Posts in 'Global Warming'

Hope

A successful fight for safer school buses offers hope for global warming action

“Hope is the thing with feathers,” Emily Dickinson wrote. In her poem, hope flutters into—and out of—our hearts, it clings to its perch through the heaviest storms, and it asks for nothing in exchange, not a crumb. Hope has been very much on my mind this summer. Every single day we learn more about the deteriorating state of our planet—the dying ocean, the melting glaciers, the disruptive, unusually severe weather patterns. Then we ponder the sorry state of our political process with respect to climate change. Where’s the hope?

How neighborhood action spurred national change.

My weary friends say the battle against climate change is overwhelming. The issues are too large. The battle must be global in scale and the solution has to be as large as the problem. But it is doubtful we can institutionalize international change fast enough to avert disaster. Time is not on our side.

So we retreat to our homes, and think of tending only our gardens and raising our children. It is autumn, and for most of us, no matter how old we are, an internal rhythm kicks in: back to school! Back to serious matters! We buy the crayons and notebooks and lunch boxes for our little ones, and send them out the door to board those bright yellow buses, just as we did when we were in our brand new fall oxfords. We send our children out into that very large world—the one from which we want to retreat.

Children on the school busFresh faces on the first day of school.

About a decade ago, we began to learn that those school buses we waved our children off in posed an unexpected environmental risk. Despite being the safest way to transport children to and from school, buses produced diesel fumes that can cause respiratory ailments, exacerbating asthma, and damaging lung tissue. The problems were aggravated every time the buses stopped to open their doors to pick up more passengers; more particulate pollution streamed in and entered the children’s lungs, bloodstreams and brains. Because children’s lungs are not fully developed, they are especially vulnerable. To make matters worse, idling at pickup time at the school doors added to the pollution both inside and outside the bus.

Buses by the Numbers

When the information surfaced, it led to aggressive action across the country. New York City, Washington state, New Jersey and California instituted mandatory emissions controls programs, setting aside funds to either retire old buses quickly, or retrofit them to filter the pollution.

In states such as Texas, where EDF went to work on this issue, the programs were voluntary, but millions in funds have been made available through the legislature. EDF’s efforts, primarily in Houston, generated a great deal of local and national media attention, which helped educate other communities about the problem. EDF also created this educational video at www.cleanbuses.org/texas to encourage grass roots action in other cities:

Along with the Environmental Protection Agency, the American Lung Association threw its weight behind the issue; so did many PTA organizations. Things have begun to change. Progress is slow, and sometimes frustrating. Some fleet managers are more concerned with bus routes and schedules; some legislatures are unable to find funds to buy new buses or retrofit old ones. The retrofit costs ranging from $1,000 to $8,000 are a small price to pay for our children, and the sort of thing many companies could underwrite in an “Adopt a Bus” program.

Startling difference in tailpipe emissions from buses with and without filters. Learn more

Incredibly, some people fail to give a child’s lungs and heart and brains top priority. But over and over, we have seen that things happen most rapidly and effectively when the people who do care—the parents—mobilize to demand change, and champion it through the planning and implementation stages. EPA reports that across the nation, bus retrofit programs are growing and getting better. Ten years later, district by district, across the country, our children are breathing cleaner air as they ride to school. And fortunately, even in places where nothing is done, the old, dirty buses will eventually “age out”, and be replaced with new buses designed to run more efficiently and cleanly.

Which gets us to that matter of hope. Of course there are times when hope fails us. We abandon it, or it abandons us. But the only alternative to hope is despair, and no one thrives with a heavy heart. To be human is to hope. The thing with feathers is small, but it is also nimble. Sometimes, when the big picture is overwhelming, it helps to zoom in tighter. Look at the ways in which we have made large changes for the better in our own small neighborhoods. Look at the successes we have had—and be reminded that we can change things for the better. The fight against global warming is not like the fight against school bus pollution; the crisis is too pervasive, for any individual action to make much difference. We need significant legislative change. But it is up to us, as individuals, to rally around transformative efforts—for our own sakes, and for the sake of our children.

