June 10, 2011
Furniture, floors, and formaldehyde
The New York Times noted this week that the National Toxicology Program has released its Report on Carcinogens -- Twelfth Edition. One of the newly listed chemicals "known to be a human carcinogen" is formaldehyde, which is most commonly used "in the production of industrial resins," according to the report. These resins are used as "binders for composite wood products," among other things. The EPA describes the presence of formaldehyde in our homes in somewhat simpler terms: "Pressed wood products made for indoor use include: particleboard (used as sub-flooring and shelving and in cabinetry and furniture); hardwood plywood paneling (used for decorative wall covering and used in cabinets and furniture); and medium density fiberboard (used for drawer fronts, cabinets, and furniture tops)."
I have never found the time in my Environmental Law class to address indoor air quality issues, but reports like this remind me that I probably should. Congress added "Formaldehyde Standards for Composite Wood Products" to the Toxic Substances Control Act last year, which, among other things, provides a formal definition for "ultra low-emitting formaldehyde resin"--the stuff we're supposed to look for in products if we want to reduce indoor formaldehyde levels. But students probably need more than TSCA when it comes to discussing indoor air quality. The issue also seems to call for discussion of the rise of voluntary standards, such as LEED's focus on low-emission materials. Addressing indoor air quality issues might also allow synthesis of several statutes introduced earlier in the class, such as the Clean Air Act, TSCA, and OSHA, and might be closer to home for many students. After all, many of our students may sit in particleboard chairs at desks covered with medium density fiberboard.
June 9, 2011
Forget the Light Bulbs
A recurrent axiom in energy law today is that "efficiency is our cheapest resource." It's true. Every day, we forgo massive amounts of monetary and environmental savings we could achieve without ever building a new wind farm or replacing gasoline with natural gas, simply because our energy systems are not as efficient as they could -- or should -- be. The beautiful thing about efficiency, moreover, is that it is generally non-controversial. It's cheap. It's green. So everyone loves it.
Earlier this year, the kerfuffle in Congress over light bulb regulation drew into question the political legs of the efficiency argument. A portion of the 2007 energy bill signed by President George W. Bush -- and supported by industry -- required the phase-out of lower-efficiency incandescent light bulbs. But at least some members of this Congress, newly invigorated by the anti-regulation flare of Tea Party Republicans, took issue with this measure, using it to highlight their philosophical aims.
Now, however, at least two bills pending in Congress pack enough efficiency punchto make one forget there ever was a light bulb debate.
The first, S. 398 or the Implementation of National Consensus Appliance Agreements Act of 2011 would update existing, and institute first-time, efficiency standards for numerous appliances and devices, including refrigerators, freezers, dishwashers, clothes washers and dryers, furnaces and A/C units, portable electric spas, and drinking water dispensers. Supported by a broad coalition of environmental groups and appliance manufacturers, the bill would conserve enough energy to fuel "4.6 million homes" save consumers a net "$43 billion by 2030," according to an analysis by the Alliance to Save Energy.
The second, S. 1000 or the Energy Savings and Industrial Competitiveness Act of 2011, would address efficiency in further ways. In addition to establishing efficiency standards for appliances, it would strengthen national model building codes, encourage private investment in residential and commercial efficiency upgrades through DOE loan guarantees, create a "SupplySTAR" program to enhance the efficiency of companies' supply chains, and require the nation's largest energy consumer, the federal government, to institute efficiency and energy-saving measures. Industry also is getting behind this bill. Eric Spiegel, Siemens Corp.'s president and CEO, said this: "Federal, state and local budgets are as tight as they have ever been, but energy efficient products and solutions that will be advanced through this important piece of legislation can help government, industry and consumers save energy and millions of dollars, create jobs and spur competitiveness."
For those who are endeared by measures that both save money and our nation's environmental future, these bills should come as welcome news.
And if that's not enough, take a walk down the aisles of your local hardware store. You might be pleased to find some of the light bulbs that are now for sale.
June 8, 2011
What About Climategate?
When discussing climate change with students, it is quite common to get the question, "What about climategate?" Even if students do not ask about it, given the media and political attention paid to the episode referred to as climategate, it is something that is probably going through many students' minds. In this post, I will discuss how I deal with this question.
To start with, it is important to note that reality of climategate and the perceptions of it, while certainly different, are both important in the policy debates on climate change. Of course, in political discourse what climategate has come to represent is an assertion that climate change science is nothing more than a fraud, a hoax, a conspiracy, and even the scandal of a generation. Some climate skeptics have gone to great pains to detail how climategate shattered the notion that there is a scientific consensus that the globe is warming due to anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions.
So, what is the reality of climategate? For those unfamiliar with the story, in November of 2009, a computer hacker was able to access and copy thousands of emails from the University of East Anglia Climate Research Unit's server. (The Climate Research Unit is the academic home of a number of scientists involved in some important aspects of climate change science, including helping to draft reports for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.) Climate change skeptics pounced on the emails and made an aggressive press in the media, asserting that the emails' content effectively debunked climate change science as science. In this efforts, a number of emails were held out as smoking guns.
