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Information Is Power

Friday, January 29, 2010 by Kyle Scribner

The truest way to be a strong part of a citizenry is to be informed. But to be informed, you first need access to information. Which is why it’s so important the government allows the public to see the millions of studies, polls, surveys and everything else it cranks out each year. As the Association of Health Care Journalists puts it in a letter beseeching the FDA for openness, “The free flow of information is essential to democracy.”

Which is why I periodically talk about stuff like government openness and FOIA.

With Obama coming into office, the expectation was that the strict, “assume everything is a national security risk” approach was being kicked to the curb for a more open, “assume our citizens have a right to know” one.

And on the one hand, it has: OMB Watch notes that last week, a bunch of federal agencies published new info via Data.gov. The EPA released three datasets, and there is a boatload of other environmental-related data from agencies ranging from the Dept. of Agriculture to the Tennessee Valley Authority.

But not all is as ‘open’ as it might seem. OMB Watch is among watchdogs noting that not all the recently released data is new or of high-value, and the Washington Post has a story saying there were more lawsuits seeking the unsealing of government records in Obama’s first year than in either of Bush’s final two.

Then there’s this story, from nonprofit Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, about a gag order Obama ordered on the Forest Service.

Like with so many other pledges of the Obama administration, it seems the jury is still out on whether it’ll fulfill its goal of being the most open ever. Time will tell.

Very few of us have ever filed a FOIA request (I haven’t) but you don’t have to be a journalist to do so. Any citizen can. So tell us: What one piece of information would you request from the government? Submit answers via the Comments below.

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Greenest Cars

Wednesday, January 27, 2010 by Kyle Scribner

The nonprofit American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy has been putting out lists of the greenest cars for 13 years now. Their latest countdown was released recently, and, surprisingly (at least to me) it’s not topped by mpg-king Prius.

Toyota’s mean green machine is surpassed by the Honda Civic. But not the Civic you might expect. No. 1 on ACEEE’s list isn’t the Civic Hybrid, but rather the Civic GX.

The Honda Civic GX runs on natural gas, which greatly reduces its emissions (like to basically zero) and propels it past the 50-mpg Prius on the Greenest Vehicles list.

So how exactly does ACEEE decide on their list? It’s based on factors including fuel economy, emissions and specific pollutants.

The top five is rounded out by the Civic Hybrid, Smart Fortwo and Honda Insight.

American automakers crack the list at No. 6 with the Ford Fusion Hybrid and at No. 10 with Chevy’s Cobalt FXE.

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Secret Chemicals Revealed And Bear Births Online

Friday, January 22, 2010 by Kyle Scribner

Couple totally unrelated things I want to cover today: EPA does good again, and there’s a Web cam that allows you to watch a wild bear. EPA first.

The new EPA administration has again illustrated it’s putting the well-being of the country’s citizens ahead of that of Big Biz.

EPA chief Lisa Jackson announced companies will no longer be allowed to keep secret the names of harmful chemicals they use.

This comes just a couple weeks after a Washington Post story about all the secret chemicals in products, which followed the Environmental Working Group’s dogged pursuit of the truth through information requests to the EPA. EWG sums up the threat to public health:

A large number of these secret chemicals are used everyday in consumer products, including artists’ supplies, plastic products, fabrics and apparel, furniture and items intended for use by children … Industry has a stranglehold on every aspect of information needed to implement even the most basic health protections from chemicals in consumer products and our environment.

Now about that bear.

If you want to see “how real bears behave,” check out the North American Bear Center’s Den Cam.

It’s exactly as it sounds – there’s a camera fixed on a bear (“Lily”) in her den, so anybody anywhere can see how a black bear behaves in the wild (lots of snoozing, from what I can tell).

But the really cool part is that Lily is pregnant and due to give birth any day – in fact, the researcher heading up the project has her money on TODAY! So go check it out, and you may be among the first people to ever witness a live Webcast of a bear giving birth

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Global Warming Doesn’t Mean It’s Not Going To Be Cold Anymore

Tuesday, January 19, 2010 by Kyle Scribner

The most irritating anti-global warming argument to me is the “How can there be warming if I’m buried in snow and freezing?” chestnut.

What bugs me most about it is not how infantile it is – believing weather in one little corner of the world somehow precludes global climate trends is so logically stunted that it indicates a mental capacity of a five-year-old – but that I know most of the people who use such an argument are smarter than that.

The only other explanation for thinking this way is willful ignorance. They have another reason to not want to believe in global warming (most likely politics-based), so they’re willing to grab onto any counter-argument, no matter how intelligence-insulting it might be. Man is that irritating. And depressing.

So explaining the science behind it all is useless, since those who most need to see it will simply refuse to. But what the heck, let’s throw it out there anyway, courtesy of NASA’s James Hansen.

