Archive for November, 2013

My Commute Is Not So Lonely Anymore!


Photo by JoeMabel. Some rights reserved.

A little over a year ago, I noticed something on my bike ride to work: a small electronic podium about the size of a parking meter had popped up just before the pedestrian/cyclist path across Seattle’s Fremont bridge. And on that small electronic podium was an LED screen, and on that LED screen was a number, somewhere in the low four hundreds if I remember correctly. As I approached it, the number on the screen rose by one. Well, I’ve read Sherlock Holmes and I know how deductive reasoning works, so I worked out what was going on – someone (Seattle’s Department of Transportation, it turns out) had installed a bike counter that was using sensors in the sidewalk on both sides of the bridge to count each cyclist as they rode across. I found out later they had installed a second counter on the West Seattle Bridge, all as a part of Seattle’s very official sounding “Bicycle Master Plan“, which is exactly what it sounds like.

I’ve since made it a daily habit to predict what the day’s number will be when I ride across. There are obvious factors that contribute – time and date for instance: if I ride across at 8:15 am on a Monday, the number is likely to be higher than if I rode across at the same time on a Saturday, but likely to be lower than if I rode across at 10:15 am on a weekday. Just as obvious would be weather, and more generally the time of year: if the temperatures are higher (as in Seattle’s delightful May – October summers), more people are likely to bike to work. Yadda yadda, you understand how this works. I didn’t say it was a particularly complex game, just an activity to pass the time. If its a sunny weekday, my guess is likely to be in the 800 – 1000 range, whereas if its rainy and wintertime, my guess is more likely to hover around 500. I’ve never gotten it right on the dot, but I have been within ten, so that’s something.

Now, though, the DOT has made the data publicly available for your perusal, and the news is good! Bike traffic across the bridge is 28% up overall in the last year since the counter first went up. On their site you can create your own graphs by filtering the data by time of day, time of year, weather conditions, and more. This might be especially neat for me because I feel I’ve made a significant contribution to the data, but hey – who doesn’t love colored interactive graphs?

Baby Steps: Fighting Global Warming is Hard – Now With More Cool Graphics!

via Wikimedia Commons

via Wikimedia Commons

As Typhoon Haiyan hurtled past the Philippines this month, 10,000 delegates from some 200 nations met in Warsaw for the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. And took a bold baby step by agreeing to meet again in Paris in 2015.

Expectations had drooped over the course of the summit, but after going 24 hours into overtime the delegates managed to paper over disagreements between developed countries and developing nations over who should take responsibility for restraining climate change and how to curb greenhouse gas emissions. Under the late, lamented Kyoto Agreement, only the most developed countries were to limit their emissions, a requirement that kept the U.S. signature off the agreement. In the latest Warsaw round of talks, the delegates finessed the differences by changing the word “commitments” to “contributions” and called it good.  Under the new deal, nations will put forward their proposals to cut emissions in time for the Paris meeting. They also put in place something called the Warsaw International Mechanism to help poor countries cope with disruptions like drought, rising seas, and floods caused by climate change – although wealthy nations refused to pledge funding.

All in all, it was a pretty meager affair, although this year was the first time business leaders attended, so that’s progress of sorts. Jennifer Morgan, director of the climate and energy program at the World Resources Institute, said “I think this is what they needed to move the ball forward, even if you can’t say that it provided a lot of new ambition.” Ms. Morgan has a gift for understatement. Naderev Sano, a Philippines delegate who had fasted for the duration was more blunt. “We did not achieve a meaningful outcome.”

Last September, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its latest, and grimmest, report on climate change. The report underscored the urgent necessity of swift and coordinated action. Environmentalists are understandably upset at the timidity on display in Warsaw. But achieving a unified, global response to climate change requires agreement on fundamental and conflicting interests between wildly diverse actors. Given the forces arrayed against any accord, agreeing to kick the can down the road until 2015 represents a victory of sorts.

While the IPCC report failed to light a rocket under the Warsaw meeting, the U.N. has released a haunting video. Produced by the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme and Globaia, the video graphically depicts the impact of the changes the Panel forecasts by fast-forwarding us through time. It’s compelling and strangely beautiful. Take a few minutes to look.

The Internet v. Melissa Bachman

Photo by Tambako the Jaguar. Some rights reserved.

Photo by Tambako the Jaguar. Some rights reserved.

If you’ve been on any sort of social media in the last 48 hours, you’ve likely come across this picture, either on its own or accompanied by some strong words regarding its content – a woman holding a hunting rifle sitting and smiling over the carcass of a male African lion. The woman in question is Melissa Bachman, a Minnesota-based tv producer and hunting enthusiast, and the lion was killed legally within the boundaries of the Maroi Conservancy in South Africa, whose slogan is “conservation through sustainable hunting.” The hunting of African lions has long been a source of outrage for animal rights activists, as they are not covered by the Endangered Species Act and as such their carcasses can be legally brought back into the United States as trophies (as 60% of lions killed by hunters are each year). The fact that there are only 32,000 of these lions left in the world and that this number could be out of date and in fact much lower does not help. Six hundred lions are killed yearly in the arena of big game hunting alone, and then there is the number of lions that die each year from habitat loss, contact with humans, etc. (a much higher figure than 600). The International Fund for Animal Welfare created a petition to list the African Lion as an endangered species two years ago, which is available here and would ban the transport of lions into the U.S. under the ESA. Earlier this year, the director of the IFAW wrote an editorial for National Geographic on this very subject.

