Posts in 'Global Warming'

Is Amtrak Ready for Global Warming?

Three days after Irene slammed the East Coast, Amtrak reopened for business, and I boarded a train for a trip I have taken countless times over the last twenty-five years. The journey from Providence, Rhode Island, to New York City, is a train ride I love, no matter how unreliable or maddeningly slow the service might be–and there have been some real doozies, six or seven hours for a trip that shouldn’t take longer than three hours. And that’s on the express. But after Irene, the passage held none of its usual charm. Instead, it seemed to border on an act of lunacy that we should still be riding that train at all.

The route is one of the country’s most beautiful, and most heavily traveled. It skirts the coast of Connecticut for many miles; I always sit on the east side of the train because the views are breathtaking. Over the years, I’ve gazed out the window as ospreys returned to platforms set up in salt marshes, their messy nests spilling off the sides. The nests were intact after the hurricane. Small, quiet ponds were covered with water lilies. Coves and inlets were calm, with kayakers joining the ducks and geese.

A few large motorboats were smashed up against boulders, reminding us of the folly of ignoring storm warnings.  Trees were uprooted and lay toppled by the side of the tracks. Cormorants standing on the skeletal remains of trusses fanned their capelike wings to dry. Bulldozers raked across sandy beaches, cleaning up for Labor Day crowds.

We passed sprawling power plants, their red and white striped stacks jaunty against the blue sky, and playgrounds, school bus yards, ferries, shipyards and day care centers, church steeples, beacons to sea farers, jutted over the landscape–all of life is laid out along this major artery.

But there is a new addition to the scenery. For many miles, the track is barely above sea level. We crawled along so as not to threaten construction crews hard at work all along the coast–on rigs, in cranes, in bulldozers. Even though we didn’t get the worst of what turned out to be a tropical storm, Irene–and her predecessors–had left her mark. Much of the track was shored up with riprap, boulders used to armor the coast against the pull of tidal surges. Slabs of cement were being lifted into place to protect stretches of tracks. Wire cage rock walls had been erected in some places.

It seemed almost laughable.

Any fisherman will tell you that a roiling ocean, even during something as common as a nor’easter, will shove boulders aside as though they were marbles. Child’s play. As we chugged along, two hours behind schedule, I wondered with some tenderness at how primitive is human hope–“Here,” we seem to be saying to the gods of storms, “take these boulders, take these cement slabs, but spare our tracks.” Who are we kidding? There is no reinforcement strong enough for the perilous severity of storm surges and rising oceans.

What are we thinking of, keeping such vital infrastructure so close to the sea? Of course we can’t just shut down the line and walk away. But we should be rebuilding only with future disruption in mind, and that will take more than wire cages full of rocks. Environmentalists study adaptation to global warming, discussing the opening of migration corridors for animals that will have to move northward to avoid killing heats, or to follow their food source. What about human adaptation? Amtrak’s troubles foreshadow trouble for life along the coast. We’re going to need more than a few tons of riprap to adapt to the storm warnings to come.

Good Night, Sweet Irene

I suppose it is hysteria if nothing happens, and preparedness if all hell breaks loose. I’m glad Bloomberg battened down the hatches in New York, so we aren’t spending millions repairing broken buses and soggy trains. And if he hadn’t done so, and hell had unleashed its fury, you can only imagine the ensuing second-guessing and finger-pointing; New Yorkers are so fond of exercising their right to free speech, letting out the leash for long talk.

My Rhode Island town got caught somewhere at the “not much” end of things during Hurricane Irene. Kids were down at the shore with their parents, marveling at the size of the waves and the spew of the foam, kiting their arms to feel the lift of the wind. But I felt like the child who was coaxed by a fun-loving dad onto the roller coaster, spent terrified minutes white-knuckling the safety bar, sobbing, only to be told, at the end, gee, wasn’t that fun?


Irene whipped the ocean into a roiling mess. I watched the tide charts warily, wondering when we were going to be slammed by a surge. I was anxious with anticipation of disaster. Gardens were flattened and mulched by salt spray, tree limbs cracked and leaves where shorn off. Autumn looks to have arrived early. But we were lucky. Now we’re into the “disruption” stage; no Internet, no electricity, that sort of thing. We’ll recover.

I did fall asleep thinking about how our anxiety about a hurricane was nothing compared to the anxiety we should all be feeling about the climate crisis. We aren’t concerned anywhere near enough. Irene, like any storm, focused us on one event, her own drama. We could see it through. Once out the other end, the sun would shine, the sky would have a polished cerulean gleam, the flowers would lift up their faces, drink it all in, and we would start mending fences.

We aren’t preparing for the biggest climate whopper of them all, one that, unlike the roller coaster, won’t stop to let us off–even though it is we, the mothers and fathers, who are coaxing our children onto what will be an unforgiving ride from hell. Too many of us aren’t listening to the storm warnings. Those of us who hear the news aren’t calling to warn our friends and neighbors, who might not have heard the alarm bells. We must do so. We have to shrug off the torpor of acceptance, of defeat, that has settled heavily over us.

No one is going to get through to the end of the climate crisis ride and think it was any fun at all.

Personal Nature


Meatless Monday Matters

Holidays seem to be a time of feasting, a season of muchness and more–and that means they’re also a perfect moment to think about eating in a different way. Borrowing a provocative adage from modernist architects, let’s consider a new approach to meals: Less is more.

You don’t have to make a big change in your kitchen to make a big change in the world.