In his latest draft essay, Dr. Hansen says (pdf) 2009 “tied as the second warmest year in the 130 years of global instrumental temperature records,” a full 1 degree Fahrenheit warmer than in the period of climatology (NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies uses 1951‐1980 as its base period).

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s 2009 summary generally backs up this assertion, saying ’09 was 1 degree warmer than typical, but its rankings are a little different – it places ’09 as only the fifth-hottest on record. (The discrepancies in NASA and NOAA rankings can be attributed to “different treatment for urban heat effects and different procedure for extrapolation to data poor areas,” according to GISS scientist Gavin Schmidt, a regular contributor to RealClimate.org, climate scientists’ online bible.)

The GISS numbers take into account variables such as El Nino, La Nina, sunspot cycles and urban warming, and Hansen also explains why, exactly, it’s been so cold across much of the U.S. in the past few months. (It comes down to surface pressure, which was at its lowest since the mid-1980s, allowing polar air to kick farther south than typical).

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Secret Chemicals In The Stuff We Buy

Friday, January 15, 2010 by Kyle Scribner

The use of hazardous chemicals in everyday products is an issue near and dear to me.

As it should be to all of us. I mean, we’re exposing ourselves to stuff that makes us sick.

But why? For consumers, who just want to grab the things that are most available to us, the answer is because it’s the simplest thing to do. We buy what is most convenient and cheapest.

For big biz, it’s because it’s the way that makes them the most money.

As scary as the situation already is – fueled by corporate greed, consumer laziness and poor government oversight – there comes new news, from the Washington Post, that makes it that much scarier:

“Of the 84,000 chemicals in commercial use in the United States -- from flame retardants in furniture to household cleaners -- nearly 20 percent are secret, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, their names and physical properties guarded from consumers and virtually all public officials under a little-known federal provision.”

Read the full article, “Use of potentially harmful chemicals kept secret under law,” here.

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Stricter Smog Standards

Friday, January 8, 2010 by Kyle Scribner

The smog-infused LA skyline
Smog kills. It’s a fact.

Emissions from factories, power plants, autos, planes and everything else that spews “volatile organic compounds” get boiled by the sun to form a big ozone stew that perpetually wafts about us, causing and/or exacerbating millions of cases of lung disease.

To help reduce smog-caused health problems, the EPA just proposed stricter ozone standards of no more than 0.070 ppm, from the current 0.075 ppm.

Big business is, predictably, up in arms about this. They’re saying it’ll cost too much to comply and won’t really help public health (despite the fact that saying reducing exposure to something harmful is not beneficial flies in the face of logic).

It WILL cost a lot. Up to $90 billion, the EPA says. And guess where big biz will recoup a lot of that $90 billion – yep, they’ll pass it down to me and you, in the form of everything from higher electric bills to more expensive gas. But what price do you put on your health? What price do you put on quality of life for your kids, and your kids’ kids? Plus, the EPA says the benefits – in lowered healthcare costs – may surpass that $90 billion.

This decision just makes too much sense. I wouldn’t trust anyone who doesn’t think it’s a good idea.

Give the EPA your own 2 cents – they’re taking public comment for the next 60 days, with public hearings scheduled (in or near Captivate markets, btw): Feb. 2 in Arlington, Va. and in Houston, Texas; and Feb. 4 in Sacramento, Calif.

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Wednesday, January 6, 2010 by Kyle Scribner

Nothing drives home the finality of the close of the holiday season quite like that somber drag to the curb of your ornamentless, needles-hemorrhaging Christmas tree corpse.

But Earth911 has found a way to put a positive spin on it: The environmental services company tells us the easiest way to recycle Christmas trees (aka “treecycling”).

It’s not so sad kissing your tree (and, by extension, the festive holiday season) goodbye when you think of all the good ways your tree is going to be used: as mulch for landscaping, or chipped and used for playground material, hiking trails, paths and walkways, Earth911 says.

Check out their listings for various cities for recycling times, availability and how to prepare your tree.

If your town offers curbside recycling, they most likely include Christmas trees among their eligible pickup items and once you’ve made that trip to the curb you’ve done all you need to. But for those who don’t have that convenience, Earth911 tells you all you need to know to most easily treecycle.

They even compiled a list of cities with the highest number of treecycling resources, and I’m proud to say Captivate markets dominate the list:

1. New York City, N.Y. – 81
2. Los Angeles, Calif. – 26
3. Chicago, Ill. – 23
4. Las Vegas, N.V. – 22
5. Phoenix, Ariz. – 18
5. Gainesville, Fla. – 18
7. San Diego, Calif. – 17
8. Miami, Fla. – 13
8. San Francisco, Calif. – 13
10. Indianapolis, Ind. – 12

So don’t think of this time of year as the end of the holidays – think of it as just the beginning for your Christmas tree.

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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.