Environment Forum

Floods? Droughts? Wildfires? Hurricanes? Yes, there is a climate change connection

For years, climate scientists were circumspect when asked if a specific bit of violent weather — for example, Hurricane Irene, the late-summer storm that slammed the heavily populated U.S. East Coast — could be blamed in some way on climate change.

“Climate is what you expect,” the scientists would say, “while weather is what you get.” They would often go on to say that while increasingly severe weather and correspondingly serious costs and consequences were forecast in climate change computer simulations, there was no way to directly blame a given storm on human-generated heat-trapping gases in Earth’s atmosphere.

There still is no direct line between a certain amount of warming and a certain storm, wildfire, drought or flood. But there is a “new normal,” detailed by scientists on a new website . Staffed and advised by some of the most well-known climate change experts in the United States and elsewhere, the site says plainly that what the computer models foretold in 2007 is clearly documented to be occurring.

“All weather events are now influenced by climate change because all weather now develops in a different environment than before,” the Climate Communication site noted in an article released days after Irene dumped record amounts of rain on the U.S. Mid-Atlantic and Northeast.

“While natural variability continues to play a key role in extreme weather, climate change has shifted the odds and changed the natural limits, making certain types of extreme weather more frequent and more intense. The kinds of extreme weather events that would be expected to occur more often in a warming world are indeed increasing.”

A solar-powered all-terrain vehicle, on extremely unfamiliar terrain

On Earth, we consider design, fuel efficiency, and enduring power when thinking of “green” vehicles. But there’s one solar-powered all-terrain vehicle that has by some lights out-performed anything rolling around on Earth. It is the doughty little robotic rover Opportunity, doggedly using its seven-year-old solar array to chug over the rocky surface of Mars.
Opportunity, like its twin rover Spirit, was designed to drive about .6 mile (1 kilometer) along the martian surface; by last month, Opportunity had driven more than 30 times that distance. It completed its primary mission in 2004 and since then has made important discoveries about parts of ancient Mars that might have been hospitable to microscopic life.
Like many earthly vehicles that are a bit past their prime, Opportunity has a few quirks, according to NASA’s Dave Lavery, who spoke at a briefing on the rover’s latest findings.
“We’re no longer driving a hot sports car,” he said. “We’re now driving a 1965 Mustang that hasn’t been restored.”
Even though Opportunity’s “drivers” are on Earth, controlling the golf-cart-sized robot remotely, they plainly feel a fair amount of affection for the little craft. NASA’s John Callas described the rover’s status almost as if it were a spunky grandparent.

“We have a very senior rover that’s showing her age,” Callas told reporters. “She had some arthritis and other issues, but generally she’s in good health, she’s sleeping well at night, her cholesterol levels are excellent and so we look forward to productive scientific exploration for the period ahead.”

Operating it takes a bit of doing. First off, to avoid wear on some gear teeth, Opportunity drove most of her latest jaunt backwards. Her NASA operators also warmed up actuators to the rover’s wheels, which made lubricants flow better — like applying a heating pad to an arthritic joint before a game of tennis, Callas said.

from The Great Debate UK:

Give people the power to live a greener lifestyle

--Craig Boundy is UK CEO of Logica. The opinions expressed are his own.--

Recent research by Logica showed that only 22 per cent of individuals feel the onus is on them to deliver a sustainable future. Individuals want more guidance on how to live a more sustainable lifestyle, with 18 per cent of respondents saying they had no idea what changes they need to make, and only 22 per cent feeling a responsibility to take the initiative. Central and local government need to put the power into consumers’ hands by equipping them with the knowledge and the technologies to make change a reality – and ultimately to get them excited about living a greener lifestyle.

Homes are the biggest emitters of CO2 in London – around 36 per cent of London’s CO2 emissions come from its homes according to government statistics. The good news is the government has already created a pan-London scheme called RE:NEW which is designed to make it easier for all households to improve their energy efficiency. With RE:NEW, householders are given energy efficiency advice and can have simple improvements installed for free throughout the home. These include energy display devices, radiator panels, aerated taps, hot water tank jackets and draught-proofing. These are basic changes but it’s a good start.

Government now needs to look at how more permanent changes, like installing solar panels and home energy monitors, can be funded. Under the recently-introduced Green Deal, bill payers will be able to get energy efficiency improvements without having to front up the cash. Instead, energy companies will install the products and bill payers will pay these back via the cost savings on their bills. At the heart of the offer is a simple rule: estimated savings on bills over a period of time will always equal or exceed the cost of the work. It’s a flexible framework and one that gives businesses and consumers the opportunity to make the improvements that best suit their situation.

Wildlife gone wild? Walruses, sharks, butterflies and orange goo

This was the week when some wildlife got a little wilder — or at least ventured into unusual places.

Walruses have started hauling themselves out of the waters of the Chukchi Sea off Alaska’s northwest coast — not as many as were seen last September, but enough for scientists to want to track where they go. Researchers see this behavior as a sign that there’s not enough Arctic sea ice for the big, swimming mammals to use as resting platforms after deep dives searching for food. It’s another indication of climate change, according to scientists at the U.S. Geological Survey.

Sharks attacked two people in the Sea of Japan off the Russian coast, an extremely rare occurrence. Some wildlife experts figured the sharks headed to the area from the tropics, venturing into northern waters which have become warmer in recent years. The sharks may have migrated to the area following fish stocks or squid.

