Saturday, October 31, 2009

This Week in Climate Politics

1. The US Chamber of Commerce faces off with President Obama over climate change regulations.

2. Senate Republicans, led by James Inhofe (R-Oklahoma), threaten to boycott a key committee vote on the Kerry-Boxer climate bill.

3. Other Republicans, most notably Senator Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina), recognize that "constructive Republican engagement will produce a better climate and energy bill than one produced by Democrats alone."

4. A report by Deutsche Bank’s global asset management group and Columbia University’s Earth Institute makes the connection between favorable climate policy and renewable energy investment.

5. Looking ahead: What's at stake at the UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen?

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

In the Battle for Hybrid-Electric Vehicles, What's Missing?

A Toyota Prius hybrid rear-ended an electric Tesla Roadster in Denmark several days ago, pushing it underneath a Volkswagen Touareg and highlighting the ongoing feud between these coveted vehicles (read the full report of the accident here).

In all seriousness though, with these energy-efficient automobiles engineers and designers are achieving two very important goals: 1. providing a vehicle that produces little or no carbon dioxide emissions (transportation-related CO2 accounts for roughly 25-30 percent of all emissions in the US) and 2. maintaining the freedom and independence inherent in personalized transportation.

As manufacturers continue to recognize the value of hybrid-electric vehicles, the transition from automobiles powered by fossil fuels to those powered by electrons will accelerate. But we need extensive infrastructure improvements to support this shift. Some states, California especially, have invested large sums of money in projects which promote electric vehicles. But when I refer to the need for infrastructure, I am not just thinking about roadside recharging stations. I am talking about something much more complex: the way we produce our electricity. What's the use in shifting from autos running on gasoline to autos running on electricity if that electricity is produced by a coal-fired power plant? Point source and not just tailpipe emissions must be factored into this equation.

If we are to succeed in this endeavor, we're going to need some help from the big dogs...

Yesterday, Vice President Joe Biden attended the opening of the new Fisker Automotive plant in Wilmington, Delaware (previously owned by GM), touting the benefits of electric vehicles. The same morning, President Barack Obama announced a $3.4 billion investment plan for the ailing US energy grid at the unveiling of Florida Power and Light’s (FPL) DeSoto Next Generation Solar Energy Center, the largest photovoltaic facility in the country (pictured above). Watch the full speech below or read a detailed synopsis from here:

The beauty of the dream for a safe and secure renewable energy future is the amount of technological innovation and collaboration it will take to make it happen. We are becoming more and more aware that we have the technology we need to succeed and it is now up to our leaders to step up to the plate and implement policies which incentivize sustainable development. Some have already - Senator John Kerry (D-MA) and Senator Barbara Boxer's (D-CA) Clean Energy Jobs and American Power Act is currently under review in the Senate - but this is just the tip of the policy iceberg and there is much more work to be done. There are tremendous political obstacles to overcome (see here, here, and here).

One closing thought: If Rush Limbaugh can go gaga over low-emissions vehicles (in this case, the electric Ford Focus), we all can. Enjoy:

Friday, October 23, 2009

McKibben's Challenge: When Good Politics are Bad Science

On the eve of what he says will be the "single most widespread day of political action the planet has ever seen," Co-Founder and Director Bill McKibben has written an op-ed in the Boston Globe challenging President Obama to answer the call to action (see post below or click here for background on's International Day of Climate Action).

McKibben argues that climate change is different than any problem we have faced before, and that Obama's strategy of "working with Congress to pass something modest" simply will not work. Climate change defies conventional political paradigms:

The negotiation that really counts is not between Republicans and Democrats or industry and the greens, or even between the United States and China. The real bargaining is happening between human beings and physics and chemistry, and that’s a tough negotiation.

Mother Nature has drawn a line in the sand: 350 ppm is the highest acceptable concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. There is no negotiating. There is no compromise.

In order to meet this goal, we must demand more serious climate action from our legislators and our Commander in Chief (McKibben says, "The bill making its way through Congress explicitly aims for a world with 450 parts per million carbon."). If Obama is worried he will exhaust his political capital by throwing his weight behind stricter climate legislation while dealing with health care reform and the struggling economy, he must look no further than the 4594 events planned in 175 countries this Saturday. With such widespread support from the global community, how could he afford not to promote bold policies?

McKibben concludes his piece in the Globe with the following challenge to our President:

It would risk real political capital to push for change on the scale that the science demands. Since even a politician of his talents can’t amend the laws of nature, though, let’s hope that beginning today he’s willing to take some real risks.

Obama is scheduled to give a speech on "American leadership in clean energy" at MIT in the morning to promote the Senate climate bill. Let's listen carefully to what he says and decide if he lives up to McKibben's challenge or if he reverts back to conventional political practices.

(Image above courtesy of the Boston Globe)

Sunday, October 18, 2009 International Day of Climate Action

One number will determine the fate of our planet. 350 parts per million is the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide above which the earth can no longer naturally sequester (absorb) the greenhouse gas and climate change occurs., a nonprofit organization focused on raising awareness about this essential benchmark, is creating an international movement to pressure political leaders to agree to adopt strong climate legislation at the UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen in December.

In a recent post on, Co-founder and Director Bill McKibben describes the significance of the 350 limit and also outlines the challenges we face in order to meet it:

It's as if we suddenly discovered what normal body temperature was, so we'd be able to tell when we were running a fever. In that sense, it came as a great relief.