As for Bachman, the internet has reacted (some might say overreacted – regardless of your feelings about the above photo and this story in general, this is as good a place as any for a reminder that there is no justification here for personal attacks or threats against Bachman herself and that doing so weakens the arguments made against her behavior) – celebrities like Ricky Gervais and Morrissey have denounced Bachman and the culture of big game hunting in general, while Cape Town resident Elan Burman has launched a petition on calling on the South African government to ban Bachman from any future entry to the country – a petition that as of writing this has gained over 310,000 signatures. It seems that the outrage is especially potent because Bachman can be seen smiling unapologetically in the photo. Of course, whether or not the strong dissent against Bachman is justified depends entirely on your point of view on the matter, but it certainly is a timely reminder that we have a responsibility as the alpha-species to protect the animals that we share this planet with as in the world we have built and chosen to live in, they are simply not able to protect themselves.

Treasury Department Quietly Kicks Coal to the Curb

via Wikimedia Commons

via Wikimedia Commons

Back in June, the administration released details of President Obama’s Climate Action Plan. One aspect of the plan is to tilt public financing towards clean energy and to end U.S. government support  for the public financing of new coal plants overseas.

The Department of the Treasury recently issued guidance on implementing that part of the president’s plan. The guidelines are intended to level the playing field for clean energy alternatives and to promote low-emission power generation. The plan accomplishes this goal by ending U.S. support for coal plant funding by multilateral development banks. From now on, the U.S. will not support such projects at all in wealthy countries unless they employ carbon capture and sequestration technologies. In the world’s poorest countries, the U.S. will support only the most efficient coal technology available and only where no other economically feasible alternative exists. The U.S. is the largest shareholder in development banks like the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, the African Development Bank, and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. While the U.S. is in no position to impose its policy on the banks by diktat, the new Treasury guidelines will likely exert considerable pressure to scrub coal plant funding from the banks’ agendas.

The U.S. isn’t going it alone in reining in funding for new coal plants. The World Bank itself has announced that it will limit financing for new plants to “rare circumstances” where countries have no alternative. The leaders of  Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden joined Obama in Stockholm in September in pledging not to fund any more coal projects.

The Treasury guidelines will have no effect on private financing, of course. And political pressure in favor of burning coal is intense, not just in the U.S., but in India and, of course, China – the world’s most voracious consumer of coal. Indeed, the Treasury action is a reflection of the intense political battle being waged in Washington, and arises out of Obama’s reliance on administrative measures to chip away at carbon emissions in the face of Republican obstruction in Congress. In this case, Obama and the Treasury appear to be taking a page from Teddy Roosevelt’s playbook: they’re walking softly and carrying a big stick.

Go Ahead, Take All the Time You Need

Photo by Dana Peštová. Some rights reserved.

Photo by Dana Peštová. Some rights reserved.

With the exception of 2012, aka the hottest year ever on record, the last fifteen years have been more or less stable when it comes to climate. Of course, average temperatures have settled into a groove well above what they were fifty years ago, but the point remains: we’re in the midst of what scientists are apparently calling a “global warming hiatus”, which is exactly what it sounds like. While climate change naysayers have used this fact repeatedly as evidence that global warming is a scam (or at the very least overemphasized as a concern), some scientists (specifically climatologist Francisco Estrada of the National Autonomous University of Mexico and Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam, who have authored a new report for Nature Geoscience) are now pointing back to 1987 in providing some cause-and-effect explanations for the temperature slump.

Why 1987, you ask? Well, aside from being the year that Prince released his seminal (and best) album Sign the Times (which I’m not denying may also have had something to do with the lull in destructive planetary forces), 1987 was also the year that the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer was agreed upon. The Montreal Protocol was an international treaty signed by more than 40 countries that laid out plans to phase out any products or procedures that would harm the ozone layer – it was drawn up in 1987 and went into effect in 1989. The largest of its efforts was to ban CFCs (Chlorofluorocarbons), often present in repellants and solvents. Since the CFCs have been phased out (and replaced by safer alternatives), the ozone layer has been on the mend and global temperatures have stabilized. However, researchers are quick to note that this change is not enough on its own to account of the 15 years of stabilized temperatures, and that the real explanation is likely much more complex and a result of multiple factors (such as economics – turns out there is a precedent set in other trying times like WWII and The Great Depression where temperatures stabilize because of a steep drop in U.S. production – less operational factories means less greenhouse gases).

Mother Jones has the full scoop.

My Hobby Horse

via Wikimedia Commons

via Wikimedia Commons

The average human being lives 79 years in the United States. So, you’ve probably got plenty of time to contemplate this cool new interactive map from National Geographic.

