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Balancing the Climate Debate

Friday, May 30, 2008 by Kyle Scribner

Journalists are taught to always provide a balanced story. It’s not our job to tell you how to think, but to provide information that you can use to decide for yourself.

With that in mind, I tend to give dissenting opinions equal footing when writing about the need for climate change, wildlife conservation, etc. But an article due June 2 in Environmental Politics, "The organization of denial: Conservative think tanks and environmental skepticism," has led me to rethink the concept of “balance.”

The article’s key finding is really pretty startling: More than 92% of 141 books published in the U.S. between 1972 and 2005 that were deemed “environmentally skeptical” – those that deny the authenticity of environmental problems – are linked to conservative think tanks.

What are conservative think tanks (or CTTs, as the article refers to them), and why is their relationship to environmental skepticism alarming? The article explains: CTTs are nonprofit research groups that study conservative ideals such as free enterprise and national defense (the good ol’ military-industrial complex). The problem with CTTs having sway in environmental policy is that they generally are made up of economists and political scientists, not natural scientists.

Just look at two of the best known CTTs: The Heritage Foundation and The American Enterprise Institute. Of the 11 people these two CTTs identify as their environmental scholars, just two have natural science backgrounds. As the article states, CTTs’ concerns stem primarily from interest groups. The concerns of the scientific community, on the other hand, stem primarily from the search for truth.

As the article’s lead author, Peter J. Jacques from the University of Central Florida, explained to me, the question a person should ask when deciding what information to believe is, “Who is the source responsible to?” In the case of global warming, there are essentially two sources: scientists, who are responsible to what are known as the “good faith witnesses” of fellow professors, scientists, and governmental agencies and are subject to vigorous peer-review, and conservative think tanks, which are insulated and devoid of peer review and are responsible to … themselves.

So you’ve got a veritable syndicate with neither the expertise nor the inclination to hold true dialogue on environmental issues flooding us with papers, books, editorials, interviews and everything else, muddying the facts.

Another of the article’s authors – Riley E. Dunlap, Regents Professor of Sociology at Oklahoma State University (and known by some as the world's leading authority on environmental attitudes) – explained it to me in numbers. According to Dunlap, there are no more than 20 publishing, public-view environmental skeptics in the U.S., while the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (the pre-eminent organization studying climate change) conducts a thousand or more peer reviews on a single study. So, OK, now we know what is going on. Now the question is, “why?”

The article asserts this counter-movement began because environmentalism suggests that industrial practices of modern societies are not sustainable, since they lead to loss of biodiversity and climate change. In other words, we can’t keep going as we have been. Conservatives see this belief as an attack against our way of life, see environmentalism as a threat to American progress.

And so they combat it. And they give me article upon article of dissenting opinion to consider. So I reference these papers as often as I reference the peer-reviewed stuff, and suddenly in the name of balance I’ve ironically tipped the scales.

Both Jacques and Dunlap agreed that it’s important to acknowledge the full realm of propositions, but stressed that minority dissenting opinions need to be defined as such and not given equal time as views that are backed by mainstream science.

Gregg Easterbrook, identified in the article as the only “liberal” (he’s a visiting fellow with liberal think tank Brookings Institution) to have written one of the 141 environmentally skeptical books studied, responded to my request for comment with this: “People ought to be skeptical of all extreme claims, whether from the left or right. Specifically as regards enviornmental politics, it is way too ideological -- liberals refuse to admit that most trends are positive, conservatives refuse to admit that most regulations worked. Meanwhile there's no middle ground in environmental politics because no one will fund one.”

But there is a middle ground in environmental politics.

If I’m doing my job, it’s right here.

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Cap-and-Trade the Way to Go?

Friday, May 23, 2008 by Kyle Scribner

UPDATE (May 28): Senate debate on the Lieberman-Warner Climate Security Act is tentatively scheduled to begin June 2.