Seeking answers on oil sands crude corrosion

Environmental groups and the oil industry are battling on a new front in the long-running public relations war over Canada’s oil sands. This one concerns claims that crude wrung from the massive deposits is more corrosive to pipelines and hence presents a bigger risk of oil spills.

Green groups say the crude eats away at the inside of pipelines much more quickly than is the case with conventional oil and the industry says it doesn’t.

We took a look at the issue recently, and found a surprising lack of research dedicated specifically to the risks associated with shipping growing volumes of the tar-sands-derived oil on longer pipelines as the United States seeks to cut dependence on other imported crude.

U.S. lawmakers find something to agree on: endangered species

This just in: the U.S. House of Representatives agreed on something. A bipartisan majority of the House voted to preserve funding for the Endangered Species Act and the animals and plants it protects.

In other legislatures and at other times, this might not sound like such a big deal. Just now, though, with both parties seemingly unable to reach a compromise on raising the U.S. debt ceiling, it’s a sign that agreement is at least a possibility.

House lawmakers voted 224-202 to change the appropriations bill for the Interior Department to take out what environmental groups called the “extinction rider.” This rider would have stopped the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from spending any money to protect new species under the Endangered Species Act or to designate habitat that is critical to their survival. At least 37 Republicans voted for the measure, according to the Center for Biological Diversity, which pushes for species conservation.

from Photographers' Blog:

Barefoot in a recycled school

The environment hasn't been spared in India's headlong rush towards development and consumerism. With it came mounds of garbage, piles of waste that had nowhere to go, industrial pollutants that were fed straight back into the rivers and lakes that supply drinking water to millions.‬ Walking around the streets of any town in India, you don't get the feeling that care for the environment is on the top of anyone's list of priorities.‬

So it was with a little skepticism that I read about a school which claimed to be completely environmentally friendly. I made a plan to travel to Pune, about 190km (118 miles) from Mumbai, to take a look at the Aman Setu school, which means "bridge to peace". They claimed fantastic things - the buildings were environmentally friendly made entirely out of recycled and natural bits and pieces - they had their own vegetable garden for children - kids were allowed to run around barefoot.‬

What I found really was surprising. The "school" consisted of just a handful of buildings. Madhavi Kapur, who came up with the idea for the school, told me how they'd made the buildings - they'd taken old cement bags, commonly left over at many construction sites after buildings are made in India, and compacted them together with mud to make the rooms. One of the buildings was cone-shaped, others rectangular. Roofs were made out of old advertisement claddings. Ventilation was provided through disused plastic pipes.‬

Instead of using toxic paints and whitewashes, they used a mixture of cow dung, mud and water. I was told it's been traditionally used in India for centuries because strangely enough, a mixture of cow dung and water insect proofs buildings. Who would have thought?!? It smelled reasonably pleasant too, you wouldn't think you were standing somewhere were the floors and walls were plastered in cow dung.‬

Airlines tout “going green” but their lobbyists are on different flight

By Peter Goldmark
The opinions expressed are his own. 

The way some of the big U.S. airlines tell it, they’re responsible stewards of the environment working hard to shrink their footprints.

American Airlines, in an article in its in-flight magazine American Way, says the company is “committed to identifying and implementing programs to reduce our environmental impact.” Just this week, American announced the purchase of 460 new fuel-efficient aircraft. The newly merged United and Continental recently launched an “Eco-Skies” campaign that, according to a company web site, reflects “a common focus on protecting the environment” and “allow[s] us to integrate our programs and focus on the environmental commitment of our combined company.”

So why are these environmental stewards hiring lobbyists and going to court to fight common-sense rules that will help protect the environment? And why are some members of Congress introducing legislation that would make it illegal for air carriers to obey new European clean air standards?

The power of a soccer ball

Anyone who watched the women’s World Cup final might have wondered if it’s possible to harness that pure human energy. Turns out, it is. There’s enough power in a soccer ball to light the night — or at least a part of it.

It’s done via sOccket, a soccer ball that kids kick around all day, where its movement generates energy. When the sun sets, plug an LED lamp into the ball and it turns into a light for reading or other purposes. Play with the sOccket for 15 minutes and use the light for up to three hours. Sustainable, non-polluting, safe.

SOccket was created to solve a pervasive problem — the lack of reliable electricity — with a pervasive game. More than one-fifth of the world’s population, about 1.4 billion people, lack electric power, but kids almost everywhere play soccer.

Stern, in center of climate pessimism, hopeful about U.S.

Nicholas Stern, the British economist who warned five years ago that global warming could cost the world’s GDP as much as 20 percent a year by 2050, hasn’t given up on the United States  taking action on climate even though he’s down on Washington for not passing a bill that would do just that.

“If you look around the world, of all places to sit and wonder where (climate policy is) going, this is probably the most pessimistic place — this city,” he told a small gathering of reporters at the World Bank’s headquarters in Washington, D.C. late this week.

But all one has to do is travel out of the U.S. capital to see enormous potential for taking action, he said. Stern is optimistic about U.S. companies in Silicon Valley and Boston and other places developing low-carbon technologies such as batteries for electric cars, or new biofuels that aren’t made out of food crops.