More than the information contained in the emails, the most damaging thing about this episode to climate change science was the press's response to this so-called scandal and the inability of the scientific community to respond effectively. To put it simply, on one hand, many in the press retold and reinforced the story put out by climate skeptics (see this story in the Wall Street Journal example as an example.) On the other hand, those involved with the so-called scandal were unable to quickly answer the questions posed to them in a way that effectively defended their scientific work. (A number of media outlets have have made this point, see The Economist an an example.) Those inclined to persist in rejecting the findings of climate science or even not inclined to act on these findings have continued to point to climategate (see this report from a number of U.S. Senators as an example).
While many in the media immediately got out the story, time has passed and allowed others to fully investigate the claims of climate skeptics. In large part, these reviews have come to the conclusion that some of the scientists involved with important climate change research at the University of East Anglia were:
- Disposed to dislike some climate skeptics and their work.
- Not only trying to further science but also trying to present their work in light that would prompt political leaders to take action.
- Unwilling to be transparent with their work, including in responding to requests to share background materials with some climate skeptics.
While none of these things paint the scientists at issue in a flattering light, they are do not even come close to amounting to the scandal of a generation, fraud or even a hoax. Many news organizations, having reviewed the investigations, have tried to address prior coverage and to get the story right (see the New York Times and Newsweek for example).
For particularly eager students, I often refer them directly to these independent reports: The Guardian's investigation; the report of the House of Commons' investigation; and (while less rigorous still my personal favorite link to share with students) factcheck.org's investigation.
While I have found it tempting not to really address climategate in class because it seems somewhat of a waste of the class's time, I have come to believe that it is important to discuss this issue with students. It has a lot of lessons to offer. It certainly shows that in politics, and in this case in particular, perception is often more important than facts. Despite that there was not all much of a gate in climategate, this does nothing to stop people from giving it great weight nonetheless.
-- Brigham Daniels
June 7, 2011
Top 5 Natural Resource Law Films
As promised last week when I posted my top 5 environmental law films, below are my favorite films relating to my Public Land and Natural Resource Law course. I include films on industrial agriculture because of its great importance, though I don’t actually find time to teach much on it. The first two on the list may be hard to get hold of, but they are well worth it because they are excellent and have a lot of legally-related content.
- Lesley McAllister
Natural Resource Law Films - Top 5
1) The God Squad and the Case of the Northern Spotted Owl (2001, 57 mins.): On the controversial Endangered Species Committee proceedings over the Northern Spotted Owl
2) Wilderness Idea: John Muir, Gifford Pinchot and the First Great Battle for Wilderness
(1989, 58 Minutes): On the ethics of preservation and conservation (VHS Format)
3) Monumental: David Brower’s Fight for Wild America (2004, 80 mins.): About the 1964 Wilderness Act (Netflix)
4) Counting Sheep: Restoring the Sierra Nevada Bighorn (2004, 60 mins): About Bighorn sheep and mountain lions in the Sierra Nevada (Netflix)
5) Food, Inc. (2009, 91 mins): On industrial agriculture and the livestock industry in the US (Netflix)
Being Caribou (2004, 72 mins): On caribou in the Arctic, particularly in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge where oil drilling has been proposed.
American Outrage (2008, 60 min): On the Western Shoshone and grazing in the West (Netflix)
Brave New West (2008, 87 min): About environmental conservation in the American West (Netflix)
King Corn (2008, 90 mins): On industrial agriculture and our food system's heavy reliance on subsidized corn (Netflix)
June 6, 2011
Notes from the 2nd World Congress on Cities and Adaptation to Climate Change
Bonn--At a climate conference in Germany, with lager in hand, I was prepared to ponder nearly any environmental insult or failure. But rat pee? Really?
The urine of rats, as it turns out, is known to transmit the leptospirosis bacteria which can lead to high fever, bad headaches, vomiting, and diarrhea. During summer rainstorms in São Paulo, Brazil, floodwaters send torrents of sewage, garbage, and animal waste through miles of hillside slums and shanties. Outbreaks of leptospirosis often follow the floods. And in a metropolitan region of 20 million people, that’s a public health emergency.
I learned this and more at the 2nd World Congress on Cities and Adaptation to Climate Change, organized by ICLEI-Local Governments for Sustainability and the World Mayors Council on Climate Change, with support from the U.N. Human Settlements Programme. The event brought together 600 delegates, including mayors and UN officials, to address what may be this century’s defining challenge: keeping up with the climate.
While some of our national politicians continue to ignore basic climate science, and while I continue to rail against my local climate-denying weatherman who just last month spoke to my kids’ elementary school, the rest of the world is getting on with life. Specifically, scores of municipal governments from all over the world—rich and poor, iconic and ordinary—are beginning to make plans for adjusting to a planet that is going to be warmer, wetter, and just plain weirder.