The government, having realized something must be done about the environmental crisis (frighteningly belatedly, if you believe this NRDC report that states global warming will cost the U.S. $3.8 trillion annually by 2100), is bandying about several solutions. Perhaps chief among them is the Lieberman-Warner Climate Security Act.

The legislation, sponsored by Independent Sen. Lieberman of Conn. and Republican Sen. Warner of Va., would create a cap-and-trade system for emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases (within this system, the “cap” refers to a limit on overall pollution, as well as to what individual companies can emit; the “trade” refers to the ability of a company to sell whatever room it may have under its individual limit to a company that plans to exceed its individual limit).

If the act becomes law, emissions would be reduced 71% by 2050, so on the surface it seems like a great idea. But we should consider all the details – how much it will cost, whether the environment will suffer in other ways as a result of the law’s mandates – before we conclude this is where we should head. These folks say let’s not go there, while these guys are all for it.

The Senate will take up the bill sometime in the next few weeks. It (or one like it, should Lieberman-Warner fail) could have THE biggest impact on how our country deals with the climate crisis.

So here is your GAG Order (Green Among Gray order, get it?): Go learn as much as you can about this act; regardless of whether it’s this bill or another that makes its way to the president, one of the best things we can do for the environment is simply to stay informed. (And don’t forget to vote in our poll below).

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Is Your Work Helping You Achieve Greenness?

Tuesday, May 20, 2008 by Kyle Scribner

Google worker rides a company bike
So you’ve got a green vibe going at home. You’re paying attention to how many lights you leave on, converting to CFLs and incessantly recycling (you’re the one who stammers, “uh, uh, uh” whenever you catch your kids/husband/wife going to drop scrap paper or a spaghetti sauce jar in the trash, aren’t you? It’s OK. It’s a good thing).

How about at work? Is there room for greening there? Probably. At minimum, your workplace should have some sort of recycling program. If not, take the initiative and get it rolling yourself. It can start as simply as commandeering a trash barrel, slapping a recycling symbol on it and placing it in a main hallway.

So you can help your work, but your work should also be helping you. One of the easiest ways, as this Forbes.com piece explains, is for a workplace to be commuter-friendly. Firms nowadays are instituting policies such as giving bikes to workers (above), paying for gas, awarding rebates for hybrid purchases and encouraging telecommuting. If your employer isn’t on this list (pdf), there’s probably room for improvement.
Also check out the Environmental Defense Fund’s list of companies and the steps they’re taking to go green.

Let us know what “greenery” your workplace is up to.

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We're Losing Our Animals

Monday, May 19, 2008 by Kyle Scribner

Yangtze river dolphin
The Yangtze river dolphin. It did its thing for 20 million years. Then we come along and erase it from existence in a few decades' worth of "progress." We reduce its habitat by diverting water for farms and factories, whose effluence then pollute what habitat is left, and we batter it into submission with our never-ending parade of boats.

OK, so you've never even been to China. Neither have I. But by taking part in this thing called the "global economy," we all play a role – no matter how seemingly minute – when animal populations are affected by human activity. And, according to the Zoological Society of London's new Living Planet Index, we are having a big-time effect: there are 30% fewer wild animals today than there were just 35 years ago or so.

Whether or not we admit it, we are complicit in helping to eradicate species when we buy anything whose manufacture results in habitat loss or pollution. And, FYI: Such an overwhelming percentage of goods are made via environmentally impactful processes that if you aren't actively pursuing alternative goods what you buy does result in habitat loss or pollution.
So any inner debate we have cannot be about whether we're part of the problem; it can only be about whether we care (some dolphin in China? Puhleeze!) , or whether we even think it is a problem (mankind's progress should not be stilted by concerns over lesser creatures).

If you're indifferent or think it's ok that we're losing species, that's fine. You sure are not alone. But in case you're neither, keep in mind there are a variety of ways to help, from symbolic animal adoptions to simply paying attention to the natural world.

