October 14, 2011
Leaf Blowers: Another Tirade (and a Proposal for a Class Project)
As I walked to work this morning and faced the daily army of well-intentioned campus employees blowing leaves, dust, and small bits of trash into my face and into the sewers that run to the river (likely in violation of the city's stormwater BMPs for its MS4 permit), I thought for the thousandth time about how much I despise leaf blowers. I also developed the opinion that leaf blowers perhaps represent all that is wrong in the world, at least from a pessimistic environmentalist's perspective. Then I thought, "But lots of people write about leaf blowers and how much they hate them, so why bother with yet another tirade?" Well, for one, it's personally satisfying to rant about these things. But if I'd considered this sooner and included it in my syllabus, I would have directed my Environmental Law students to produce photo documentation of campus employees blowing grass into sewers, write a report exploring the problem and presenting potential regulatory fixes, and deliver this report to the city council and campus leadership.
Here's how I would have presented leaf blowers to my students as a classic environmental problem that's difficult to fix: First, leaf blowing involves good people trying to do "good" things (keeping yards neat, supporting neighborhood property values) while also creating negative externalities. Second, as good people do "good" things, the trend catches on. Loud, dust- and pollution-belching machines turn on all over the city at 9 AM on Saturday. And as everyone does it, regulation becomes more difficult.
If we look solely to the problem of debris blown into sewers (ignoring the criteria pollutant emissions, greenhouse gas emissions, and noise pollution from leaf blowers, for example), do we try to control every source--the millions of homeowners and business employees dragging out their lawn equipment every day? And do we regulate or follow an alternative path? We could try education. As the City of Tulsa recently did, we could send residents pamphlets telling them to stop blowing things into the sewers--knowing that most homeowners likely will throw away the pamphlets before reading them. (We also could bring psychology into it and include a graphic photo of a dead fish and ugly algae on the pamphlet, thus showing the effects in a more understandable form and not just telling people to stop doing something.) But what about delegation--the fact that many homeowners and business owners don't know that they are blowing things into the sewer because they have hired someone else to groom the yard? The employee likely never received the pamphlet, or if she did, she may not have read or understood it. Even if she did read and understand it, she'll likely ignore it. It's exceedingly easy to blow grass clippings, leaves, and stray dirt into the sewer--much easier than bagging it up and hauling it off. Labeling may be harder to ignore. Requiring the leaf blower manufacturer to paste on the machine a bright orange tag with a picture and bold letters--"Don't blow debris into the sewer!"--might send a message that's tougher to ignore but still not foolproof.
The city could educate and regulate and enforce each source, banning leaf blowers or sending out police or code inspectors to ticket people found blowing things into sewers. We all know how "easy" this type of enforcement is and how well these sorts of things go over--particularly when everyone's doing it. ("Did you hear that the city actually fined Bob the other day for taking care of his lawn? I thought we lived in a free country, but I guess I was wrong.") Better yet, how about federal regulation? The EPA could swoop in and tell Tulsa that it's violating its MS4 permit. Now that would be a popular solution.
Students might give up on controlling individual sources and move to the downstream technology option--requiring better screens on curb openings or treatment of surface runoff prior to its entry into the river. Then we'd have a budgetary struggle, with bankrupt cities explaining that they can't even fund the schools, let alone billions of dollars in treatment technologies. Plus, we might have to agree on the best technologies and their availability, consider non-water effects of the treatment, and modify every city permit.
Knowing students, they'd come up with creative fixes and complete a brilliant report solving these classic environmental problems. Maybe I'll try this next year. And by the way, the first source to which I'll point my students will be Dave Owen's stormwater post. I agree that stormwater is "really, really interesting"--especially when you add leaf blowers to the mix.
The Kangaroo Switcheroo - Swapping Income Taxes for Carbon Taxes in the Land Down Under
Over the last decade Australia has dealt with similar political wrangling over carbon legislation as we have seen in the U.S. Yet, as I have posted about before, the country has finally taken a step to address carbon emissions. Passage of legislation that would place a $23 per ton tax on carbon on Australia's 500 largest emitters is expected soon. The compromise is that corresponding changes to the income tax code will relieve 1 million Australians from paying any income tax at all.
Would such an approach be viable in the U.S.? Certainly the current economic climate complicates any such measure, but Australia faces the same uncertain economic challenges as the rest of the world. While in the U.S. we debate green energy, carbon regulation through the Clean Air Act, and other climate change related policies on the one hand, and job losses and tax burden impasses on the other, might some compromise be reached to tackle both issues? Of course further reducing tax burdens from income taxes will do little to directly affect the U.S.'s deficit woes, not to mention that those who would receive reduced income tax burdens would be the people who already have jobs. But it does seem that some creative compromise is in order, rather than continued ideological bickering. Australia, after all, also has a predominantly two-party system (though other parties do have a greater presence in national politics). So it seems we have little excuse here in the U.S., aside from our apparent fascination with extreme politics. To use a metaphor from the classic "Crocodile Dundee," when it comes to serious legislative efforts to cut carbon emissions, the U.S. has brought a much smaller knife to the conflict than has Australia.
- Blake Hudson
October 13, 2011
Chocolate and Climate Change
Much has been said about the catastrophic threats related to climate change. Frustratingly, the reports of scientists have proved so dire that many people have a hard time believing them. "How can climate change present so many severe environmental, social, and economic challenges? Can we really be in that bad of of a fix?"