It shows what the coasts of the world’s continents will look like once all the ice at the poles and sitting atop Greenland has melted. Nat Geo tells us that once all the ice has turned to water, the sea levels will have risen 216 feet. The map shows us just what that would mean. At first blush, things don’t look so different. But then you realize that the distinctive handle on the lower east corner of the United States which we now call Florida is gone. Under water entirely, and the Gulf of Mexico flows directly into the Atlantic – and up through Louisiana into Arkansas. New York? Gone. Boston? Submerged. The tidal flats in Washington D.C. are now part of the open seas, along with the White House, the Capital, and the Lincoln monument.

What looks like the San Francisco Bay is actually California’s Central Valley. Telegraph Hill in San Francisco is a pleasant island from which to view the new and immense inland sea. You could vacation on Baja California – but it would be a mighty narrow strip of land, not to mention hot.

Our offices in Seattle would be history: waves would lap far above our current roof. In fact, the Pacific Northwest, with it’s steep-glacier carved hills and high coastal mountains seems to weather the melting better than much of the rest of the country.

Other continents show similarly disconsonant coastlines. Looking for London? Look away. It’s not there, long since subsumed into the Thames/English Channel. Don’t look to Denmark for cheese. You’ll find its watery taste not to your liking. And don’t try to quaff it down with a nice Bordeaux. Venice, which is hanging on by its fingernails even now, is long gone. It’s floated off to the Caspian Sea which has merged with the Black Sea and joined the Mediterranean.

Southeast Asia, just walloped by a supertyphoon, is underwater to a remarkable degree. As is much of the Indian coastline. Bangladesh? History.

But you get the idea. Melt the ice, and the seas take over lots of our favorite real estate.

The good news is that this won’t happen in our lifetime. Nor our grandchildren’s. It is starting now, but the full effect is expected to take a few thousand years. You can still book that holiday in Holland. It’ll be there.

Which leads to the question of whether all that cold water might not counteract the warming of the oceans which is occurring now, also compliments of global climate change. Might all that fresh water cool things down in the briny deep? Won’t all that clear fresh water be a tonic for the sea creatures trying to cope with the heat and the carbon dioxide?

The Seattle Times is continuing with its laudable investigation of the effects of global warming on the world’s oceans. The latest installment chronicles the remarkable, and entirely unpredictable, ability of some species to thrive in changing waters while others give up the ghost.

“Which plants and animals can accommodate these more corrosive seas — and for how long — will depend on many factors, from where they live to their population sizes to the depth of stress they face from other forces, such as warming temperatures and pollution. Survival will vary species by species. Not everything will make it.”

The article focuses on the lowly sea urchin, which is proving surprisingly adept at weathering the changes underway in the oceans. While the urchin may adapt, it’s an open question which other flora and fauna will follow on their proverbial heels. “Evolution is not a gentle sport,” says Stephen Palumbi, a researcher quoted by the Times. “When evolution happens, it’s because the unfit are dying. It’s pretty brutal.” Another researcher quoted by the Times says simply, “When you start knocking out the very bottom of the food chain, it’s incredibly terrifying.”

So, who knows? Maybe a kind of crazy equilibrium will establish itself as we warm our air and oceans, while melting the poles. We’re an adaptable species in our own right. We might well live long enough to come to a collective understanding of how the whole thing plays out.

Washington State Initiative 522 Fails

Photo by Alexis Baden-Mayer. Some rights reserved.

Photo by Alexis Baden-Mayer. Some rights reserved.

Here in Washington State, the election results are in: Initiative 522 has failed. Even if you live outside Washington, it’s likely you may be familiar with the issue at hand, given that the bill has received some national attention: a passing vote on I-522 would have made Washington the first state to require mandatory labeling of GMOs (genetically modified organisms) on packaged foods. There has been a stiff debate running here in Washington over the past few weeks – supporters of the bill claim that GMOs are harmful and that labeling foods with genetically modified ingredients will allow consumers to make smarter decisions, while its detractors claim the science on GMOs is shaky, that GMOs are actually no more harmful than non-GE crops, and that the misleading labels would cost the average consumer an additional $490 a year. There’s even a sizable faction of liberal voters who support the idea of labeling genetically engineered products in general but believe that I-522 was poorly written and that the labels themselves would be too prominent.

Now we also have the figures on how much money was spent in support of both sides of the bill. Those of us Seattlites who shop at Whole Foods have seen plenty of “Yes on I-522” marketing around town, but given the lack of visible “No on I-522” support around town, its a bit surprising that the bill failed by such a large margin (54.8% opposed, 45.2% in favor). However, we now have more information about just where exactly the money behind “No on I-522” came from, and the results are eye-opening if hardly surprising: of the $22,000,000 spent on the campaign against the bill, only $550 (.000025% of the grand total) was raised in Washington state itself. The rest came, understandably, from corporations whose products would be effective by the labeling initiative. Chief among them: Monsanto, the oft-criticized biotech giant, which donated $5.4 million to the cause, while Dupont (the manufacturer of many a GMO seed) donated $3.9 million, and PepsiCo gave $2.4 million. That all helps explain why the victory party for “No on I-522” last night appeared to be something of a ghost town.

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