But in every other sense, it was a pretty devastating number. For one thing, we're already past it, at 390 ppm and rising two ppm annually--that's why the Arctic is melting. For another thing, it means the work nations and individuals must do to reduce their carbon footprints is much larger, and must happen much more swiftly, than we'd believed. Hansen's data [Jim Hansen and his team of NASA researchers established the 350 metric] shows that as a planet we'd need to get off coal by 2030 in order for the planet's forests and oceans ever to bring atmospheric levels back down below 350--that's the toughest economic and political challenge the earth has ever faced.

The time to hesitate, to doubt, and to second-guess has passed. We now have a quantifiable metric for the success of our environmental efforts, and it's going to take a hell of a lot of collaboration and innovation to meet it before the effects of climate change become irreversible.

This Saturday, October 24th, is hosting a global call to action to mobilize members of the international community. So far there are 3,769 events planned in 163 countries. By demonstrating to our respective governments that there is definite support for climate legislation, we pressure them to act boldly in Copenhagen. The following video captures the essence of the event:

To find a 350 rally near you, or to start your own if there isn't one already, click here.

We have an immense amount of work to do and a desperately short amount of time to do it. If we are to ever succeed in this endeavor, we are going to need everyone's help. We need to send a clear message to our political leaders that we won't accept anything less than a commitment to carbon legislation in Copenhagen that respects the 350 ppm limit. Let's get out there on Saturday and make our voices heard.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Change Yourself, Change the World

Colin Beavan is the No Impact Man. Through his blog, book, and documentary film (trailer above), he has increased awareness of the ways in which individuals can improve their quality of life while creating positive environmental change.

In the Spring of 2009, Beavan founded the No Impact Project, inspired by his year-long, zero-carbon experiment in New York City. The mission of the No Impact Project is:

To empower citizens to make choices which better their lives and lower their environmental impact through lifestyle change, community action, and participation in environmental politics.

The idea behind this mission is that "individual behavior change leads to both cultural change and political engagement." Again the importance of personal agency in transforming national and international paradigms comes to the foreground of the climate debate.

Sure, the lifestyle he promotes is intimidating (if only at first) and presents some problems. The biggest of these obstacles is that not everyone is readily willing to sacrifice the amenities we have come to take for granted in today's society. But through his work Beavan challenges us, asking, "What if those amenities distract us from what is most important? What if we could live better, happier, and healthier lives without them?"

Starting on Sunday, October 18th, the Huffington Post is hosting the first ever No Impact Week in partnership with the No Impact Project. This initiative will give each of us the opportunity to experience some or all of the lifestyle changes Beavan and his family went through during their own experiment, and ideally it will show us that the task of living carbon-free is not so daunting after all. To get more information about No Impact Week, follow this link and to register click here.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

How Walkable is Your Neighborhood? Walk Score Has the Answer

Two of the most important concepts in the field of sustainable urban design today are dense, mixed-use development and neighborhood walkability. Dense developments are those that make the most of the available land and pack a lot of urban infrastructure into a small geographic area. Mixed-use developments are those that include buildings from diverse real estate sectors (office, retail, residential, etc.). Walkability refers to the degree to which residents can effectively and comfortably walk around their neighborhoods and also incorporates what they have access to on foot. The two ideas are related in that it is a lot easier to walk to work if your office is close to your house or apartment (the same argument can be made for grocery shopping, schools, yoga classes, and so on). The opposite of dense, mixed-use development would be a sprawling neighborhood where most uses are accessible only by car. Consider the comparison below:

One mile walk in a compact neighborhood (Seattle's Phinney Ridge, left),
and one mile walk in a sprawling neighborhood (
Bellevue, WA, right).

Even though you are walking the same distance, it is clear that you can access a lot more in a densely planned area than you can in a sprawling suburb. Not only does dense, mixed-use urban design reduce transportation-related carbon dioxide emissions, but it also improves the health and well-being of residents, strengthens local businesses, and enforces a sense of place lost to most commuters who are insulated in their shells of metal and glass (i.e. automobiles).

One company is trying to quantify this somewhat vague idea of walkability and make this information accessible to all. is a user-friendly website which rates neighborhoods on a scale from 0-100 based on their proximity to amenities (including schools, grocery stores, movie theaters, parks, libraries, pharmacies, retails outlets, etc). Simply plug in your address to the search bar and the software - integrated with Google Maps - provides a readout with your score. For example, below is the walkscore of the White House:

As you can see at the top, it scores a whopping 97 percent and is classified as a "Walkers' Paradise." Given it's location in the heart of a major metropolitan area this should come as no surprise. But let's try another example. Below is the walkscore for former President Bush's ranch in Crawford, Texas:

This property scores a pathetic 0 percent and is classified as "Car-Dependent." Does anyone else think this map looks really lonely?

I will be one of the first to point out that Walkscore isn't perfect: for example, some of the destinations they include in their calculations aren't truly what they claim to be (for example, Shop N' Go Inc near my dorm in Providence is not exactly what I'd call a grocery store...). But it is important to note that the company acknowledges these flaws and includes a page on their website identifying further drawbacks. The algorithm can't account for everything and no score will ever supplant actually hitting the streets and deciding for yourself, but Walkscore is nevertheless a valuable tool that will continue to be updated and improved.

The following statement is part of the company's mission:

"Our vision is for every property listing to read: Beds: 3 Baths: 2 Walk Score: 84. We want walkability and transportation costs to be a key part of choosing where to live."

I eagerly await the day that dense, mixed-use and walkable neighborhoods become highly valued and sought-after communities.