Time is Running Out

“What we need more than anything else is a mass movement of young people,” Peter Goldmark, director of EDF’s Climate and Air Program, who recently announced his retirement at the end of the year. “In American culture, it is youth that sets the agenda. It’s always been this way.  Think who was driving change in the anti-Vietnam war movement, in the civil rights era. They have to mobilize, now, and demand action against global warming.”

The wheel of change is turning in spite of our government’s inactivity

We are sitting in Goldmark’s small, spare office at EDF’s Manhattan headquarters. He has had a distinguished and varied career, which included stints as Director the Port Authority of New York, President of the Rockefeller Foundation and publisher of the International Herald Tribune. I’ve come to talk to Goldmark, as he prepares to leave EDF, about what he has learned during his tenure. He speaks angrily of the “shameful paralysis” of the U.S. Senate, and says his focus is now is almost entirely on the next generation.

“My generation has failed,” he says flatly. “We are handing over the problem to our children. They—and their children—will live with the worst consequences of climate change. Make no mistake, global warming is happening right now. It is only going to get worse.”

In a 2003 paper, “Before the Storm,” he wrote: “We are, I believe, living in the time before a storm of historic proportions, a period of searing difficulty for the peoples of the world and the planet itself.”

Peter GoldmarkGoldmark: A tough negotiator who draws inspiration from a Chinese poet.

But the world, Goldmark added, was failing that challenge: “We all—citizens, governments, and foundations—face in common the imperative to respond constructively to the crises of our times. And we are not responding. We are drifting.”

That drift continues, he says. Nor does he expect the marketplace to solve the crisis of climate change for us. Markets, he notes, may respond to social agendas, but they do not set them. But Goldmark isn’t entirely disheartened. “When historians look back at this decade, from 2000 to 2010, they will see that the wheel of change began turning in spite of our government’s inactivity,” he says. “We have begun a very slow transition to a low carbon, high efficiency energy system.” The problem is that we are not moving fast enough.

What Goldmark—along with all leading authorities on climate change—fears most is that we still do not understand the urgency of the problem. “When I think about how I would address a group of young people, my message is not a gentle one,” he says. “This is the hardest, most terrible, thing to say to a young person, but we have no choice: it is five minutes before midnight. Time is running out.”

That means we no longer have the luxury of polite, time-consuming public debate on the issue. “We have to be much more aggressive about pinpointing our enemies, and doing it early—showing how and where they are spending their money to undermine our efforts,” he says. “We need to learn how to inflict pain on the opposition.”

The environmental movement must also do a better job of linking climate directly to shrinking harvests, falling water tables, receding glaciers, extended droughts and more violent storms. Already, food, water, and climate problems are simultaneously hitting many nations. It’s happening now, and we need to connect that to climate change in the minds of all people.

Environmentalists also need to reach small and medium size businesses with this message. We’ve done well in educating the GEs of the world, but we need to convey the urgency of climate change to the people who run or work at the smaller enterprises, because their numbers, and their voices, carry influence. That’s what made the Chamber of Commerce such a powerful voice against progress in the Senate debate on climate change.

While at EDF, Goldmark has traveled the world with his message and helped to extend the organization’s global reach. He has worked on projects in India, Mexico, Brazil, and China, as well as in the United States. Everywhere he went, he tried, indefatigably, to raise the awareness about the need for prompt action.

There is, he emphasizes, “no such thing as an American solution to global warming.” Slowing global warming down demands international efforts to reduce carbon emissions. “Either we all get there together, or no one does.”

The need for global solutions is another reason Goldmark is now putting his hope into a youth movement. “Young people are already transnational thinkers. This is one of the great gifts of the Internet culture. Fifteen to 35 year-olds are used to thinking globally. They are the ones who are going to insist that the United States get on board with international solutions.”

Unfortunately, Goldmark believes that the United States will continue move slowly on climate legislation. “We will need other countries to lead the way,” he says. “We even have to remain open to the possibility that China will emerge as at least a co-leader once others begin to move. China is choking on its economic boom supported by conventional, high carbon energy, and the pollution is getting worse daily. Even though the country is investing heavily in alternative energies—and threatening to penalize heavy polluters—we have not yet seen them move off reliance on coal.”

I ask Goldmark about hope, a subject much on my mind these days, as science delivers ever more bad news about the condition of the planet. It’s a question he gets asked a lot.