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Chemicals' Effect on the Environment

Tuesday, May 13, 2008 by Kyle Scribner

peregrine falcon and chickThere are SO MANY manmade chemicals in our environment. This cannot be disputed. The only dispute lies in whether the negative effects of this chemical presence outweigh the chemicals' societal benefits. The people who make their money off producing industrial chemicals – folks like Chemtura, Monsanto and Dow – will tell you the chemicals are so important to our everyday lives that any possible negative consequences are a necessary evil. I tend to think it's less necessary than evil (any company that starts its "About" page with its sales figures tells me all I need to know [the definition of irony, by the way]).

There is plenty of evidence of how damaging chemicals can be when they make their way into the environment – just try wading through the EPA’s National Priorities List of Superfund sites.
But the chemical companies have a point. Take DDT. It was banned in the U.S. in 1972 after outcries (led by Rachel Carson in her seminal green-movement work, Silent Spring) that it leads to cancer and that it is devastating to bird and fish populations. The cancer issue has yet to be definitively proven, but it’s established that raptors, especially bald eagles, were affected, and the rise in eagle populations is generally seen as being linked to the DDT ban. Bravo.

But the other side of the coin is that DDT is extremely effective in killing mosquitoes, and therefore in controlling the spread of malaria. The anti-DDT groundswell that helped eagles has, it’s been argued, led to the deaths of millions of people in developing nations where DDT is the best malaria control (on the other hand, read to the bottom of that link’s Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting story and you’ll see the flipside of the flipside argument).

So I read an article like this one in the San Francisco Chronicle and immediately I want to rail against the chemical industry. But then I realize it’s not their fault. They’re only giving us what we ask for. We’re a consumer-obsessed, gotta-get-it society and without chemicals like the PBDEs that keep a long list of goods from catching fire, how can we be expected to relax and enjoy all our stuff?

So it comes back to us, to recognize that animals like the magnificent peregrine falcon (above) – one of the few wild creatures you could actually spy while working in your 30th-floor office – are dying in part due to us needing to know that none of our three TV sets is going to overheat and burn the house down.

Where do you draw the line? Let us know what concessions you think are appropriate for humans to make to help nature.

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Sustainable Communities Sprouting

Tuesday, May 6, 2008 by Kyle Scribner

Nubanusit. Mereham. Masdar. New planetoids? Roll call for the attacking line of Brazil's national soccer team? The latest sugar substitutes? Nope, nope, and nope. Nubanusit, Mereham, and Masdar are three examples of a growing worldwide phenomenon: the zero-carbon village.
"Village" is applied loosely here; these areas range in scope from Nubanusit's 29-home community to the 50,000-person metropolis that will be Masdar (above). But they are united in ambition – to establish a place where inhabitants leave as light a footprint on their environment as possible. These three examples (along with eco-town progenitor BedZED and others) may just be the prototypes for future urban/suburban development.

Nubanusit Neighborhood and Farm, a “condominium cohousing community” in Peterborough, New Hampshire, is made up of 29 Earth-friendly homes, some offices, a “common house,” and a farm across 70 idyllic woodland acres. The homes, registered at the highest level of recognition with the U.S. Green Building Council, use techniques such as fresh-air ventilation and heat recovery. The community shares a central pellet-fueled boiler (No boiler in the basement to worry about? Kind of a liberating concept), and driving is restricted to the neighborhood’s perimeter. Yes, we may shudder at the thought of not being able to roll out of bed and hop into our cars, but think of the benefit of a forced daily walk. Plus, there’s always this. Or the Segway (maybe what inventor Dean Kamen declared seven years ago – with the likes of Steve Jobs echoing his sentiments – will actually come to pass: the Segway will instigate a new type of community development).