In consultation with the World Bank, the City of Jakarta, Indonesia, has launched an assessment of geographical hazards, socioeconomic vulnerabilities, and institutional weaknesses now posed by rising seas, hotter temperatures, and swifter storms. This coastal megacity, 40 percent of which lies below sea level and is sinking because of groundwater depletion, is developing comprehensive disaster management programs, plans for coastal fortification, and new storm water systems. Half-a-world away, the city of Toronto has employed sophisticated computer modeling and a set of 1,700 plausible future scenarios to prepare for the impacts of stronger snowstorms and wilder floods. They have excel spreadsheets (and accompanying PowerPoint slides) on just about everything—traffic-light outages, sewer overflows, falling bridges, you name it. And down south in São Paulo, city officials are calling for vital “slum upgrades,” safer zoning, and, yes, improvements to sanitation and public-health networks to prevent and treat leptospirosis.
Don’t think American mayors are sitting on their hands. While their efforts do not often make the national news, a few metropolitan areas are driving change in impressive, innovative ways, including Boston, New York, Chicago, and Seattle.
As in the anti-pollution movement of the 1970s, in the climate mitigation movement cities and local governments are leading the way. But they will hit a wall without the sustained support of national governments and the international community. The needed financial resources and scientific and engineering expertise are simply too great. And the shared nature of climate problems will sometimes require uniform standards and behavior across municipal boundaries.
The Obama administration has begun developing its own climate-adaptation strategy which would require adaptation plans for all federal agencies. And just last week, the EPA issued its first-ever climate-change adaptation policy statement, which promises an official adaption strategy by June 2012, puts an emphasis on environmental justice, and includes a plan to survey existing laws to determine how adaptation goals should be implemented into the federal regime. (Full disclosure: as a member of the Obama administration at the time, I had a hand in both documents.)
It’s important for all of this work to keep going. Remember, politicians don’t always see the light, but they feel the heat. And the heat I’m talking about here is political.
- Guest post written by Robert R.M. Verchick. He is a former environmental official in the Obama administration and a law professor at Loyola University New Orleans. He is the author of “Facing Catastrophe: Environmental Action for a Post-Katrina World.” This post was cross-posted on the Center for Progressive Reform blog.
Time Magazine recently released a ranking of the "Top 10 Evil Animals," declaring that "cute animal clips have taken over the Internet. But not every creature deserves a video montage. TIME looks at animals that are troublesome to mankind." I have provided my own brief summaries of each below:
10. Asian Carp: Invasive. Destroy ecosystems. Leap into the air and batter fishermen.
9. Emerald Ash Borers: Invasive. Eat ash trees. USDA has declared war on them by releasing their natural enemy - the dreaded stingless wasp.
8. Pandas: "WTWWF!? ('What the World Wildlife Federation!?'), PANDA'S!?!?" you say? I won't even try to summarize this one. I do not wish the ire of charismatic megafaunites everywhere to be cast upon me.
7. Tapeworms: Self-explanatory. And gross.
6. Dingos: Baby-eaters that lead to wrongful convictions of parents.
5. Locusts: Think Yul Brynner and "So let it be written! So let it be done!!"
4. Tsetse Flies: Causes "human sleeping sickness." Reports I saw on TV in the early 1990's had me convinced they would eventually make their way to south Alabama and turn me into a zombie. Thanks for letting me watch the national news at age 11 mom.
3. Rats: No surprise here. Anything this common that also leads to the "Black Death" cannot be good.
2. Humans: Hey, we made the list! And near the top too. Time says it best: "Concentration camps. War crimes. Genocide. The Crusades. Al-Qaeda. The specter of nuclear armageddon. Torture and rape as tools of systemic violence. Avarice. Jealousy. Sub-prime mortgages. What more evidence do you need of Homo sapiens' innate propensity to inflict ill upon the world and themselves?"
1. Bedbugs: Still not sure I wouldn't have swapped #1 and #2, but oh well. I guess it makes sense when you consider that humans cannot produce 10,000 babies in three months and drink three times their body weight in blood during a single feeding.
- Blake Hudson
In Case You Missed It - The Week of May 29-June 4
* The New York Times reported on how climate change is contributing to destabilization of world food supplies.
* The New York Times reported on a model called the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (Grace), which originated at the University of Texas and was implemented by the University of California’s Center for Hydrologic Modeling. The model allows scientists to identify groundwater depletion from space satellite data. Scientists have pointed to California's Sacramento-San Joaquin Valley as one of the depleted areas.
* EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson commented on hydraulic fracturing at a House hearing on May 24, stating that "[t]his Administration is . . . committed to promoting timely and safe domestic natural gas development" but also recognizing the potential for groundwater quality concerns.
* On June 1, France's Senate will take up a bill proposed by France's National Assembly, which would ban hydraulic fracturing in France. It appears that the Senate wants to allow limited fracturing for scientific research and the development of fracturing alternatives.
* The parody newspaper, The Onion, included the following headline: "Planet Earth Doesn't Know How to Make It Any Clearer It Wants Everyone to Leave"