Sometimes, hope is the thing with a backpack—that small, cherished creature, innocent and expectant, we send out into the world’s hurly-burly. I have to believe that, one way or another, we will continue to change our ways for those children—a new generation whose own hearts are filling with hope as they pick up the fight. We are like those buses. We will age out—and we will, I hope, be replaced by our children, people who have cleaner energy on their minds. In the meantime, it helps to understand that hope is a gift, a blessing, a visitation, a grace. But it is also a choice.

Personal Nature

Get Involved! Cleaner buses are just one change of many we can make.

Join a powerful new I am Not a Guinea Pig campaign to strengthen toxic chemical standards.

Why the BP Blowout Won’t Be the Last Tragedy in the Gulf of Mexico

The BP Gulf Oil Gusher has shown the whole world the nightmarish risks of deep sea drilling. But there is another, older, story of environmental destruction in the Mississippi River Delta wetlands—and it, too, is related to offshore drilling. This tragedy will continue long after BP’s well is shut down, and it’s another accident just waiting to happen.

As long as we demand oil,
oil companies will venture into ever-trickier waters to find it.

The first offshore well was drilled in fourteen feet of water off the coast of Calcasieu Parish, Louisiana in 1937. In the decades that followed, a dense infrastructure was thrown up to support a booming offshore oil business—which was rapidly moving into ever-greater depths. Some 30,000 to 40,000 miles of underwater pipeline were laid—maps show a dense thicket of infrastructure—and navigational canals were cut through the wetlands for shipping. Most of these pipelines and canals that service the roughly 4,000 active wells in the Gulf were built long before environmental laws were passed and agencies were created to protect the wetlands. This oil infrastructure has cost Louisiana dearly, and it will threaten the Gulf coast for years to come.

Since the early 1900s, Louisiana has lost 2,300 square miles of wetlands to the sea, an area roughly the size of Delaware. Paul Harrison, a senior director in EDF’s Ecosystems program, explains several causes of the state’s vulnerability.

First, the Mississippi River has been separated from the wetlands by the levees and jetties that were built to keep shipping channels open. Fresh river water, carrying its rich load of sediment and nutrients, no longer reaches and replenishes the wetlands. Along with the infrastructure that supports the offshore drilling industry, this has severely compromised the resilience of the Delta ecosystem.

Louisiana's Shrinking Coastline
Louisiana’s Shrinking Coastline
Since 1930, 1.2 million acres of coastal wetlands have been lost. (Maps: Courtesy Windell Curole, SLLD/Joe Suhayda, LWRRI)

Second, the straight, wide industrial canals have disrupted the hydrology—the water flow—of the wetlands. Normally, bayous are full of small, winding channels that keep saltwater from running inland. The manmade canals, in contrast, serve as conduits for seawater, which kills the freshwater marsh vegetation that holds the land together, leaving it to wash away with the tides.

Third, the Geophysical Research Letters will soon publish a paper revealing that the pipeline along the seafloor of the Gulf of Mexico, much of it old and decaying, is extremely vulnerable to hurricane-induced currents. In 2004, during Hurricane Ivan, sensors placed on the ocean floor showed that underwater currents put considerable stress on the oil infrastructure. More hurricane-resistant design of this infrastructure is needed before the next crisis erupts.

And the last, and largest, problem for the Mississippi River Delta wetlands is global warming. In low-lying places like Louisiana, you have to consider relative sea level rise. Because the land is subsiding at the same time that the ocean is rising, Louisiana faces the most severe consequences of climate change.

Lance Nacio’s story vividly illustrates the impact of land subsidence in the Delta. For more than a century, his family has owned a couple of thousand acres of freshwater marshland, about thirty to forty miles inland, in Lafourche Parish, Louisiana. His grandparents lived off the land—they were self-sufficient. They raised cattle for food, grew crops and fished, hunted duck commercially, and trapped animals like nutria, muskrat, otter and mink to sell to furriers. They carved dugout canoes out of large old felled trees. Photographs from the forties and fifties show a land so fertile that, as Nacio says “it breaks your heart to see it, compared to how it looks now.”