Goldmark begins by noting that the world still has enough time to draw down carbon emissions to forestall the consequences of climate change. Also, there is much we do not know about how climate change will unfold, he points out. This reminds me of a recent conversation on the subject with Jeremy Grantham, Chairman of the Board of GMO, a Boston-based fund, who told me, “While we deal in probabilities, there is hope. It is only when we deal in certainty that things become hopeless. And the outcome is not yet certain.”

Goldmark agrees, and points out that countless polls show that Americans understand that climate change is a problem, and want it addressed. The problem is only that it is never high on anyone’s agenda.

“It has got to be said, over and over again,” Goldmark says, “this is an urgent situation. We must act.”

In his work with EDF, Goldmark has done more than most to get us closer to solving the climate crisis. Yet he hesitates to predict what is going to happen. “I do the best I can, without being able to see how it is going to come out.”

Still, he adds, history shows that people have a remarkable ability to blunder into solutions. Several days after our talk, he sent me a poem about hope, written by the Chinese poet, Lu Xun.

Hope is like a path in the countryside.
At first there is no path.
And then, as people are all the time coming and walking in the same way,
a path appears.

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Biodigesters in Bangladesh

By Peter Goldmark

I’d like to invite you to take a little walk with me.

It’s hot where we’re going…really hot. We’re in a rural area but it’s fairly densely populated…it’s clear the people are very, very poor. This is low-lying country, most of the land is really not much above the rivers and the sea at all. See those levees and small mud dikes over there? See the huts clustered on those mounds? That’s to try to escape the water when it floods—which is often.

We’re in Bangladesh—the largest poor country in the world, or, if you prefer, the poorest large country in the world. The bay out there is the Bay of Bengal.

We walk now into the home of the Rayak family. We are here to see their biodigester.

Their what?

BiodigesterWith microfinancing for projects like biodigesters (above), farmers in Bangladesh are helping reduce global warming and avoiding illness. Credit: David Yarnold.

This is a cement vat that holds their animal waste. Actually that odor you’re smelling is unmistakable, so you know darn well what it holds. In this case, it’s not cow dung, it’s poultry waste…chickenshit, to use the vernacular.

It’s a three- cubic-meter tank. (This is a relatively large, souped-up biodigester model, so to speak, like a car with an overhead cam or turbocharged engine.) The waste runs from under the laying area of the chickens through a banked cement funnel into the biodigester, where it…ferments. I believe that’s the word the connoisseurs use. It ferments anaerobically, and presto! It produces…methane. A fair amount of it. This is trapped under pressure beneath the lid of the biodigester, and it is piped, in a simple plastic line hung from the trees, right into the Rayaks’ home. The methane is used for cooking and lighting. It’s essentially natural gas–clean, odorless.

The Rayak family is moderately prosperous by Bangladesh standards, although you would find them very poor. I saw at least six children, there may be more. They have a serious chicken farm. And now that they have clean energy, they’re no longer chopping down trees and shrubs for fuel, their children don’t have respiratory disease, and people emitting carbon in far away places like you and me are helping them to buy the biodigester – by buying the credits for avoided carbon generated by the Rayaks, aggregated by our partner Grameen Shakti, bought and underwritten through our partner E&Co and marketed to corporate buyers by one of our other partners, Ecosecurities. (And Grameen Bank is making a micro-loan to the Rayaks to help them finance the purchase of the biodigester.) It’s really quite a virtuous cycle, if you break it down and look at it closely.

Here is a family that either used expensive, carbon-emitting kerosene, or burned wood from shrubs and trees that also emitted carbon, and — worse — filled the house with smoke and particulates, putting the children at serious risk of ARI. Now they have clean, affordable energy – that emits a fraction of the carbon that was emitted before. So let’s add this up:

  • healthier children
  • less deforestation
  • less carbon emitted
  • cheaper energy for the family
  • the residue is a very powerful fertilizer, which the family can use or sell
  • and indirect benefits: higher literacy, lower fertility

Now maybe you begin to understand why EDF is working in this village with Grameen, helping monetize the avoided carbon to make the biodigesters cheaper and more acceptable – and using carbon financing to help Grameen take the whole system to scale.

But wait. Look overhead. Right there, on the tree branch over the biodigester — do you see the plastic lines? I see 14 lines spreading out through the trees overhead…What is going on, Mr. Rayak, I ask? It turns out that Mr. Rayak – who as you may recall had a deluxe, V8 turbocharged jumbo-sized biodigester, is selling methane to 14 other families. He has become, in fact, a clean energy entrepreneur. No one has anticipated this.