Until recently, I was only vaguely aware of an initiative called Meatless Mondays. I thought it was a ploy to lure me into vegetarianism, a dining style I’ve tried and failed to maintain many times. I simply like eating meat too much to give it up.
I’ve also grown weary of the smug superiority that characterizes so much food talk: you’re a better person if you buy local; a superior person if you pay extra for organic; and a peerless person if you harvest and slaughter your own food. Most of us don’t usually have these options–though I hope someday organic becomes the new, affordable norm. “Foodie” conversation exhausted me, and I just started tuning it out.

Brussels sprouts

Then I heard a lecture given by Dr. Robert Lawrence of Johns Hopkins University at an Environmental Defense Fund Science Day in San Francisco. EDF Science Days are private events during which experts discuss emerging environmental issues. Dr. Lawrence, an expert in environmental health sciences, surveyed the costs of America’s meat addiction and asked us to consider a simple idea: Meatless Monday. It sounded at first forbiddingly moralistic. But then I learned what a sensible, economical idea it was– good for your health, and good for the planet.

Since the 1980s, Americans have been eating too much–way more than we did fifty years ago. Today, we consume, on average, about 3,200 calories per day, roughly 1,000 calories more than we need to stay healthy – even as we lead more sedentary lives. Food in America is easily available and, because much of it is subsidized, extremely cheap. There are fast food chains on every corner and microwaveable meals at every supermarket. The result? Obesity and an epidemic of preventable heart disease, along with diabetes, strokes, and cancers.

Sixty-five percent of our daily protein comes from animals (compare that to the worldwide figure, around 30%). Americans eat about eight ounces of meat a day. The average annual per capita meat consumption in the 1970s was 168 pounds; by 2005 it was up to 185 pounds. Beef consumption peaked in 1975 then began declining as people became aware of the link between cardiovascular disease and fat-saturated diets. We started eating much more chicken. (Lawrence points out that one million broilers are raised, killed and prepared in this country per hour). This accounts for the continued rise in meat consumption. (Get a shareable list of these meaty stats »)

All meat production has a powerful impact on the planet–cattle more than chickens, of course. Meat production emits more greenhouse gases than growing crops, but agricultural activity also contributes heavily to climate change. To connect the dots between food and climate change, Lawrence underlined the impact of several factors:

  • the clearing of forests to create more farmland
  • the fossil fuel needed to make fertilizer, run equipment and transport food
  • the water needed to irrigate farmland and quench the thirst of the animals. (Up to 80% of the West’s water is consumed by agriculture)
  • reactive nitrogen from liberally applied fertilizers and pesticides, which then run off into rivers and lakes or seep into our aquifers
  • the methane released from beef cattle

Our taste for burgers is destroying the rainforests. Brazilian government figures attribute 38% of deforestation from 1966-1975 to large scale cattle ranching. From 1996 to 2006 an area the size of Portugal has been carved out of Brazilian rainforest and turned into grassland to feed cattle herds.

Modern farming and meat production are heavily reliant on chemicals that work their way not only into the flesh of the beasts we eat, but into our water as well. Dr. Lawrence points out that over 1,600 chemicals used in producing our food have never been tested for safety.

“We are facing unprecedented human health problems,” related to food production, says Dr. Lawrence. “Our produce gets contaminated by fecal matter from irrigation waters polluted by industrial food-animal facilities.” And because some farms make massive use of prophylactic antibiotics on animals weakened by the unsanitary conditions in which they are raised, some bacteria are growing resistant to treatment. These drugs are entering the human food chain too.

As other countries adopt our diets, 20 years from now when there are 8 billion people in the world, there simply won’t be enough room on the planet to produce the food to support the way we eat now.

Several years ago, scientists recommended that Americans cut their saturated fat intake by 15%. Researchers at Johns Hopkins’ Center for a Livable Future realized that the easiest way for people to do that would be to avoid meat one day a week, hence Meatless Monday.

It turns out you don’t have to make a big change in your kitchen in order to make a big change in the world–and improve your health. According to the Environmental Working Group, if all of us adopted this simple initiative, we would save enough energy annually – from avoided meat production – equivalent to taking eight million cars off the road.

Use Spades Not Ships poster

Meatless Monday is doable. In fact, it’s been done. During World War I and World War II, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, in order to ensure that our armies had enough food, mounted successful campaigns for Meatless Monday and Wheatless Wednesday. They encouraged Americans to plant Victory gardens, using slogans like “Dig for Victory” and “Use Spades Not Ships.” The FDA should mount a similar campaign today, one that emphasizes public and environmental health.

There’s no magic to Monday, of course, unless you have an ear for alliteration. Monday seems to be a good day to recover from the weekend (though for me, weekends are an easier time to find the hours to prepare a meal, and Mondays and Tuesdays tend to be Leftover Days.) The main point is to have at least one meatless day a week. And avoid having three meat courses in one day. After what I’ve learned–vegetarians are the healthiest subgroup in this country–I’m planning on three meatless days a week.

And here’s another benefit: conversation at the family table about the connections between our food, our bodies and the whole planet. A meatless dinner can be a wonderful setting in which to model ways to cherish our world. What better lesson is there? Pass on the meat–and please pass the Brussels sprouts.

Personal Nature

We want to hear from you. Tell us if you’re going meatless on Mondays and then share your favorite meatless recipes in the comments.

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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.

Personal Nature

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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.

Personal Nature

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