This beautiful land is rapidly disappearing. Since Nacio inherited it 21 years ago, he figures about 30% has vanished underwater. As saltwater rushes into his marshes, the freshwater grasses die off and grasses that thrive in saltwater haven’t grown in fast enough to stop the land from eroding. His land was once protected by barrier islands further south in the Gulf, but they have subsided, leaving him increasingly vulnerable. Now his land is also subsiding into the water, literally sinking from sight.


Lance Nacio recounts decades of wetlands loss that has taken his land and put the region at even greater risk of oil spill damage.

Nacio, who is 39 years old, has tried to adapt. In 1998, when roughly 60% of his land became water, he started running a commercial shrimp boat to make a living. Since the BP Blowout, Nacio can no longer fish. “We’ve been shut down for a more than a month here,” he says. “The oil has contaminated the fishing areas.”

It is hard to imagine how families like Lance Nacio’s can survive. The BP disaster is already creating severe economic hardship for everyone whose livelihood depends on these oil-soaked Gulf waters. But even after the Gusher is capped, the tens of thousands of miles of pipeline and canals will remain. The next Gulf tragedy waits its turn. That’s why the urgent work of EDF and its allies to replenish and strengthen the wetlands that nourish and protect the Gulf Coast should become America’s priority.

This magical, rich, fertile, wild and abundant land must be thought of as a national treasure. Losing it would leave us all that much poorer.

But there is a larger issue that we Americans must confront. Regardless of our collective fury over the environmental nightmare in the Gulf, as long as we demand oil, oil companies will venture into ever-trickier waters to find it. Now is the time to support energy and climate legislation that will shift our economy to safer energy sources. We can be energy-addicted. We cannot afford to be addicted to filthy fossil fuels.

Personal Nature
Take action! Tell President Obama and Congress to hold oil companies accountable for the full extent of their pollution and unleash our clean energy future.

Connect the Dots: Oil in the Gulf and Floods in Tennessee

I went to Franklin, Tennessee for a visit that was supposed to end last Saturday, but I was marooned by flooding from the unprecedented deluge that pummeled this part of the country over the weekend. We got more than 15 inches in two days—a record high. The rain came stunningly fast and furious, buckets of water pouring down from the heavens. Within hours, dry creek beds became raging rivers. As a friend and I were driving from downtown Nashville at the start of the storm, it began to dawn on us that things were much worse than the prediction of “severe thunderstorms” might indicate.

Will we learn from the terrible disaster in the Gulf?

Winds were gusting wildly, trees were toppling across roads, water was spilling over banks, asphalt was crumbling, and cars around us were stalled. We got to a dip in one street and saw a woman pacing back and forth, her hands folded in prayer in front of her face. A man just ahead of us had been told not to drive through the water spilling across the road, she said, but he had ignored the warning. “His car washed away. He’s hangin’ in the top of a tree, hangin’ on for dear life,” she said. “Pray for him. Please.”

I don’t know if he was rescued, or if he became one of the 24 people who died in Tennessee, Kentucky and Mississippi when rivers flashed through towns, washed away cars, houses and commercial buildings, and buckled bridges. When I wasn’t watching the downpour or warily eying the creek behind my friends’ house, I was following the disaster unfolding in the Gulf of Mexico. Within a week, what had been described by BP as a containable spill coming from the sinking Deepwater Horizon rig had become three “leaks”—a maddening description.

May 4th satellite image of the Gulf Coast oil spill. Source: NASA

What’s going on cannot possibly be called a leak, nor can it be called a spill. Leaks are gradual and spills imply the emptying of a container. Instead, what we have are underwater geysers of oil that are spewing rust-colored crude; and there is no known end to the supply. As of Monday, BP estimated that 210,000 gallons a day—five times the company’s original projection—were spilling into the Gulf’s tricky, frigid waters. The oil slick on the surface covers more than 1,800 square miles and Interior Department officials are estimating it may take 90 days to stop the flow if BP has to drill a “relief” well to intersect and cap the out-of-control well.