While the news on climate change only seems to get worse with time, here is something that most people might be able to grasp. A recently released report suggests that affordable chocolate may be a victim of climate change. (I found out about the report on the Environmental News Network.) The logic behind these findings has to do with the temperature-sensitive cocoa bean. Apparently slight increases in temperatures in much of the chocolate-producing world would have seriously negative impacts on the cocoa crop.
While more expensive chocolate is not nearly as serious as some of climate changes predicted impacts, it is still pretty terrible. Just imagine: a world plagued with disaster... and no chocolate. If that doesn't do it for you, imagine the marketing slogans that might accompany a chocolate-constrained world:
“Hungry? Why wait? Oh yeah, because I can no longer afford chocolate.” – Snickers
“Crispety, crunchety, peanut-buttery and no longer chocolatety, Butterfinger” – Butterfinger
“Gimme a break, seriously” – Kit Kat
“It is just like that city with the name I can't remember... It used to be in what was still Florida before sea level rise... It's Whatchamacallit!” - Whatchamacallit
“They would melt like the world's glaciers if you only could afford to put some into your mouth.” – M&Ms
“You used to think that climate scientists were nuts, now you don't.” – Mounds and Almond Joy
- Brigham Daniels
Interesting Land Use/Development Poll
The Saint Consulting Group recently released a poll testing attitudes about various kinds of local development projects. The poll contains many interesting findings, and perhaps the most interesting is a marked disparity between the attitudes of men and women about most kinds of development projects. The pollsters also found, among other things, that WalMarts are getting less unpopular; that most people would prefer the status quo to development, even with a poor economy; that most people consider development an important election issue and that most also distrust the relationship between developers and local government; and that, notwithstanding the findings about general opposition to development, a significant majority of people would support a wind farm near their home.
- Dave Owen
October 11, 2011
Climate and Energy Topics at the Annual Fall Meeting of ABA SEER
This Wednesday Oct. 12 through Saturday Oct. 15 is the Annual Fall Meeting of the American Bar Association’s Section on Energy, Environment, and Resources (SEER) in Indianapolis. The meeting's agenda is dominated by climate change and clean energy, with sessions on nuclear power plant regulation; climate change litigation; the social cost of carbon; greening consumer products; renewable energy on Tribal lands; NEPA & renewable energy projects; biomass regulation; coal ash regulation; mercury regulation; feed-in tariffs; hydraulic fracturing; climate risks in real estate transactions; and greenhouse gas regulation at the federal, state, and local levels.
In the midst of so much news of anti-regulatory initiatives (in case you missed it), reading this agenda makes me feel hopeful that US law and regulation will soon be turning its attention in the right direction.
October 10, 2011
Fisheries and the "Illusion of Plenty"
In my Ocean and Coastal Law and Policy class we have been discussing fisheries management. Fisheries are natural resources that perhaps best demonstrate the complexities and difficulties of resource management. In addition to U.S. congressional mandates to maximize economic productivity while also maximizing environmental protection, all of the variables that we use to manage fisheries are moving. We are unsure of how many fish are in the ocean, due to the difficulties in collecting data in such a foreign space. So we make our best guess in establishing the maximum sustainable yield (MSY) for the fishery - a moving target. We are also uncertain of what natural climatic conditions might impact the resource from year to year (red tides, dead zones, La Nina, El Nino, etc.) - another moving target. So the MSY may or may not end up being appropriate depending on such conditions. We are uncertain of our monitoring and reporting efforts, as it is exceedingly difficult both economically and administratively to ensure compliance with the moving target that we've set - thus enforcement is a moving target in its own right. So it is no surprise that we continue to struggle to sustainably manage fishery resources.
Then comes the "illusion of plenty," further complicating fisheries management. Two of the most important recreational fisheries off the coast of California have collapsed largely due to this phenomenon. The research, published in the Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences details how catch rates of two species of bass have remained stable while the biomass of the species has crashed by 90% since 1980. The phenomenon is known as "hyperstability," which occurs when "fishermen target spawning areas where large numbers of fish congregate, producing a so-called 'illusion of plenty' that can hide an overall collapse in fish stocks." One researcher described that “[t]he problem is when fish are aggregating in these huge masses, fishermen can still catch a lot each trip, so everything looks fine . . . But in reality the true population is declining.” As with cod in the North Atlantic, it is the quintessential example of "fisheries data masking an impending collapse" - yet another moving target to consider when attempting to manage one of the world's important natural resources.
- Blake Hudson
October 9, 2011
In Case You Missed It - The Week of October 2 to October 8
A geothermal plant that received ARRA funding struggles to meet power production goals and meet debt repayment obligations. (NY Times)
Researchers reported this week of unprecedented ozone loss in the Arctic. (Nature)
The House Natural Resource Committee took action on a wide range of anti-environment bills this week. (NY Times)
While the White House threatened to veto bills that would prevent EPA from moving ahead on air pollution rules (ranging from rules relating to industrial boilers, solid waste incinerators, and cement plants), the House passed one of them (related to cement plants). (The Hill and Wall Street Journal)
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released its national wetlands inventory, which found that over the past five years the continential United States lost an average of 13,800 acres of wetlands a year. (LA Times Environment Blog)