ENN's editors summarize the most compelling environmental and sustainable economy themes of the week. In the news May 30 - June 3: The geology of California's landslide, hurricanes and global warming, frogs in jeopardy, and the Grand Canyon speaks.
Top Ten Stories of the Week
Sustainable Economy News Roundup
EarthNews Radio Review
ENN Commentary: The Toyota Prius and Climate Change: Good Technology versus the Misuse of Science
The Week's Top Ten, by Carrie Schluter
In the news May 30 - June 3: The geology of California's landslide, hurricanes and global warming, frogs in jeopardy, and the Grand Canyon speaks.
1. A controversial, $417 million project could cut a two-lane, 1,100-mile toll road through a fertile stretch of Brazil. Environmentalists fear that the deforestation involved in the project could spell disaster for an ecologically vital region of the world.
>> A Highway through the Amazon Promises Riches, but Some Fear Ecological Catastrophe
2. If the Grand Canyon could speak, what a story it would have to tell. Now experts actually have the ability to listen in on the Canyon's sounds, and are doing so as policymakers are poised to determine the adequacy of current noise-reduction regulations imposed on aircraft flying above the famous National Park.
>> Experts Are Listening to Grand Canyon
3. The devastating 2004 hurricane season could be matched by a series of battering waves and winds in 2005, experts fear. If so, look for a contentious debate among scientists who are steeped in the question of how global warming impacts the environment.
>> Hurricane Season Could Renew Global Warming Debate
4. With the romantic name "Snowy River," a huge calcite formation discovered recently in New Mexico provides scientists with a rare opportunity to glean insights into such mysteries as underground drainage and specialized bacteria. The pristine cave is of a size not seen anywhere else in the world.
>> Large Calcite Formation Found in New Mexico Cave
5. Close a military base and what have you got? In some cases, acres of torpedo fuel, incinerator ash, and sulfuric acid. The Navy's oldest submarine base, located in New London, Conn. is slated for closing, and officials estimate that cleanup costs would far exceed the $23.9 million pledged by the Navy.
>> Base Closings Leave Behind Large Swaths of Pollution
6. Biologists hope to strike medically beneficial fungus as they probe the depths of Lake Michigan. Scientists are delving into every conceivable environment -- including lake bottoms -- in a microscopic hunt for bacteria and fungus that could hold pharmaceutical promise.
>> Great Lakes Soil Probed for Helpful Fungi
7. Once again, ominous news that frogs are in peril. With an extended stretch of predominantly dry weather in the American West, many endangered Chiricahua leopard frogs are in need of safe havens. U.S. Fish and Wildlife spokesman Jeff Humphrey warns, "When you see frogs declining, it throws a red flag and shows something is going wrong."
>> Western Drought Further Jeopardizing Endangered Wildlife
8. In contrast, experts think that it was an overabundance of precipitation this winter that led to California's devastating landslides this week. Where a near record-breaking wet season in Southern California turned hillsides into mush, luxury homes slid downhill in Laguna Beach. Geologists explain the science behind the disaster in the following article:
>> Wet Winter Triggered California Landslide, Expert Says
9. In a move that alarmed environmentalists, Ecuador once again green-lighted the fishing of sea cucumbers from the Galapagos Islands. Officials concede that the decision was driven primarily by social and economic factors. Beginning on June 12, fishermen will be permitted to capture a total maximum of three million sea cucumbers for 60 days.