Mereham is part of the long-term eco-community plan in England. Well, it is if you ask the government. They want 10 “eco-towns” by 2020, the AP says. It isn’t, however, if you ask the people currently living in the region north of London where planners are hoping to build the 5,000-home development (the natives are not happy about the traffic and infrastructure ramifications on their heretofore undisturbed corner of East Cambridgeshire). The Mereham folks promise self-sufficiency, open-space preservation and wildlife conservation. The anti-Mereham folks tell them to stuff it. The argument raises an issue of ever-increasing relevance: As “going green” proves to be more and more profitable (for developers, for energy providers, etc.), how much can those behind such communities be trusted to keep the priority on the public’s welfare?

Masdar, billed as “the world’s first zero-carbon, zero-waste, car-free city,” is Abu Dhabi’s $22 billion emerald city imagining. Much of the cost of the district, set for completion in 2016, will be covered by selling carbon offsets. Masdar is the one place the world will be watching to see just how practical all the grandiose “zero-imprint city” talk is. And “grandiose” is the key word here. Among other things, the city has (or will have) its own university – a collaboration with MIT (nothing but the best, right?) called Masdar Institute of Science and Technology – and an “initiative” headquartered in a “positive energy” building, meaning it generates more energy than it consumes.

And for anybody who may be pooh-poohing the whole sustainable living concept, who clings to the mantra, “oil serves our needs just fine,” I can only hope you’re not missing the irony that lies in the fact that Masdar, the focus of the alternative-energy universe, is being built in one of the world’s most oil-rich nations.

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Top Green Architecture Projects

Thursday, May 1, 2008 by Kyle Scribner

There are a lot of us out here now doing this environmental proselytizing thing. I’ll admit, there’s a bandwagon-y feel to it all (a lot of us green at being green, so to speak). That’s why when you see someone that’s been at it a long time, you must give respect. And today’s Green Among Gray respect goes to The American Institute of Architects, which has been recognizing sound environmental design and building since 1997 with its AIA/COTE Top Ten Green Projects list.

The AIA recently named its 2008 honorees, and a few big cities are represented: Seattle, Boston, Kansas City. The buildings are judged on measures that include energy conservation, water use, and bioclimatic design (how well the structure is suited to its surroundings). These buildings make use of such things as rainwater collection (for irrigation) and dual-flush toilets to reduce water consumption; natural ventilation instead of AC; daylighting to reduce electricity draw; recycled materials, such as tires, instead of virgin building materials; and, of course, lots of solar panels.

The AIA/COTE list is simply another illustration of how progressive our society can be, how doable all this STUFF that we hear about but don’t really have a context for is. It’s a big-scale thing, for which the responsibility lies not on “average Joe worker” (you and me) but on our employers, on our corporations, on our conglomerates. And the more us little worker bees see of it, the more likely we are to do our small-scale things to pitch in. And, in turn, the more of us who pitch in with little stuff, the more likely the bigwigs will be to enact the big-scale stuff. It can become a self-sustaining process. A green-energy synergy. Let’s keep it rolling.

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Kyle Scribner is a born-again nature freak who also happens to be an editor at Captivate Network.

You know that exhilarated feeling you got as a kid when you would go down to the pond to catch frogs? It never really goes away; it’s just dormant. So I'm here to slap a mix of facts and borderline balanced opinion on you, to poke a stick at the nature freak slumbering in us all and maybe get him to once again come out and play.

And we might even learn a few things about the environment as we go.


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About Green Among Gray

How do you commune with nature or become part of the solution to the environmental crisis when you're trapped in a cement-and-glass, gas-guzzling, power-sucking, emissions-spewing metropolis 8 hours (or more) a day? How do you go 'green' in a world of gray?

Actually, there are plenty of ways, and Green Among Gray aims to show high-rise inhabitants how they can help ease the load on the environment and on their minds by exploring natural oases, conservation tips, and other ways to stay green while working in the concrete-built world of the big city.

Look for short updates on the latest environmental news along with periodic longer features on specific places and events that allow big-city workers to get close to nature.