When I have dinner with my old friend Mohammed Yunus, the founder and head of Grameen next evening, he smiles knowingly and instructs me that this is not at all surprising…that of course, we were trying all along to tap into the initiative of the poor, that they are good credit risks (he slips into his basic Grameen shtick). I think he is full of…well you know, what we were talking about it earlier, and politely I tell him so. “Come on, Yunus, neither of us saw this coming.” He beams, and we both laugh. We both like this unanticipated dividend to our project.

Does all of this seem far away? Not much to do with cap-and-trade? Hard to fit the Rayak family and you and I into the same frame?

But that’s the whole point, isn’t it? The Rayaks and you and I are all in the same boat. That is the crux, the brutal reality of the enormous adventure on which we have embarked: a race to see if we can get enough carbon out of the human economic enterprise to allow the atmosphere to stabilize before the most catastrophic consequences of global warming occur.

Seeing all of these pieces — the huge oil majors; Gazprom; the automobile industry; the assembly-line of Chinese coal plants; buildings around the world that leak huge amounts of energy; the vast deforestation underway in Indonesia protected in some places by the army; and the Rayak family, and his 14 neighbors who are buying methane from him — seeing all of this in the same frame – that’s what’s required, isn’t it?

We are trying to convince, coax and cajole six billion people to get on the same road and face together in the same direction: to choose the road of low-carbon, high efficiency, economic growth and individual opportunity.

If you tell me that this is difficult, I will nod in grim agreement.

If you tell me that it is idealistic, I will tell you that it is essential.

If you tell me that it is romantic, I will tell you that no door ever opens unless you knock.

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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.

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Back to School

You can help get cleaner, safer school buses for our children.

1. Get informed

Take a look at EDF’s Clean Buses work and the EPA’s state by state information about clean school bus programs in place.

Buses by the Numbers

If you want to find out about the status of your school district’s buses, start with your local school board. You want to know: the age of the buses: 1988-1990 models emit up to 60 times more diesel pollution as newer buses. You want to push for a retrofit of old models, or, better yet, the purchase of new buses. Even states that have voluntary programs in place haven’t necessarily raised the funds to control emissions. Your concern matters; most school boards are elected.

2. The power of the PTA

Parent-Teacher Associations have a lot of clout in most districts; ask your PTA leadership to get informed and get active.

3. No Idling

Most buses are kept running while drivers wait for students. Institute a NO IDLING policy at your local schools–and insist that it be enforced by school authorities.  Fleet managers want their bus contracts renewed; they will be responsive to parental pressure. Check out EDF’s work to stop idling and the excellent information on the EPA’s National Idle-Reduction Campaign. If New York City can go idle-free so can our school buses!

4. Student leadership

Diesel pollution at school is a great issue for junior and high school student government to tackle. It provides a great platform for learning, involvement, and getting results.

5. Get more informed

Get the science behind school bus pollution and see just how much children’s exposure increases during their daily ride to school. For extra credit check out the American Lung Association’s website on the effects of fine particulate pollution on your child’s lungs. A sobering read. And pass the word along.

6. And don’t give up the fight on global warming.

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How Farmers Can Help Save the Oceans

It isn’t often that you get to go to a press conference in a freshly mown rye field and come home with a brown paper bag full of composted manure. That’s what I took away from a recent trip to Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, where I attended a groundbreaking ceremony for a new and unusual composting facility that will occupy a five-acre corner of the Hurst family farm.

Oregon Dairy Organics groundbreaking ceremonyOur unlikely press conference venue: Hurst farm in southeast Pennsylvania.

Compost has been much on my mind, and in my hands, with garden season at its glorious peak. In this summer of environmental disaster, it feels restorative to nurture your own little piece of the planet. As a gardener, I sometimes think about the environment on a micro level—such as my own backyard. What I have never fully appreciated until now was the planetary value of composted manure; nor did I understand its connection to one of our chief environmental problems: water pollution from the nitrogen used in agriculture.

“Farmers have gotten the blame for lots of problems. But they must be seen as part of the solution.”
John Dawes, Chesapeake Bay Funders Network

In 1909, a chemist named Fritz Haber developed a way to capture nitrogen, abundant in the air, and turn it into fertilizer for crops. He was awarded a Nobel Prize for “obtaining bread from air.” Today, 110 million tons of nitrogen fertilizer are spread onto fields worldwide; at best, only 50% actually goes into making food. The rest washes into rivers and groundwater, or is absorbed into the atmosphere. There, it is wasted, and lays waste to the water.

