Monthly Archives: December 2011

Stopping the tar sands pipeline–for now

Will delaying the Canadian company’s plans to build the pipeline through the US, as seems likely now, slow global warming? Read the fascinating news analysis in the New York Times. Bill McKibben thinks that something that buys time is good, as it makes it possible for leaders to begin to face the reality of climate change.


Two Short Videos about Plastic Pollution & Help for It

Check out these short videos. The first is a 4-minute mock-documentary about the life cycle of a plastic bag. It was made by a group working to stop the significant contribution to marine pollution made by disposable plastic bags, ubiquitous in our throwaway society. They are not only an eyesore; they harm turtles and other marine animals, which can become entangled in them or eat them, along with other forms of plastic.

Laws taxing or outright banning single-use bags by grocery stores and other retailers (“Ban the Bag” laws) are coming to a town or county– or even a state–near you. Help legislators in your area stand up to the plastics manufacturers who benefit from the wasteful practice of sending customers home with their purchases in multiple bags that go into the trash (very few get recycled) after one brief period of use. Remember, the trip home is short, but plastic is forever. It’s easy to convert to reusable bags–keep lightweight cloth or mesh ones in your handbag or backpack and canvas ones in your car. Remember the rule: recycle, reuse, or better yet, refuse plastic bags, and thus reduce the plastic in the marine  environment. For a quick overview of the problems and solutions go to this Australian science-news feature titled No bag, thanks.

The second video, One Plastic Beach, tells the story of a couple, Richard Lang and Judith Selby Lang, who regularly visit a northern California beach near their home and take plastic debris to turn into art, thus publicizing the amazing number and varieties of plastic that turn up regularly; see the hanging canvas with glued-on plastic in families in the exhibit called Rising Tide, and check out the post on plastic combs and toothbrushes on their blog. The Langs’ works have been exhibited at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Berkeley Art Center, among other places.


Japanese Tsunami Debris Headed Our Way

There are various sites tracking the massive amounts of debris dragged off land by the tsunami that struck Japan on March 11, 2011, and headed eastward across the Pacific. It’s not really a debris field because the material–houses and their contents, fishing boats, even small freighters–is so dispersed, and it’s not actually being tracked because it is no longer detectable by satellite. Rather, its possible trajectory  has been modeled by computer and vessel sighting reports. It’s also impossible to know how much of the estimated 25 million tons is still on its way; some of it undoubtedly has sunk and some has degraded. A good place to start learning about the threat to the west coast of North America and Hawai’i, including the national marine monument in the Northwest Hawaiian Islands,  is the Ocean Conservancy Tsunami Debris site. This “what you need to know” page explains the potential danger of the debris to wildlife and reefs and features a close-up photo of some debris,  including a boat keel.

For an overview of the debris’s projected movement based on the computer models of Jan Hafner and Nikolai Maximenko, researchers at the International Pacific Research Center (IPRC), University of Hawai’i, visit the Tsunami Debris Tracking Project. For an animated simulation of its anticipated spread for the next few years click here (warning–takes time to load).  The IPRC also issued a press release about a Russian sailing ship that in October found tsunami debris where the scientists had predicted, confirming the accuracy of the projections.

The Ocean Conservancy site also puts the tsunami hazard into perspective, calling this “high-profile case of ocean debris . . . just a small part of the overall ocean trash problem. A tsunami’s worth of ocean trash is created every year simply by the things we buy, use and throw away.” Unlike the natural disaster that struck Japan, we can do something about this annual tsunami of trash; try what the Ocean Conservancy recommends, such as tracking your throwaway habits via Keep the Coast Clear, and watch for more posts on what you can do to slow the scourge of plastic pollution.


Take Individual Action

While there are actions everyone can take to reduce their carbon footprint, it’s not easy to see the results in terms of slowing global temperature rise. But some of the same things you do pay off immediately and visibly in cleaner beaches and near-shore waters. You can refuse, reuse, recycle all plastic. Pick up plastic bags and other litter to keep it from ending up in the ocean. Support laws banning plastic bags or taxing them. Make lists like the following and post them in your office, home, public bulletin boards.

Ten things you can do, as posted on the Algalita blog by Karen Ristuben:
1. Stay informed about our plastic world and environmental toxins.
2. Reduce your use of one-time, single-use plastics.
3. Conduct your own personal trash audit.
4. Creatively reuse and repurpose your plastic products.
5. Refuse to use plastic shopping bags and don’t buy bottled water.
6. Support legislation that increases producer responsibility.
7. Support and try to improve local recycling efforts.
8. Pick a place and pick up the trash there every day.
9. Educate children about responsible use of plastic so they can teach their parents.

