Monday, August 31, 2009

Going Greener

The NYT reports this morning that some LEED certified buildings--including the Federal Building in Youngstown--aren't as green as advertised.  The reason? Certification is based on design and construction, rather than on actual carbon-reduction performance.  You can collect green points by including native landscaping and bamboo floors, but up to now you haven't had to track how energy-efficient the building actually is.  The rules are changing, though; new buildings are going to have to provide energy bills for the first five years of operation, with the possibility of having their LEED status revoked or downgraded.  The standard should be continual monitoring and retrofitting as technologies evolve.

Meanwhile, on the retrograde side of things,  the Dispatch reports that business and building groups are opposing EPA efforts to protect streams and wetlands, even as 477 acres of wetlands and 106 miles of streams have been lost since 2006.   The builders prefer being allowed to buy into mitigation banks, often located miles away from the sites they're filling in; when they do mitigate on site, the replacement wetlands are often shallow and unvegetated, decorative rather than functional.  Oddly enough, although opposition to the new EPA regs goes back to 2006, a VP for the Home Builders Association cites the "economic depression" as a reason not to move on them now.  If not now, Mr. Squillace, when? 

I guess I should feel good, though, that Delaware County--one of the fastest-growing counties in the US over the past decade--held a "GreenWise" fair over the weekend, teaching kids how to recycle and homeowners about organic lawn-care products.  It's good to promote rainbarrels and provide information about how to dispose of dead batteries; I wonder, though, whether understanding land-use patterns and wetlands lost to overdevelopment would have put too much of a damper on the festivities. 

This past Saturday, I did attend the opening of the long-awaited Grange Audubon Center on the Whittier Peninsula, a spectacularly reclaimed brownfield site, cheek-by-jowl with the Columbus Auto Impound Lot.  Kudos to Heather Starck and crew for seeing it through.

Friday, August 28, 2009

A Cold Look at a Warmer Future

Seven Myths About Alternative Energy: A bucket of cold water on dreams of a painless transition to green.  Urgency means that we need to make decisions now, and efficiency is our best hope for direct and measurable impact. 

Monday, August 24, 2009

Turning Point 2030

John Beddington, the chief scientist of the UK, looks to a series of trends converging in 2030, foretelling a global crisis.  Commenting scientists don't dispute the trends, although they note that the date is rhetorical and the convergence represents a worst-case scenario.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Some progress

Looks like conditions in the Ohio River may be looking up.  Of course, as one comment points out, it may just be because the industrial economy is declining (someone's silver lining, anyway).

Monday, August 10, 2009

After GDP

A good op-ed in the NYT this morning by Eric Zencey, arguing that it's time we dispensed with the idea of a Gross Domestic Product as a plausible measure of the national economy: "it’s a deeply foolish indicator of how the economy is doing. It ought to join buggy whips and VCRs on the dust-heap of history."

Central to Zencey's argument is that GDP has a built-in perverse incentive to replace "natural-capital" services (sunlight, wetlands, fertile soil) with "built-capital services" (electricity, dams and treatment plants, fertilizer).  The latter are counted as adding to GDP, the former taken for granted (or written off) as "free," i.e. non-productive.  So if I care for the land I add nothing to GDP, whereas if I pump depleted soil full of chemical fertilizers, I've supposedly added to the nation's wealth, by engaging in an economic transaction.  

In summing all economic activity in the economy, gross domestic product makes no distinction between items that are costs and items that are benefits. If you get into a fender-bender and have your car fixed, G.D.P. goes up.

A similarly counterintuitive result comes from other kinds of defensive and remedial spending, like health care, pollution abatement, flood control and costs associated with population growth and increasing urbanization — including crime prevention, highway construction, water treatment and school expansion. Expenditures on all of these increase gross domestic product, although mostly what we aim to buy isn’t an improved standard of living but the restoration or protection of the quality of life we already had.
 "Natural capital" is a bit of a misnomer, however, since nature includes values irreducible to economic calculation (ethical and aesthetic values, for instance).  GDP is deeply flawed, Zencey points out, but abandoning it poses difficulties of its own:

Several alternatives to gross domestic product have been proposed, and each tackles the central problem of placing a value on goods and services that never had a dollar price. The alternatives are controversial, because that kind of valuation creates room for subjectivity — for the expression of personal values, of ideology and political belief.
More evidence of the limits of purely economic thinking: in order to get values right, we have to be able to make substantive judgments, decisions about what's good.  These look "subjective"--someone has to make them--even if they're grounded and reasonable.  What we need, then, are social and political structures and processes that can develop these evaluations: a culture of environmental citizenship. 

Friday, August 7, 2009

Environmental Citizenship as Sense-Making

Thursday's NYT had a piece on the hot job prospects for statisticians, consequence of escalating computing capacity. It included the following intriguing quote:
“We’re rapidly entering a world where everything can be monitored and measured,” said Erik Brynjolfsson, an economist and director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Center for Digital Business. “But the big problem is going to be the ability of humans to use, analyze and make sense of the data.”
In other words, we can generate cascades of data tracking changes in everything: what we don't know is what to make of it. The new statisticians can refine algorithms to search for hidden patterns, to discern occult correlations and intricate loopings. But without the capacity to grasp what we're monitoring, and why, the data streams remain tantalizing and opaque.

The openness to inputs from a variety of sources needs to be complemented by a repertoire of patterns, a metaphoric toolbox for arranging and organizing data. Let's call the work of using those tools environmental citizenship.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

The New Skepticism on Climate Change

From Sharon Begley of Newsweek, via Orion.

In an insightful observation in The Guardian this month, Jim Watson of the University of Sussex wrote that "a new breed of climate sceptic is becoming more common": someone who doubts not the science but the policy response. Given the pathetic (non)action on global warming at the G8 summit, and the fact that the energy/climate bill passed by the House of Representatives is so full of holes and escape hatches that it has barely a prayer of averting dangerous climate change, skepticism that the world will get its act together seems appropriate. For instance, the G8, led by Europe, has vowed to take steps to keep global warming below 2 degrees Celsius by reducing CO2 emissions. We're now at 0.8 degree. But the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere is already enough to raise the mercury 2 degrees. The only reason it hasn't is that the atmosphere is full of crap (dust and aerosols that contribute to asthma, emphysema, and other diseases) that acts as a global coolant. As that pollution is reduced for health reasons, we're going to blast right through 2 degrees, which is enough to ex-acerbate droughts and storms, wreak havoc on agriculture, and produce a planet warmer than it's been in millions of years. The 2-degree promise is a mirage.