>> Ecuador Lifts Galapagos Sea Cucumber Fishing Ban
10. Five days of World Environment Day celebrations began on Thursday in San Francisco, and ENN's own Jerry Kay was on hand to record the opening ceremonies. With the theme of "Green Cities: Where the Future Lives," festivities will continue through the weekend, focusing on such topics as energy, biodiversity, and sustainable building. Listen to some audio clips here:
>> San Francisco Hosts World Environment Day -- 'Green Cities: Where the Future Lives'
Sustainable Economy News Roundup, by Paul Geary
This week in ENN's Sustainable Economy, the issue of environmental degradation caused by cars continued as unabated as the American penchant for driving. The post-Memorial Day driving season began in the US with slight relief from record-high gas prices, but even so consumers are trending against SUVs and toward more economical cars like the Prius, which has near-legendary status among environmentalists already. However, the Priuses are proving to be, well, mortal. Meanwhile, one man is pushing the use of vegetable oil to power cars, a concept that isn't foreign to regular ENN readers. But the cars' emissions aren't the only issue: The building of highways creates environmental problems as well. Read those stories here:
Massachusetts Man Promotes Vegetable Oil Fuels for Autos
Government Investigating Engine Stalling in Toyota Prius
SUV Drivers Reconsider
A Highway through the Amazon Promises Riches, but Some Fear Ecological Catastrophe
Companies that want to help the environment -- or that want to be seen that way -- are as ubiquitous now as the Priuses on the road. We bring you their stories; you decide if they're doing enough:
National Semiconductor's Products to be Lead-Free in 2006
Dell to Increase Commitment to Used Computer Recovery
New Society Publishers Announces that it is Carbon Neutral
Brewery Supplements Profits with Energy Savings
Individuals and smaller businesses can do their part as well, and we bring you these examples as well. People can help the environment individually in the course of their daily work life, through their business, and by learning green business practices, as we showed you in these stories this week:
Remember to visit ENN's Sustainable Economy section regularly for the very latest in news about business and the environment.
EarthNews Radio Review, by Paul Geary
This week EarthNews Radio brought you the intersection of religion and the environment. In these politically dichotomous times, we may forget that people of faith and those who care for the environment have much more in common than we might think.
Jerry Kay spoke to representatives of organizations that bring together the concepts of spirituality and sustainability. These organizations dialogue with church congregations to educate them about sustainability, and about why the environment should be of concern to people of faith:
One campaign for the environment, though decidedly secular in this case, addresses a human right issue as well; the issue of water as a human right:
EarthNews Radio also brought you conversations to help the general public understand the difference between organic and traditional farming, the difference between farmed and fresh fish, and about the stringent process for certifying flowers as organic:
Visit EarthNews Radio's home here at ENN often. Jerry Kay interviews compelling environmentalists, and scientists, and activists in 90 second spots that really make you think - and sometimes will prompt you to act. You can find it at www.enn.com/enn_radio_main.html.
The Toyota Prius and Climate Change: Good Technology versus the Misuse of Science -- An ENN Commentary
by Peter H. Gleick, The Pacific Institute
I guess it was inevitable. I am an environmental scientist. I live in Berkeley, California. I work, eat, and breathe environmental issues daily. I know that global warming is a serious problem ”“ I’ve been working on the science and policy of it for more than two decades. It was therefore fated that my family would buy a Prius ”“ the tremendously popular hybrid gas-electric car from Toyota. And while I expected that buying it would make me feel like I was taking another personal step toward helping address the serious problem of global warming, I was not prepared for some of the other effects it would have on me.
I was born and raised in New York City. Even more relevant, I learned to drive there, which left me with four particular driving characteristics: the ability to parallel park in tiny spaces, an uncanny knack for finding street parking anywhere, a suspicion that other drivers are going to do something stupid at any moment, and a tendency toward moderately aggressive driving (though my family might challenge the modifier “moderately”).
This car has changed my driving habits. The Prius comes with a remarkable computer screen capable of displaying sufficient information to warm any data freak’s heart. For example, it displays a graph of average fuel efficiency every five minutes. It shows how much energy the regenerative breaking system puts back into its special battery. It displays instantaneous miles per gallon, along with a schematic showing which part of the gas-electric-hybrid system is in use at any moment. Frankly, the display should have a warning sticker: the first month I had the car I almost drove off the road watching my performance.