What’s the verdict on the climate talks?

Of the many takes on the Durban talks that ended Saturday, I chose Robert Stavins’s re-post at Climate Progress because he chose to characterize the results of the negotiations in a “glass-half-full” way. Because talks were extended at the last minute, they “advanced international discussions in a positive direction and have increased the likelihood of meaningful long-term action.”

David Roberts on Grist prefaced his top 5 “takeaways” from the climate conference by effectively defining the difference between the proverbial “half-full” or “half-empty” glass of water. In writing about climate policy, there’s only one way to describe most developments:  “compared to what’s needed, a failure; compared to what’s possible, decent.” Same here: the Durban conference didn’t do any harm, but it didn’t do enough, either. He explained why progress seems so slow: “National governments lack the will to challenge entrenched constituencies and take economic risks in the name of a problem that most populations still see as geographically and temporally distant. Only when a critical mass within those populations becomes noisy and powerful enough to push governments into action will the U.N. process come unstuck.”

Stavins concluded with a definition as well: “in the real world of international negotiations on this exceptionally difficult global commons problem, this is what success looks like.”


Bill McKibben on Colbert Nation & in Honolulu

Bill McKibben on Stephen Colbert in 2009

Bill manages to stay on message as he explains the purpose of, the global movement he co-founded, despite Stephen’s irreverent interruptions.

Called “the world’s best green journalist” by Time, McKibben will appear via video at Sierra Club Hawai’i”s Forces for Good Symposium on January 7, 2012.

Straining to Find Good News as 2011 Winds Down

What’s a CCW (Climate Change Worrier) to do? If you followed the climate news in recent weeks, you probably experienced mood whiplash, if not the journalistic whiplash (Andrew Revkin’s term) that results from reading  news reports about science and medical topics that veer from one interpretation or cure to another, contradictory one.  You may have conquered the despair aroused in early November by the International Energy Agency (IEA)’s warning that nations have only a 5-year window to switch from a fossil-fuel energy infrastructure to alternatives by seizing on a cautiously hopeful story–the Earth may be able to absorb more carbon than expected, and therefore warm less drastically than some scientists had predicted–only to be jerked back to reality with the December 5 report that 2010 saw the largest jump ever in carbon emissions.  Can’t  worriers hold on to a bit of hopeful news a little longer? Apparently not, as the climate talks in Durban are winding down with ominous warnings of a do-little conference threatening to postpone significant action until 2020.

I intend for Climate/Oceans Action to offer at least 50% hopeful commentary, to avoid triggering the defense mechanisms that enable people to give up or tune out, because the problem of runaway climate change needs everyone mobilized–to action, conservation, even sacrifice. So I’m determined to foreground optimistic news readers may have missed–first digging it out from the recent, mostly negative, reports and adding news about related developments that fall on the plus side.

Even the IEA warning, despite being grim indeed as it moved the deadline for required action to avoid irreversible warming to well ahead of the year the US wants to commit to, ends on a hopeful quote from the UN climate chief, Christiana Figueres. She conceded that the continuing growth in carbon emissions with no binding international agreement requiring nations to move from fossil-fuels to renewables was “not the scenario we wanted.” But she seemed to find the challenge bracing, calling what was needed “nothing other than the biggest industrial and energy revolution that has ever been seen.”

Although the IEA’s analysis was not widely reported except by bloggers–too scary, perhaps?–the study out of Oregon State University published just before Thanksgiving, which looked at how the Earth’s climate reacted to changing conditions in the past, was taken up everywhere, probably because it questioned the worst-case scenarios regarding the Earth’s so-called climate sensitivity. Time‘s environmental blog, like most mainstream accounts, emphasized the positive, calling the predictions of near 10-degree warming by the IPCC and others “unlikely, buying us more time . . . to shift the world to a more sustainable energy economy.”

The relief this study provided was short-lived, however, for other scientists questioned not only its interpretation of the historical data but the way journalists spun the results. Then about a week later came the impossible-to-spin data that the global recession of 2008-2009 had not slowed emissions of CO2 for long, for the amount of carbon pumped into the atmosphere in 2010 was the largest ever and the largest percentage increase since 2003. It’s hard to find anything positive in that news, but New York Times science reporter Justin Gillis did point out that in response to the economic downturn many countries poured billions into developing alternative energy systems; although the investment has not paid off yet,  it may bear fruit later on. We might think of the recession as a missed opportunity, but we may get another chance, for if the EU fails to resolve its debt crisis a worldwide depression is the likely result, and the longer it lasts, the more emissions will fall off and the countries that invested in R&D will be reaping the green payoff.