbers of people. “In these circumstances, with crowding and poor living conditions, all the basic public health services are put under great strain,” said Woodward in an email. “The risks of infection go through the roof, for all communicable diseases … So ensuring that people are vaccinated is a logical thing to do as part of managing the risks of a rapidly changing climate.”

Of course, making sure people are inoculated against deadly diseases isn’t easy. In the developing world, vaccination campaigns have to overcome transportation and security issues, as well as poor local healthcare systems. And these challenges, says Woodward, can dwarf the problems caused by the anti-vaxxer movement.

Filed under: Climate & Energy, Living
Categories: Environment

Naomi Klein on the power of fossil fuel divestment

Grist.org - Wed, 02/11/2015 - 09:21

In the run-up to Global Divestment Day on Feb. 13 and 14, May Boeve, executive director of 350.org, interviewed Naomi Klein, activist and author of the book This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate (and 350 board member), as part of a web workshop. You can watch the whole thing. Or you can read our three-part edited transcript. Part one was about plummeting oil prices. Part two was about making the climate movement stronger. And here’s part three.


May Boeve: You were instrumental in helping articulate the link between stranded assets, unburnable carbon, climate change, and divestment. The movement to divest has taken off in incredible ways. What has been most significant about divestment, and what is needed to keep that call fresh and alive in this moment?

Naomi Klein: I want to give a little bit of history from my perspective of where all of this came from. When we had the idea for a national, and then international, divestment call on fossil fuels, there were already pockets at certain universities that were pushing their schools to divest from coal, but there wasn’t an overall fossil fuel divestment call that had been made.

That came out of a [phone] call between Bill McKibben and I, that happened after both of us had read the Carbon Tracker research, which blew both of our minds. This is the research that all of this is based on, that shows that the fossil fuel industry has five times more carbon dioxide in their proven reserves than the atmosphere can absorb and leave us with a decent shot of keeping global warming below 2 degrees Celsius.

Now, the thing that was striking when we were reading that research was that it was not addressed to us. This research was done for the investment community as a warning to them that there is a bubble in the market. This was a couple of years out of the housing bubble bursting, and it was warning, “OK, we see another bubble on the horizon, we don’t want to have another bubble burst.” Obviously, these companies cannot burn five times more carbon than the atmosphere can absorb, so these are going to become stranded assets.

Now, I read that research and I went, “No, that’s not right. We’re the bubble.” They’re planning to burn the carbon, and they have made a political assessment that when our politicians said they were going to keep warming below 2 degrees they were lying, that they didn’t mean it. The commitments made in Copenhagen were unbinding, and Exxon and Shell and everyone else decided that that was not something they had to worry about, that they were going to go ahead and burn it anyway.

So, I didn’t think this was a warning to investors. I thought this was a warning to all of us, and that’s what Bill thought too. So, the question is, OK, if we’re the bubble, how do we flip it? How do we turn them into the bubble that’s going to burst? And that’s where the divestment idea comes from. Those are the stakes, that’s really what that research shows: It’s them or us.

Bill wrote that incredible piece for Rolling Stone that popularized this idea, just laying it out, because people get these numbers. I had just had my kid at this point [in 2012], so I wasn’t able to go on the full fossil-free tour that Bill and 350.org kicked off, but I did go, with my 5-month-old in tow, to New York and Boston, which were a couple of the biggest events. What was amazing was that people were on their feet before we said a word. I’d never seen anything like it. The movement was waiting for someone to admit that there was a war going on.

This comes back to one of the most controversial parts of This Changes Everything, about how so many of the big green groups have partnered with fossil fuel companies, based on the false idea that we’re in this together. No, we’re not. I think people really get this, and young people get this most of all. It all comes back to that research. Every time you explain it to somebody else, you are part of the solution, because these are illegitimate profits.

The other thing that helps is that fossil fuel stocks are not performing very well right now [because of low oil prices]. So your opponents have just lost their best argument. They won’t lose it for long, so that’s another reason to just pound away at this. If this was last year, they could say, “These stocks are performing better than other ones, you want to bankrupt our schools.” But, no, in fact these stocks are underperforming. Not only are institutions destroying the planet, but they are also taking unnecessary risks with their endowments.

Another point I would make, [about] carbon pricing, is that when we make the argument that this is a rogue sector, that their business plan is at odds with life on earth, we are creating an intellectual and political space where it becomes much easier to tax those profits, to increase royalties, and even to nationalize these companies. This is not just about the fact that we want to separate ourselves from these companies, it’s also that we have a right to those profits. If those profits are so illegitimate that Harvard shouldn’t be invested in them, they’re also so illegitimate that taxpayers have a right to them to pay for a transition away from fossil fuels, and to pay the bills for a crisis created by this sector. It’s not just about dissociating ourselves from their profits, but potentially getting a much larger piece of them.

May Boeve: Here’s a question from online: “Where do we put our divested funds? How do we push local economy investment in the transition?”

Naomi Klein: I think the reason why the reinvestment piece is a little bit trickier than the divestment call is because what we need to get out of is really simple, we want to divest from the fossil fuel companies, but what we want to get into will look a little bit different everywhere we live. There isn’t one blanket investment, nor should there be. I don’t think that the response should be, “Goodbye, big carbon. Hello, big wind, big solar.” I think we can do better than that. Which isn’t to say big green companies don’t have a place in the transition. I think they do.

But I think we should also be looking at supporting local solar co-ops, that reinvestment should be very much a tool for climate justice. The answer for what that means is only going to come from building alliances with frontline communities in all of your communities and developing tools and projects that can be supported.

The Our Power campaign in the U.S. is a great example of identifying six climate communities that have great transition plans, some of them already quite far along, that can be supported. We should resist the temptation of just presenting this as flipping the switch from dirty energy to big, clean, green energy that will be controlled by a different set of corporations.


More about Global Divestment Day:

Filed under: Business & Technology, Climate & Energy, Politics
Categories: Environment