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Getting All Namby-pamby On Manmade Global Warming

Monday, July 27, 2009 by Kyle Scribner

I have a nasty secret.

It’s ugly.

It’s embarrassing.

I don’t want to even tell you. But I feel I must:

I sometimes question anthropogenic global warming.

I know, I know. AGW must be true; it’s what all these guys agree on. And, forgetting all the messy details for a sec, AGW just makes sense: If humans send a bunch of gases into the air that wouldn’t be there naturally, it’s bound to have a deleterious effect.

But there’s a lot of people out there who don’t buy it. From scientists who publish peer-reviewed work (though relatively few) to clowns that post in “Comments” after seemingly every climate-change article on the Web, there’s a broad spectrum of skepticism. And it gives me pause, to be honest. Can all the deniers really be in cahoots on some sort of agenda? Can all these voices, some with very respectable pedigrees, be that off the mark?

I asked colleagues at the Society of Environmental Journalists (I use the term loosely; I’m a colleague of theirs only inasmuch as they were kind enough to accept a neophyte, smacking-of-bandwagon wannabe journalist into their respected group, whose members include many reporters who’ve been working the environment beat for 20-plus years and from whom I’m constantly learning) if they ever wavered in their belief of the AGW consensus, and what “one, definitive source” initially convinced them.

Not one of the handful of SEJ members who weighed in said they doubted the AGW consensus, and most said narrowing it down to one source was impossible, because being convinced of AGW means understanding the science, which means following the countless peer-reviewed studies over the years, or, as one member put it, the “gradually strengthening conviction formed out of an early skepticism over more than two decades of accumulation of more and better data and personal study of this complex multidisciplinary science topic.”

Some said even debating the “if” of AGW was counterproductive because it’s such a settled issue and that time and energy must go toward the “how,” as in how to stop it.

If they absolutely had to name just one source, then it would have to be the IPCC, was the general consensus. Other sources members referred me to include

The SEJ’s own climate guide

Lester Machta research from the 1970s

Roger Revelle’s seminal 1982 paper

Charles Keeling’s work

The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment

And then there’s Coby Beck’s blog, A Few Things Ill Considered. In his How to Talk to a Climate Skeptic, Mr. Beck gathers the pertinent consensus science into one handy Web presentation, laying it out in simple terms (helped by the fact he is not a climate scientist; he’s a software developer who’s followed climate change as a passion since 2006.) This stuff is so good green-site heavyweight Grist has made it their official line.

So if the science is so clear, why are skeptics seemingly everywhere? The obvious answer is money (and politics. Is there a difference?). There’s much riding on the country’s and the world’s approach to the environment, economically speaking. Old-school energy providers stand to lose a lot. (I dealt with this topic in a post on 2008 article “The organization of denial.”)

But then there’s subtler reasons, like how believing in AGW might threaten a person’s ingrained beliefs, or how we might feel overwhelmed by climate change. As another SEJer put it, “What are the reasons skeptics have for doubting? One reason is the overwhelming enormity of the problem vs. a lone individual's inability to make a noticeable difference.”

I read something recently that speaks to this. It’s a comment from one Dan W., in response to a particularly comment-inducing post on FiveThirtyEight:

“The question is: how much do we really care? The answer is surely: we care relative to how much it will effect us and our children with a highly diminishing curve as the generations pass. Even at record avg lifespans humans don't live long enough to care, intrinsically, about what they do to the planet.”

And another reason – the one that explains my own occasional lags into AGW denial – is plain old wishy-washiness. I’m always questioning beliefs, even those that would seem fundamental, and can be swayed by sound (or sound-sounding) arguments. Ugh. I hate that about me. But I kind of like it too. It’s what gets me in trouble when I read an informed-sounding voice (see A1965bigdog’s comments) that seems to make a good argument against AGW. But it’s also what gets me out of it when I head back to the Coby Becks of the blogging universe. And to the James Hansens. And to our very own government.

Phew. I feel better. It’s all clear to me again. Of course AGW is real, and of course something needs to be done about it.