The weather has not been cooperating with containment efforts, which were slow off the mark. As of Wednesday, BP said 100 miles of floating booms had been laid out to keep the oil from spreading, but they were severely compromised, and outright destroyed in places, by winds and waves. Eighty percent of the booms protecting Alabama’s coast are damaged. Meanwhile, crews are spraying tens of thousands of gallons of chemical dispersants onto the oil to break it up into droplets that can sink to the bottom. We can only guess what havoc this will wreak on the Gulf floor; the chemical dispersants are of “low toxicity”—in other words, some toxicity—and have never been used before in such large quantities. The only sure thing is that the damage won’t be visible to the public eye.

The harm will be more visible, and devastating, to the fishermen whose livelihoods depend on Gulf waters. They’ve been called off their boats at the start of the season for many valuable species of fish, while NOAA tests sea life for contamination. What’s heartbreaking is that these are the very fishermen who recently responded to depleted stocks by becoming leaders in adopting new systems to manage their catch, with EDF’s help. Red snapper, grouper and tilefish have been coming back—and the fishermen have benefited economically. The fishermen themselves have become stewards of the Gulf. Unfortunately, not everyone working in the Gulf has been as conscientious.

Gulf life cannot compete against an enormous oil spill. When the oil reaches the wetlands, it can coat, suffocate and kill the grasses whose web of roots holds the marshes in place. Then all that will be left is mud, which will simply sink into the seawater.  Marshes buffer the region from storm surges—unless the marshes are so depleted that they wash away. Normally, the marshlands would naturally replenish themselves with sediment that washes down the Mississippi River—except that sediment has been channeled away by levees built over the years to encourage sparse barge traffic. The costs of compromising these natural storm barriers became tragically evident during Hurricane Katrina. So today, barrier islands are sinking and disappearing into the Mississippi River Delta: nearly 25 square miles of critically important wetlands disappear every year.


EDF staff on the ground in Louisiana
to see the oil spill impact on the wetlands and local fishermen.

Sadly, the oil is gushing into the Gulf during peak nesting season: This area is prime breeding ground for countless sea turtles and birds such as the American oystercatcher, who lay their eggs in the sand. Millions of dollars, and countless years of work by EDF and other organizations have been poured, heart and soul, into restoring those vital but now imperiled coastal lands—for the sake of wildlife, and human life. Once again, we are reminded that we are dependent on one another. All that work may be washed away by gushing oil.

Meanwhile, in the peculiar ecosystem that is the political world of Washington DC, the fate of months of negotiations over a bipartisan clean energy/climate/jobs bill hangs in the balance. One of the central compromises made in the hope of the bill’s safe passage was the significant expansion of offshore oil and gas drilling. Now, that grand bargain is jeopardy.

May 5th photo of Nashville after the flood. Photo: Les DeFoor

What a strange and terrible confluence of events! I believe the disasters of this week will prove to be of profound significance. People in Tennessee are saying that they didn’t have a 100- year flood; they had a 250- year flood. What does that really mean?  Now that the flood has happened, it won’t happen again in their lifetimes? Is that wishful thinking?

Let’s remember that climate scientists predict that one effect of global warming will be more extreme weather patterns: sudden severe flooding in some areas, and intense droughts in others. In other words: global weirding. I have a feeling there’s worse to come. Nature is unpredictable, as we can see from the constantly changing direction of the Gulf gusher.

It is way past time to connect the dots. Responsible climate scientists have been unequivocal: the burning of fossil fuels has contributed significantly to global warming. And global warming is dangerous. Then take into consideration the significant degradation we have visited upon our earth in harvesting those fossil fuels, with sloppy, irresponsible, and perhaps even cynical greed.  The Wall Street Journal reported last week that the Gulf rig lacked a $500,000 remote control shut-off switch required by other major oil-producing nations as last-resort protection against underwater spills.

Humankind has been able to alter the course of something as unfathomably large as the climate. But we’re reminded, over and over again, that plain old weather can—and will—undo humankind.

Personal Nature
Take action! Tell the Senate we must transition to clean energy with a strong climate and energy bill.