The greatest long-term threat to our coastal waters today is nutrient pollution from diffuse sources such as agricultural and urban run-off, sewer and wastewater treatment facility overflows, and airborne nitrogen pollution that settles on land and water. When nitrogen flows into rivers and oceans, it enriches—or fertilizes—the water to the point of upsetting the equilibrium of entire ecosystems. The result is an explosion in the growth of algae, often referred to as an algae bloom. As the algae thickens, it blocks sunlight and sucks oxygen out of the water, so that other aquatic life is smothered and suffocated, creating a “dead zone.”

The coastal United States is ringed with dead zones. The largest of these is a New Jersey-sized patch that funnels out from the Mississippi River Delta into the beleaguered Gulf of Mexico. This dead zone is so low in oxygen it cannot support life. Long after the effects of the BP Gulf oil disaster have been neutralized, the dead zone will remain with us.

We can put a stop to this explosion of dead zones. Farmers in beautiful Lancaster County, well known for its Amish population, have been worried about the health consequences of excessively high nitrate levels in the water they are drawing from their wells. They are also concerned about the crab and oyster nurseries downriver in the Chesapeake Bay that have been hard hit by nutrient pollution. (Please see sidebar for more EDF projects addressing nitrogen fertilizer run-off.)

Manure from livestock can help reduce nitrogen pollution.Manure from livestock can help reduce nitrogen pollution.

And these farmers are doing something about their concerns. Thankfully, there’s a solution as close by as the livestock barn. Manure contains nitrogen, along with phosphorus, potassium and other nutrients. As every gardener knows, this makes manure an excellent fertilizer, adding organic matter to the soil, improving soil structure, aeration and moisture retention. However, if manure is not applied at the right time and rate for crops to use the nutrients, its beneficial ingredients will wash away, possibly contaminating streams and drinking water. (Chemical fertilizers are even more of a challenge as synthetic nitrogen is washed out of the soil during rainstorms and deposited into waterways more quickly than organic nitrogen.) Composting the manure binds the nutrients and makes them more stable. The heat in the composting process also destroys pathogens, like E.coli, that can taint water and plants when raw manure is spread around crops.

The Hurst family business—a 950-head beef and dairy farm, grocery store, restaurant and garden center—is now also home to the Oregon Dairy Organics composting facility. Operated by Terra-Gro, Inc., it will take the manure from the Hurst farm, as well as other farms in the area, along with excess yard clippings and food waste from local schools and restaurants (which would otherwise go into a landfill), and mix and bake it under the cover of large plasticized canvas tunnels. The carefully calibrated compost will be of such good quality that it can be used by organic farmers and landscapers for private gardens and sports fields—replacing the commercial fertilizer now used where our children play.

Press conference for the groundbreaking ceremony.Press conference for the Oregon Dairy Organics groundbreaking ceremony.

The turnout at the press conference for the groundbreaking of the new facility was impressive—and a good indication of how many people were involved in the project. EDF provided the managerial expertise of high-energy Suzy Friedman, deputy director of the Center for Conservation Incentives. Friedman visited with farmers and coordinated project development and funding, which came from a dozen sources.

Among the 45 guests were several generations of the Hurst family, as well as the family of the family of site manager Merle Ranck. “I taught my son Loren everything he knows about compost,” said a twinkling Floyd Ranck. “That was back in the sixties, when everyone thought I was nuts to use manure in my vegetable garden.” Now his grandson will spend the summer overseeing the new facility. Oregon Dairy Organics expects to be selling compost by September, generating about 18,000 cubic yards of compost each year. Judging by the sample I took home and fed to my Meyer lemon tree, I expect wholesalers will be placing hefty orders.

The Chesapeake Bay Funders Network, which provided some funding, was represented by John Dawes. “Farmers have gotten the blame for lots of problems. The pressure on them has been enormous,” he said. “But farmers must be seen as part of the solution; they know that water has to be clean for their crops to thrive. Farmers have worked with the land for generations around here. They are the original environmentalists.” Pennsylvania Agriculture Secretary Russell Redding, who grew up on a farm, noted the fresh cut fields with delight. “Can we really find solutions to the difficult problems facing the Chesapeake Bay? I look around here, and I say, ‘Yes!'” The Chamber of Commerce representative added: “This a good business venture. And it is the right thing to do.”

Dawes captured the sentiment of all involved. “We’re ready to move dirt!” This composting venture should be replicated around the country. There’s nothing better than a crock of…compost. Black gold.

Photos from the groundbreaking ceremony and our day on the farm.
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