Now just keep me away from those comment sections.

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Beach Rescue Project

Wednesday, July 15, 2009 by Kyle Scribner

Bolsa Chica State Beach, Calif./Barefootwine.com
How do you improve on a summer stroll along the beach? How about by making it a community-bettering, soul-purifying, mood-lifting-via-free-wine stroll?

That’s just what the Barefoot Wine Beach Rescue Project does, and it’s coming to a surfside near you.

The project, a collaboration between Barefoot Wine and the Surfrider Foundation, encourages residents to help keep their beaches “barefoot friendly” by volunteering to clean up litter, restore dunes and plant native species.

In return (in addition to the swell of pride you get from performing such philanthropic acts) Barefoot rewards you with a post-cleanup celebration of wine, music and beach-inspired food.

The tour is hitting 25 cities across the US on Saturdays through August. This weekend, beaches in Washington, DC; Boston, Mass.; Amagansett, NY; and Long Beach, Calif. are the targeted cleanup sites.

The Boston event will be held at King’s Beach in Lynn (which could use it, apparently), 10a-1p this Saturday, followed by a party at Nahant’s Tides Restaurant from 2-4p.

Check out Barefoot’s site for details about all upcoming Beach Rescue tour stops.

If any Captivate viewers out there participate, let us know at kscribner@captivate.com. Send us photos and maybe you’ll end up on Captivate Network.

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Hohm Shows Promise

Friday, July 10, 2009 by Kyle Scribner

To answer the cliffhanger question from my last post, using Hohm – Microsoft’s new site that helps you figure out how to cut your energy use – turned out to be a friendly, pleasant experience.

Collecting the info Hohm needs to compose a snapshot of your energy use may not be, though. You’ll be searching high and low, as the Hohm form goes deep into your energy-use habits and home layout, from how many CFLs you have to the variety/thickness of your insulation (the question that gave me the most trouble) to the type of glass in your windows to where your ducts are. So you better have all your ducts in a row if you want to do this thing right. HA!

But what’s nice about it is the form saves your info automatically wherever you are, freeing you up to go hunt down the answers to questions like, “Is there radon in my windows?” or “Is my insulation R-11 or R-13?” So you can collect info over any number of days or weeks or months, and it will give you an exponentially more-accurate overview as you add data.

And if you have an older house, it’s pretty cool to dig up info that you’ve always sort of wondered about but might’ve not known or hadn’t thought about in a long time, like construction date (1920 here – doesn’t bode well for insulation, I’m afraid) or precise square footage.

So, how accurate is it?

In the four days I spent gathering info, I was able to fill out 94% of the Home Profile, enough for Hohm to be able to return a pretty close to real-world scenario, if it does what it’s supposed to. And it appears that it does, telling me I spend $3,912 annually on energy costs. Because my wife is a meticulous record-keeper, I know we spent $3,634 last year on gas and electric. That puts Hohm’s estimate within a respectable 9% of actual. Not bad, especially considering it was working with 6% less data than it wanted.

And Hohm breaks that down, telling you how much you spend in each of six energy categories, like lighting, heating and appliances.

The handiest – and, in my case, most depressing – info on the easy-to-read layout results page (they call it ‘My Hohm Center’) is the Average Annual Energy Costs In Your Area scale. It shows you how your costs compare to others near you (how near, I’m not sure; couldn’t find a definition of “area”).

Hohm then delivers its detailed Energy Report, pointing out the best changes you can make to save energy and money.

For really accurate reports, Hohm allows you to connect to your energy provider to view your home’s actual energy-use data. But that feature wasn’t enabled for my area.

The site also features a collection of statistics on saving money, such as how lowering a water heater’s setting saves $49 a year, and a section on rebates and tax credits for making efficiency improvements.

There were a couple failings. Hohm offers no choices other than CFLs or traditional bulbs when asking what kind of lighting you have. My house has a bunch of old-school fluorescents, so that must’ve thrown off my results a bit.