Walmart Redux: Citizens and Consumers

I wouldn’t normally write about the same subject twice in a row, but the impassioned responses to last month’s column on Walmart’s move to cut carbon emissions from their supply chain made me want to give it another think. Thanks to all of you who took the time to be considerate, whether or not we agree. And a shout out to the poet!

The comments, many angry or hurt, suggest that we here at EDF haven’t done a good enough job of explaining what we do, why, and who pays for it.

Reducing personal consumption won’t by itself solve global warming

Let’s start with the premise that when it comes to solving the climate crisis, simply reducing personal consumption is not enough. The problem is much too large, and developing far too rapidly. Plus, many people don’t even yet feel enough concern about climate change to motivate them to make changes.

Consider this: What if, instead of committing itself to reducing carbon emissions, Walmart had simply said: “Who cares about global warming? We don’t believe in it. We don’t want to revamp anything until regulations force change.” Ask yourself: Would we be better off?

This gets me to the work of EDF–harnessing markets to protect the environment by “making it profitable to put out less pollution” as president Fred Krupp says. EDF has been a pioneer and leader in working strategically with companies for 20 years. This is why I was drawn to their work in the first place; it manages the nifty trick of being idealistic, ambitious and pragmatic. EDF is dedicated to solving what I think of as the defining crisis of our century: mitigating pollution that began with the industrial revolution, and has been magnified by the post World War II chemical revolution.

EDF is interested working with market leaders–companies whose decisions affect whole economic sectors. So yes, EDF does support free enterprise, or capitalism. No, EDF is not against all consumption. Yes, EDF has a track record of protecting the environment. And most emphatically NO–EDF does not take money from its corporate partners. The environment is their only client. EDF is funded by generous individuals and foundations.

Remember these? You no longer see Styrofoam containers at most fast food restaurants because EDF worked with market-leader McDonald’s to cut waste.

It’s now 20 years since EDF first worked with McDonald’s to reduce its packaging waste by 150,000 tons. This was followed by a highly successful project with McDonald’s to curb the use of human antibiotics in animal agriculture. Since then EDF has worked with Whole Foods and Wegman’s to clean up the shrimp farming industry; it has worked with Walmart to cut waste; it has worked with FedEx to develop hybrid delivery trucks, and in the process transformed the entire delivery industry. The list goes on.

“Markets by themselves, much like currents in a river, are neither good nor bad,” says Gernot Wagner, an EDF economist who sees himself as a “pragmatic” optimist. “Properly guided, they can be a force for good. Entrepreneurs see environmental challenges as opportunities rather than hindrances.”

It is interesting how many readers of last month’s column frame their environmentalism as a choice between consuming or not consuming, forgetting, it seems, that we have to define ourselves first as citizens, not as consumers. Of course, every living creature consumes. The needless, mindless consumption that wastes precious resources, pollutes and even kills, is another matter.

LandfillTo change our throwaway culture, we must be citizens first, then consumers.Town Hall

All of us can be more watchful of our habits, without necessarily giving up on vacations, or raspberries in February. Every day scientists learn more about the consequences of our choices, whether in the metals in our fish, the emissions from our cars, the chemicals in our soaps, the microwave radiation from our cell phones or the fertilizers on our fields. Every day, it seems, we learn something more that inspires us to make adjustments in our consumption.

Personal action, however, can be expensive. Not everyone can immediately, or ever, afford to buy a new car. Not everyone can immediately, or ever, afford to install new geothermal or solar systems; not everyone can immediately, or ever, afford to retrofit their houses with new insulation. Until the prices for many “green” items come way down, they will not be widely adopted. That does not mean we ought to shoulder a massive guilt trip–that would be inappropriate, and counterproductive. The burden of responsibility has to be on us collectively–on our governments, and our corporations, those entities that have the largest impact on our lives.

It is our job, as consumers, to decide how to spend our money. It is our job, as citizens, to decide how to spend our energy. Speak out, lobby, protest, persuade, agitate, march, sit-in, write, sing, or dance. Do what you can. I believe we should be angry, and that our voices should be harnessed to demand better leadership from our elected and appointed officials–and our media.

