My aunt Margie, at the age of 99, used to marvel at all the trees that had grown in Michigan over her lifetime. Today, Michigan from above seems like a mass of oaks, maples, beeches, hemlock, white pines, and such. Manistee National Forest near my home is about half a million acres, much to the delight of two-trackers and Jeep drivers, and it’s hard to know where it starts and ends – there are just so many trees. But during my aunt’s childhood in the early 20th century, as she told it, trees were few and far between. The whole state was open, rolling farmland with few scrubby hardwoods.
Here’s why. In the late 1800s, the whole of Michigan was clearcut by lumber barons in a frenzied, unregulated dash for wood over the course of a couple decades. Tens of millions of acres were wiped out and sent down the river for mill processing. Now, 120 years later, Michigan has recovered and is a seemingly endless forest again due to natural growth on land unsuited for farming and the expansion of protected state and national forest land.
I bring this up for two reasons – first, to underscore the need for public/private partnerships to work toward sustainable forestry. And second, when thinking about the state of international forests, it’s important for developed nations like the U.S. not to be too smug about our current successes. We’ve been through the trajectory from deforestation to recovery that many developing nations currently face.
With that in mind, how are our international forests doing?
Adrian Whiteman, Head of Economics and Statistics at the Food and Agriculture Organization Forestry Department says, “As an overly simple metric of total forests, we’re still seeing millions of square kilometers of deforestation each year. But that rate is slowing, and there are some very encouraging things going on…we’re headed in the right direction.” We are indeed still losing 13 million hectares of forest each year. Though that’s down from 16 million hectares of forest per year in the 1990s.
Just a few years ago we saw a dramatic example of privatized gain buoyed by socialized risk when taxpayers ponied up trillions of dollars to bail out big outfits like Goldman Sachs who made reckless investment choices. Remember that? Good times. Arguably it was among the worst examples of private/public interaction.
Today we’re seeing a model for financing social programs called Social Impact Bonds. This strategy tries to turn that around, privatizing risk and socializing gain. To their credit, Goldman Sachs is on board with this one, too. They’ve invested ten million bucks in a strategy to stop young New York inmates from becoming repeat offenders.
Social impact bonds, in theory, work like this: private investors work with a nonprofit group (or not) to finance a solution to a social problem. If the solution works, taxpayers then pay the investors back plus interest. If it doesn’t work, tough luck for the investors. It’s also called a “pay-for-success” program.
While some may cry “deja vu,” there’s another growing movement of Republicans urging cooperation on climate change action. And it makes complete sense.
“Conservative” and “Conservation” share the same root. Conserve: to preserve and manage responsibly. By all accounting, environmental conservation should be right up the Republican alley. Russell Kirk, author of American conservatism said,”conservatism is about preserving the Permanent Things. “ Heck, American environmental roots have their foundations in Republican president Teddy Roosevelt who carved out a hundred and fifty national forests, eighteen national monuments, and five national parks.
I recently had the pleasure of meeting Rob Sisson, President of ConservAmerica, a conservative group calling for environmental protection. He brought up an interesting perspective which I’d never considered. What is pollution, he said, but a kind of trespassing on another’s property, or on another’s health? Climate change, then, is an ultimate global kind of trespassing. He also brings up the tragic point that 60,000 unborn children suffer methyl mercury poisoning in utero each year as a result of coal-burning power plants.
With that in mind, there seems to be little, ideologically, that would stand between Republicans, climate change action, and renewable energy. It’s part of the Republican history. It fits with the ideology.
I don’t get the Greek yogurt craze. Sure, I like Greek yogurt as much as the next guy. It’s pretty good. But it’s not ”add another billion pounds of lightly regulated cow manure into our water supply” good. But the State of New York would disagree.
Hosting the first-ever statewide Yogurt Summit, Governor Cuomo of New York brought industry leaders, dairy farmers and “stakeholders” together to come up with ways to help New York’s yogurt biz grow to meet the surging demand for Greek yogurt. As it turns out, that delicious, creamy Greek yogurt takes three times as much milk to produce the same volume as good old classic yogurt. No wonder it’s so good, eh?