And there’s a Hohm community, featuring a blog and a forum. But the forum is through a third party, so if you want to contribute you have sign up with them. Or you can sign in through your Windows Live account (which I never wanted to begin with but you have to register to use Hohm), but to do so, it takes you away from the Hohm forum to a new page, where you sign in, which takes you to a second page, where you have to input more info. Sound confusing? Good, because that conveys how it feels. I don’t want to have to jump through hoops just to comment that the Home Profile should have more lighting options.

And it would’ve been nice to have been able to actually connect to my energy providers. It’s like a big tease. They say they’re working to add more though, with recent agreements with Puget Sound Energy, Sacramento Municipal Utility District, Seattle City Light and Xcel Energy.

Overall using Hohm taught me a lot about my house and my family’s energy habits. It’s a useful tool for anybody who wants to get a little more familiar with their footprint

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Hohm ... Hohm ... Hohm

Tuesday, July 7, 2009 by Kyle Scribner

Ah, yes. Relaxing. The mantra-esque name of Microsoft’s latest green app, Hohm – which claims to save you money by giving you a better understanding of your home’s energy usage – combines with a simple layout and subdued green-and-orange motif to create a tranquil-looking website indeed.

I headed to the Hohm beta site skeptical about whether it would be user-friendly enough to actually deliver on its claims, but I was immediately disarmed; my first thought was, “this is nice.”

BUT – and isn’t there always a but with Microsoft (I should disclose I’m particularly perturbed at Microsoft right now because I recently “upgraded” to IE 8 and it’s giving me issues) – the nice wore off as soon as I began the signup process.

To use Hohm, you have to get a Windows Live ID, which means you have to fill out the typical form: name, e-mail, etc. It’s not too involved and wasn’t a hassle until the end, when it requires you to type in the jumbled, distorted numbers/letters you see in a box. You know, the Captcha thingy. Not a big deal, but in this instance I couldn’t read the damn symbols (Was it an “L”? A “T”? A “1”? I guess I’ll never truly know.) and I had to do another one. This one I could discern, so I keyed in the letters, but, just as I hit ‘Enter,’ the info form timed out. I had to go back and fill in the whole thing again. It’s little things like that that give those Mac ads resonance, even as smug as they are.

So what will Hohm turn out to be? The inviting, rewarding app it appears on first blush, or a frustratingly engineered tool of subtle torture? I plan to find out over the coming days.

Check back Friday, when I’ll report on how the full Hohm interface works.

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Solar Projects On The Horizon

Wednesday, July 1, 2009 by Kyle Scribner

Nellis Air Force Base in Las Vegas

The economy has hit venture capital as hard as it’s hit anything else. But a new report shows promising signs for green technology companies, especially those dealing in solar.

Green-sector VC investments soared close to 50% in the second quarter to $1.2 billion, according to Greentech Media’s Greentech Innovations Report. The biggest chunk of that infusion – $330 million – went to solar energy projects.

So there’s a lot of action out there in the land of the sun-as-power-source. Some examples:

The government is setting aside federal land exclusively for the purpose of building large-scale solar projects. If all goes according to plan, there will be “landscape-scale” solar-energy plants across the West generating almost 100,000 megawatts of electricity – enough to power 29 million homes. Check out the areas in Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah.

Wells Fargo, which has provided $1.75 billion in financing for renewable energy projects in the past several years, is ponying up another $100 million in a deal with California-based SunPower. Wells Fargo will finance new solar power systems built and maintained by SunPower at various businesses and institutions. The first two projects are in central/southern California: a 1.1-megawatt system for University of California, Merced, and a 1-megawatt system for the Western Riverside County Regional Wastewater Authority.

Another California solar company, Sunworks Solar, is heading cross-country for its next project: a solar panel manufacturing facility in western New York. The company said 175 permanent jobs will be created through its $200 million plant, slated for construction through next year. And in a double-renewable twist, the New York Power Authority will sell Sunworks 5 megawatts of affordable hydropower for construction.

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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.