Why is it that as the effects of global warming intensify, polls show that fewer people feel it is of significant concern? Those of us whose job it is to communicate the findings of scientific research have only ourselves to blame.

People often ask me how I feel about “preaching to the converted” in this column. I think we can see in the wide-ranging responses to Walmart’s decision to cut emissions that there is no consensus among environmentalists–much less the general public–about how to move forward. There is no such thing as “the converted.” Anyway, I have an aversion to that phrase, as it implies faith, as does the idea of “belief” in climate change, and faith and belief are not the appropriate response to peer-reviewed scientific data. Simple learning and understanding will suffice, as will putting out accurate, verifiable data to the contrary. So far there isn’t any sound science behind the claim that global warming doesn’t exist.

It is every citizen’s job to get smart. You don’t have to become a climate scientist and reanalyze data, necessarily–just as you don’t have to become a cell biologist to accept a doctor’s recommendations. Read up on the science, learn the facts, and stop mumbling politely when someone tells you that what you see all around you during these “extreme weather events” as we now call them (as though they were some form of sport), isn’t really happening.

Shop at Walmart or shop at the bodega on the corner, but make sure that’s not the only way you are putting your money where your mouth is.

Personal Nature
Take action! Exercise your voice as a citizen and tell the Senate to cap the pollution causing global warming.

Walmart Amps Up the Green Light

The recent news from the political front on global warming has made many hearts heavy. The Copenhagen climate talks fizzle; the well-respected head of the UN climate change convention resigns. And in a polarized Congress, climate legislation languishes, while irresponsible politicians are claiming that climate science is “snake oil” and seeking ways to prosecute scientists.

How exciting, then, to get a high-wattage jolt of energy—and responsible leadership—from a powerful ally in the fight against global warming: Walmart, one of the largest companies in the world. To paraphrase Groucho Marx, these days politics doesn’t make strange bedfellows—business does.

Walmart’s pollution reduction goal will affect every step of the manufacturing process from raw materials to recycling.

Walmart isn’t waiting for politicians or regulators to do the right thing. Last week CEO Mike Duke stood on a podium with EDF’s Fred Krupp and announced a goal of eliminating 20 million metric tons of greenhouse gases from Walmart’s global supply chain by the end of 2015 (watch webcast of the announcement). That’s the equivalent of taking more than 3.8 million cars off the road for a year. Or, if you look at it another way — saving 2 billion gallons of gasoline a year.

To find these reductions, Walmart will be asking the estimated 100,000 companies that supply it to cut the amount of carbon they emit when they produce, package and ship their products. This pollution reduction goal will affect every step of the manufacturing process from raw materials to recycling.

For instance, suppliers could label clothes to be washed in cold water instead of hot water, or accelerate the innovation of fabrics that dry faster. “The significance of Walmart’s commitment is the shift in perspective that it represents,” says Elizabeth Sturcken, EDF’s managing director for corporate partnerships. “It’s like moving from using a microscope to using a satellite to find opportunities for carbon pollution reduction across the globe.”

This action, the result of five years of collaboration with EDF and others, is sure to have a tremendous ripple effect. When Walmart makes a sea change, it hauls other companies along in its wake. And these companies are not small: Colgate-Palmolive, Johnson & Johnson, Proctor & Gamble. Moreover, Walmart reaches consumers at home, a surefire way to change attitudes and habits. Consider a few examples:

  • When Walmart decided that the shipping and storage of large containers of laundry detergent was wasteful (so much of it was water), it told suppliers it would only carry concentrates to be sold in smaller containers—and that’s become the dominant form of detergent at Walmart and all other retailers.
  • When Walmart took a hard look at the DVDs on its shelves, the company asked 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment to make the plastic packaging lighter, cutting lifecycle carbon emissions significantly and saving energy. Subsequently, the lighter packaging was used for software and games as well. These greener products are now being sold everywhere – not just at Walmart – an example of how a small change can have a big multiplier effect.
  • When with EDF’s help, Walmart decided to educate its customers about the energy efficiency of CFLs by setting up informative displays in their stores, it sold hundreds of millions of bulbs. That compelled manufacturers to make refinements in their design and the quality of their light, transforming an entire industry.