On one hand, it’s great that Cuomo is focused on growing diverse industries and jobs in his state. On the other hand, the solution the summit came to basically amounted to “let dairy farmers dump more cow manure into our water with fewer regulations.”
Based on the summit, the New York Department of Environmental Conservation rewrote the definition of a “Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO)”, more commonly known as a “factory farm.” The change allowed farmers to have larger herds before they need to get special permits or follow tighter waste dumping regulations. The herd threshold went from a maximum of 200 cows to a maximum of 300 cows. A 50 percent increase in the number of cows before tighter regulations need to be followed.
Thirty percent of the small businesses crippled by Hurricane Sandy never opened their doors again. That accounts for about 20,000 to 30,000 companies gone in one disaster. Whack! One day the lights went out and they never went back on again. Severe storms like that take a serious toll on small businesses. On average, about 25 percent of them never open their doors again after a disruptive disaster. Even without the damage or loss to property, equipment and merchandise, the down-time alone is enough to do in a mom and pop shop with an average loss of $3000 every single day.
A recent report issued by the Small Business Majority and the American Sustainable Business Council entitled Climate Change Preparedness and the Small Business Sector highlights how small businesses are particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Unlike larger businesses, small businesses tend to be dependent on a single region for their customer base, all their assets are usually in a single location, and they simply don’t have access to the supply chains or capital larger companies do to bounce back from a storm ravaged city.
We all hear it over and over again: small business is the backbone of the American economy, employing half of the American workforce. They are the drivers of innovation, opportunity, and community well-being. Small businesses are a part of our communities in a way no other company can be.
Add Chevron to the list of organizations groping through Americans’ personal email metadata. And the reason appears largely retaliatory for testifying against them or protesting some toxic business practices. Chevron, in turn, charges conspiracy and racketeering to justify getting access to the personal information.
The more I learn about public surveillance the more it seems recent news of NSA surveillance is a case of the Federal Government getting for free what other powerful folks have to pay for. In this case, Chevron. The bottom line is that our personal data is too easily had across the board. And organizations are all too willing to invade our first amendment rights to get whatever they want.
Last month a federal judge handed Chevron the rights to paw through nine years of email metadata from people who publicly criticized Chevron for their polluting practices in Ecuador. Lawyers, witnesses, environmental activists, and even journalists who helped lead to a $18 billion judgement against the oil company are now the subject of Chevron’s spying eyes.
If you were on the list of folks who criticized them, testified against them, or protested them on this matter, they would have nine years of your email metadata including names, email addresses of folks you’ve talked to, phone numbers, billing information, time stamps, computer use logs, and detailed location data, meaning they can find out the locations from which some emails were sent. Even if you’re an American. First amendment rights and all.
Last week, the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station had to temporarily reduce power output by 15 percent in a summer heat wave when homes and businesses needed the electricity the most in order to keep cool. High temperatures were to blame for the reduction of output. Cooling water drawn from Cape Cod Bay got so warm the power plant couldn’t safely discharge it. On the bright side, the power reduction lasted only 90 minutes. Unfortunately, the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station produces a huge percentage of the state’s energy needs and they still have to make it through July and August.
Meanwhile in Michigan, a hydropower plant run by the Cloverland Electric Cooperative experienced a 60-80 percent drop in output in 2012 due to falling Great Lakes water levels. Waters far below the long term average reduced the power plant’s water allocation and also let air into the draft tubes. The power plant has built a dam around the discharge area to raise the water levels to moderate the problem.
This is a growing trend around the U.S.: changing conditions from a warming planet are causing disruptions in our power supply. The U.S. Department of Energy this month released a report showing vulnerabilities to our energy sector from climate change. Here are the basics:
Cities around the world, aided by long-sighted business leaders, are working to “future proof” themselves against disaster. Recently, the 4th annual Global Forum on Urban Resilience and Adaptation took place in Bonn, Germany where leaders from every corner of the earth came to learn how to prepare for the effects of climate change.
The United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR) issued an informational handbook to help mayors through the process of making a more resilient city, better able to respond to and recover from disasters.
Globally, waves of historic and extreme weather events have been hammering urban centers year after year. We’re certainly seeing the same in the U.S. with an almost annual assault of severe weather events on our cities: Hurricanes, record-breaking heat waves and wildfires, flooding, monstrous and tragic city-flattening tornadoes, and of course, the severe and historic “Derecho” straight line winds of 2012.