My goal, which used to be to get from point A to point B in the shortest amount of time, is now to get from point A to point B with the highest level of fuel efficiency. I’ve gone from a lead-foot to a feather-foot. I wave at other Prius owners. I can drive from my home to the State Capitol in Sacramento at 65 miles per hour and get 50 miles per gallon. But I also know I can drive the same route at 60 miles per hour and get 52 miles per gallon and arrive only seven minutes later. I love knowing that I’m going three times as far on a gallon of gas as the owners of large SUVs speeding past me ”“ especially now that gas is approaching $3 per gallon in some parts of the Bay Area. And yes, while I know it is uncharitable, I admit to feelings of smugness.
But I also consider the Prius to be more than just a car. It has become a symbol for the ongoing misuse of facts by anti-science climate critics. Patrick Michaels, whom I consider a poster child of the anti-science climate minority, has attacked it in several columns he has written. While he says he owns, or owned, an early version of the Honda hybrid (the unpopular two-seater Insight), he also has regularly and consistently dissed hybrids. For example, in a 2004 Washington Times opinion piece, Michaels criticized a Washington Post story that labeled the Prius “the fastest selling car in America” by pointing out that many other models sell more cars.
As with many of the other things climate critics say that are half true and yet completely wrong, Michaels failed to do his research. It turns out that for at least ten straight months in 2003 the Prius was indeed the fastest selling car in America, which J.D. Powers defined as the car that spends the shortest amount of time on a dealer’s lot before being sold ”“ in other words, they sell incredibly fast. And that is still true ”“ in fact, the latest data show the average time spent on a car lot for hybrids in early 2005 was 16 days; for gasoline cars the average was 65 days. The vast majority of Prius’s don’t even make it to the lot ”“ they are sold before the delivery truck even arrives at the dealers.
Michaels also said that Toyota will “never” make a profit on hybrids. He has said, pointing to the failure of the US Big Three car companies to make a hybrid, “it was obvious that the technology would not work in anything approaching a cost-effective fashion.” He has also said “few people will want them.” Wrong, wrong, and wrong. Toyota says it already makes a profit on the Prius. The technology is clearly cost effective to consumers ”“ I’ll save more in gas costs over the life of my Prius than any premium I may have paid for being an early adopter. Demand is not only high ”“ it is growing, as is production. Toyota now says it expects to sell a million hybrids next year, and ultimately nothing but hybrids. The market is expanding with hybrid SUVs and luxury cars. Toyota may produce hybrids shortly in Kentucky, and California and Michigan are competing for new hybrid factories.
As a Toyota spokesman said about the late 1990s "We invested in hybrids," he says. "Another company bought a humongous SUV company. You make your decisions and you live with it." Indeed, it seems no coincidence that the Big Three are now scrambling to produce hybrids. Junk climate science leads to junk climate policy, and potentially ”“ as some US automakers recently discovered ”“ junk bonds.
We won’t turn the tide on a problem as massive as climate change overnight. And hybrids are just part of the solution ”“ designing walkable communities, investing in public transportation, and developing alternative fuels must also be part of the mix. But the success of the Prius shows that cost-effective and, yes, even desirable solutions to climate change are out there. And the icing on the cake? It’s fun to drive.
Dr. Peter Gleick is a 2003 MacArthur Fellow, member of the US National Academy of Sciences Water Science and Technology Board, a lifetime member of the International Water Academy in Oslo, Norway, and President of the Pacific Institute, Oakland. Dr. Gleick did some of the earliest research on the impacts of climate change for water resources in the early 1980s. His findings, suggesting dramatic impacts of climate change for snowfall, snowpack, and runoff, still form the basis for our understanding of some important risks of climate change, despite vast improvements in models, computers, and climate analysis over the subsequent two decades. He was recently appointed to the UN-Sigma Xi Scientific Expert Group on Climate Change and Sustainable Development analyzing approaches and policies for adapting to and mitigating climate change.
Photo: Oakland, California-based AC Transit displays a hydrogen cell bus at World Environment Day celebrations, June 2, 2005