WalMart by NumbersWalmart has also been addressing its own carbon footprint—though that is dwarfed by suppliers’ emissions. It is increasing the efficiency of its trucks and stores. All this is saving the company money, and that, of course, is what Walmart is about. The company can, and undoubtedly will, do more. As Mike Duke, Walmart’s president, puts it: “We need to get ready for a world in which energy will only be more expensive, and there will only be a greater need to operate with less carbon in the supply chain.”

More than a third of all Americans shop at the country’s largest retailer every week. To critics, such big box stores are juggernauts indifferent to quality and local values. Certainly, large retailers’ way of doing business reinforces corporate and global food production. Walmart, like others, relies on a massive network of transport spanning great distances. Global sourcing has occasionally resulted in shoddy or even dangerous products on retailers’ shelves, such as when lead paint was found in toys from China. Like all chain stores, the outlets are physically disassociated from the very towns in which they sit, though they certainly create jobs, no small matter. But it’s also true that Walmart has begun developing closer relationships with its suppliers, buying locally, demanding better quality, and now, reducing its carbon emissions.

WalMart's Carbon CutsAs John Lyle, who was a professor of landscape architecture at California Polytechnic Institute, wrote: “What humans designed we can redesign and what humans built, we can rebuild.” Walmart’s climate initiative is an important step in that direction. Participation is voluntary, though Walmart has made it clear that companies that cut their emissions will have an advantage in getting their product onto its shelves. Compliance remains a thorny issue, as the international supply chain is plagued by practices like illegal logging and phony labeling. Walmart is working on a detailed set of guidelines for accountability (you can comment on it on EDF’s Innovation Exchange website in a few weeks), and is pressing for more transparent sourcing. “We need a clear chain of custody from start to finish,” explains EDF project manager Michelle Harvey.

In this recession, we’ve heard a lot about what’s gone wrong with globalization. But today, it is possible that Walmart, one of the most agile players in the global economy, can show us how to harness the world marketplace to encourage innovation and cut dangerous pollution. “Walmart’s work will impact almost every American consumer, regardless of where they shop,” says Steve Hamburg, EDF’s Chief Scientist. “These are the products that are sold on every Main Street: a win for the environment. The idea is to change industry norms; that will help to strengthen American businesses and reduce the impact of our consumer society.”

Some thoughtful environmentalists feel we aren’t going to get things right until we have a wholesale transformation of our values—and that includes cutting way down on consumption. As David Orr writes: “We do not often see the true ugliness of the consumer economy.” We need a rebirth of social values that protect the environment. But that kind of change takes a long time, perhaps generations. We have experienced that painful crawl in the evolution of our attitudes about race, feminism and sexuality. How much time do we have?

We are beginning to see glimmers of change in our consumer mentality, partly because of a shaky economy and partly because of demographics. I have a hunch—based on anecdotal evidence—that baby boomers, facing empty nests and insecure stock markets, are scaling back their lifestyles, moving into smaller homes and lightening up. There does come a time when enough’s enough—when we no longer feel the need for more stuff that’s going to be thrown away.

There is a profound value in slowing down the pace of our lives, deepening our connections to the natural world, and honoring what is, after all, our children’s heritage.

The more we understand the consequences of waste and pollution, the more intolerable those become.

I believe Walmart understands this message. As the company’s president says, America needs “comprehensive legislative policy that addresses energy, energy security, the country’s competitiveness and reducing pollution.” Sure, cutting waste is good for business, and recasting the argument against global warming as a matter of wastefulness is smart marketing. But the message from Walmart to the American people is loud and clear: America’s corporate leaders want action on global warming!

So if you’re wondering who is selling snake oil these days….well, perhaps the global warming deniers will consider shrinking their packaging.

Personal Nature
Take action! Tell the Senate to cap the pollution causing global warming.

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