The latest draft of the National Climate Assessment report warns that “Climate change threatens human health and well-being in many ways, including impacts from increased extreme weather events, wildfire, decreased air quality, diseases transmitted by insects, food and water…”
Be careful, Waukesha, Wisconsin. Some lawmakers have actually threatened to cash in their favors to the Michigan Militia to keep aquifer-drained areas from sticking a straw in Lake Michigan to compensate for a drained aquifer like you guys are. Waukesha, faced with a depleted aquifer and rising concentrations of carcinogenic radium in the water, is drafting plans to draw 9 million gallons of water a day from Lake Michigan. The problem? Even though they’re 27 miles from Lake Michigan, they’re still a mile and a half west of the Great Lakes watershed. They’re technically on the Mississippi side of the sub-continental divide. And remember that bit about the Michigan Militia?
“I would suspect we’d call up the militia and take up arms.” That’s an impassioned 2007 quote from Michigan Republican congressman Vern Ehlers during a national water policy debate that seemed to entertain the notion of Great Lakes water diversions to water-stressed regions of the country. Adding gasoline to the fire, Bill Richardson, presidential candidate and Governor of New Mexico, made the mistake of calling for a national water policy saying “I believe that Western states and Eastern states have not been talking to each other when it comes to proper use of our water resources, I want a national water policy… States like Wisconsin are awash in water.”
Just imagine the blaze of outrage in the Great Lakes states as a presidential candidate seemed to thirstily eye up the Great Lakes while whipping out a large straw.
You won’t catch me complaining about an actual congressional bill calling for a Mars colony. In a bizarre kind of “budget-hawkery,” Congress submitted (I’m not making this up) a goal for a Martian base with a price tag of between $200 and $500 billion, while scrapping renewable energy and energy efficiency programs that cost less than $1 billion (then taking that savings and handing it over, plus some more, to oil and nuclear interests).
The new NASA budget also seeks to reduce funding for climate change research.
These contortions to the U.S. budget seem like a very expensive and unnecessary tradeoff between responsible stewardship of our current planet versus a visionary exploration of another planet that, frankly, could do with a little of the global warming mojo we’re so practiced at.
It’s not all bad, of course. “Mars Base” has the thrilling sort of ring to it many of us have dreamed of since childhood. It’s one of the big things we like to think of our country aspiring to. Heck. It’s 2013, we should already have bases on Europa by now. But, better late than never.
Before anybody gets too excited, however, keep in mind this is far from a “we choose to go to the Moon” moment. The program would be a “pay-as-you-go” sort of plan which would provide funding in fits and starts as the whim of Congress dictates. And boy, does Congress have whims.
So imagine this: NASA is being asked to scale back or even scrap its other efforts, including climate change and asteroid research, and redirect its activities to an ambitious, admirable goal which may or may not be funded.
We are in the midst of a systemic upheaval in how our electricity is produced and distributed, brought about by market forces, technological advancements and policy.
“Utilities will need to establish a new set of business models…and current regulations may not be up to the task,” says Ronald Binz, recently nominated by President Obama to head the Energy Regulatory Commission.
On Wednesday, I attended a conference in Ann Arbor, Michigan, titled, “How will ‘Disruptive Challenges’ in the Electric Markets Impact Michigan’s Energy Decisions.” The word “disruptive” always turns my head, so I had to go. And the presentation Binz gave, Utility Sector Disruptive Changes, really encapsulated the pressures bearing down on the energy industry, demanding change.
Here’s my own personal take on what Binz said…
Growth in electricity demand is flat
If you’re a utility company, you’re looking down the barrel of very little market growth in the amount of product you’re selling: electricity. Back in the 1950s and 1960s, electricity market growth was over six percent per year. That’s good for business! But now it’s under one percent and is predicted to stay there. Folks are conserving more electricity with better appliances and they’re not going back. Even significant growth of electric car use won’t budge demand much.
On a hot, 93 degree Tuesday afternoon at Georgetown University in Washington DC, President Barack Obama unveiled the nation’s first ever clear strategy for combating climate change. Encouraging his audience to remove their suit jackets as he removed his own and occasionally wiping sweat from his brown, he presented plans for responding to the threat of a warming planet.
Obama tried to head his critics off at the pass, preemptively addressing the most common counter-argument: that action on climate change would be a disaster for the economy.
“Now, what you’ll hear from the special interests and their allies in Congress is that this will kill jobs and crush the economy, and basically end American free enterprise as we know it. And the reason I know you’ll hear those things is because that’s what they said every time America sets clear rules and better standards for our air and our water and our children’s health. And every time, they’ve been wrong.“
As if on cue, the Heartland Institute immediately did just that. James M. Taylor, J.D., Senior Fellow for Environment Policy at the Heartland Institute quickly fires off his response, ”The restrictions are economically punishing because they will drive up energy prices throughout the U.S. economy, which will stifle job creation and additionally drive existing businesses and jobs overseas.”
As an electricity consumer in Michigan I’d personally like to put Mr. Taylor’s mind at ease.
Isn’t it wonderful when we can transcend politics and finally agree on something?
A new Opower report shows that Liberals and Conservatives alike have an equal tendency to save energy “when presented with personalized analysis of their energy consumption.”
It turns out they both like saving energy in a box. They like saving it with a fox. They like saving it here and there. In fact, the report goes on, they like saving it everywhere.
Of course I’m paraphrasing.
Opower produces customized energy reports for homes and businesses using very intuitive imagery and language. With a user’s permission it syncs up with their utility company’s account and pulls actual energy use data. Users can compare their monthly usage to their friends’ usage, get “badges” when they significantly reduce power use over a period of time, see how they compare to average homes and energy efficient homes, and get energy saving tips.
And it works. I can personally attest to that. I use it and have found myself anxious to get my monthly energy use report to see how I fared over the past month, especially relative to my friends. Bragging rights or something. But it’s definitely given me an easy and engaging metric by which to measure and improve my energy efficiency. If it’s available to you, give it a shot. It’s free for power users.
What business do retail chains like IKEA have getting into the world of electricity generation?
Years ago, the answer would be “none.” But here we are in 2013, and it’s a different game. In a recent sustainability overview, IKEA announced it has jumped ahead of Costco and Kohl’s Department store to become the second largest private user and producer of solar power in the United States. Now second only to Walmart, the store intends to keep ramping up renewable energy installations until it produces more power than it uses by 2020. The famous maker of inexplicably well-packaged, well-priced designer furniture plans to become a net PRODUCER of renewable energy!
IKEA’s overview states, “Through a mix of solar, wind and geothermal installations, IKEA hopes to produce more energy than it consumes by 2020.”
The company is well on its way. Thirty-nine out of 44 IKEA locations in the United States already have solar installations totaling 34 megawatts of solar power, producing 49 gigawatt hours of electricity. It’s enough to vault the company to its national second place private solar production status. With a massive allocation of $1.8 billion, mostly for solar projects, the furniture retailer is building toward its full-on-renewable goal, aiming to get 70 percent of its power from renewable sources just two years from now in 2015, then on to 100 percent by 2020. Globally, IKEA has a quarter million solar panels and a hundred and ten wind turbines. How many tiny Allen wrenches does it take to install that many solar panels? Ask IKEA.
As the “intern economy” grows, young adults, unions, and other workers are starting to ask: When does an internship stop being a mutually beneficial experience and start being free or cheap labor? ProPublica is even kickstarting an investigative reporting project on the abuse of internships in America – with a nice sharing economy tie-in, they are using crowdfunding to pay the researchers.
So why are younger workers increasingly willing to work for free?
Unemployment among workers 16 to 24 is over 20 percent. That’s the official (U3) unemployment rate which means it’s only accounting for young adults actively looking for work. It doesn’t include folks who have given up.
It gets worse. Youth unemployment has been exceptionally high since 2008. That’s five years as of this writing. Five years is a long time for young people just entering the job market. By your early 20s, most employers already expect you to have had some meaningful work experience. But what if the employment opportunities simply didn’t exist for most of your adult life? If you attempted to enter the work force in 2008 at the age of 16, you would have experienced a job market even worse than most older adults did during the Great Recession. Fast forward to 2013 – you’re now 21 and you still have no significant work history.