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Understanding the Government Shutdown’s Environmental Impact

Posted by Malcolm on 6th October 2013

NOAA’s page

Six days ago, the US government shutdown. This is not the first time that this has occurred, in fact it has happened 17 times before. Simply put, the reason behind the current shutdown, and past ones as well, is due to the great divide between republicans and democrats and their “interests.” From abortions to environmental standards, both sides of the aisle are willing to stop the government to get what they want. In this case, Congress failed to follow one of its key duties of passing a budget, because republicans want to eliminate or limit Obamacare. After the shutdown commenced, more than 800,000 government employees will sit at home and many “non-essential” government entities entered “shutdown mode.” So what does this mean for the environment?

  • The EPA has shutdown. This includes their  efforts to clamp down on carbon pollution from power plants, to set gas milage ratings, to cleanup of superfund sites, and to implement hazardous waste inspections. Only 1,069 or about 6.5 percent of the total employees are staying on, either because they’re doing vital work or because another fund is paying their bills. And air and water won’t be monitored for pollution.
  • All 401 national parks and monuments have closed  costing local communities approximately $76 million per day in lost revenue from visitors. This is coupled with the stalling of the creation of wilderness, the end of the nations conservation program, and the sale of public lands.
  • NASA has shutdown. In Florida, NASA’s historic Kennedy Space Center is likely to see most of its 2,085 civilian employees and another 4,384 private contractors asked to stay home.
  • Energy innovation has halted for all intensive purposes. The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management has stopped all new offshore wind demonstration project permitting. Research activities at NIST and NOAA, including climate and weather research, material science, nano-science, and energy science, have been stopped. Non-essential research and procurement at the Department of Defense, such as investments in clean energy (roughly $1 billion worth), is halted which is slowing down development of next-generation batteries, microgrids, and power electronics as well as early markets for solar panels on bases.
  • NOAA has shutdown. This means access to their data sets and maps is no longer possible. For students here at MIIS in the OCRM track, this has been a damper. With my position at Oceana, we are working on a contingency plan to deal with NOAA employees being unavailable, possibly through the Pacific Leatherback Sea Turtle Conservation Summit (blog post to come on the results of this).
  • Employees at the National Weather Service need to be paid. At least that is what they are telling us. “There’s no money to pay them,” Dan Sobien, president of the National Weather Service Employees Organization, told Popular Science. “Nobody knows when anyone’s going to get paid.”

Luckily, the GOP are willing to bake Obama cookies if he agrees to change Obamacare. Since that will help the environment…

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A day in the life, a life in the day.

Posted by Malcolm on 30th September 2013

Over the weekend, instead of preparing for a podcast this week, I wrote a piece for Student Services titled “A Day in the Life…” and began researching a new project not assigned for class. Despite having ample time to organize a podcast that would talk about food waste (next week?), I decided to take this week off from podcasting to work on my audio editing skills (updated version of Episode 5) and write a little about myself (and my life).

I started this blog/podcast knowing that I would be filling up quite a bit of my free time. The piece for Student Services provides a good insight into the insanity that is a day in my life. If it isn’t Student Council, then it is Sustainability Council. If it isn’t working at Oceana, then it is working in The Commons. It amazes me I have time to work on homework assignments, presentations for class, and semester long research projects. This blog is a chance to get away from all of that and to talk about topics that interest me with people I don’t spend enough time with. In reality, the only person who I care if they enjoy my podcast is me (and I do). I have had a good response from my friends and family, giving me suggestions, ideas, and criticisms that extend beyond the realm of podcasting. I’ve eliminated the dreaded “um” from my vocabulary and realized “so” took its place as a filler. I plan on having more of my colleagues in the both to have discussions about environmental issues. I even hope to get all of the students receiving funding (conference funding or immersive learning funding) to record podcasts about their experiences. With more and more practice podcasting, I will be able to podcast about all sorts of exciting aspects of my life!

Ocean Voices, is the pending title for the research project that I am undertaking. The idea came from a question I have been asking at the marine speaker series, “what was the inspirational moment or series of moments that led you towards ocean conservation?” A similar question has been asked to fellow Ocean and Coastal Resource Management (OCRM) students; the stories are intriguing and inspiring! Initially I was just gathering the stories for my own interests (who doesn’t love hearing an inspirational story?). Then it dawned on me, why not gather the stories and use them to create a narrative to inspire future ocean leaders? A few hours (or an entire weekend) of research on environmental ethics, sea ethics, and ocean ethics resulted in a plan for research. Working with the faculty in the Center for the Blue Economy (CBE), I hope to provide an ethical value to the Sea to add to the economic valuation literature being produced. Taking this seriously could mean a published paper!

Where does this leave me? As you may or may not know, I’m satisfied (see pleased/fulfilled) with how my life is going. I’ve found my voice, I’m surround by passion, and every day is a gift!

Stay awesome.

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Understanding Keystone XL

Posted by Malcolm on 22nd September 2013

5 years ago, TransCanada Corp first sought approval for the 1,179-mile, $5.3-billion pipeline that would start in Alberta, where the vast tar (oil) sands are located, and end in the Gulf Coast of Texas, where the bitumen would be refined, loaded on ships, and shipped all over the world. Unfortunately, an area the size of Florida is already set for extraction in Alberta and the pipeline is just a means to transport the refined oil out of the country. Right now, everyone is waiting on a decision from the State Department to approve the pipeline, or not. The decision has been postponed many times before, mostly due to the blotched report created by conflicting interests. So what is the big deal with the Keystone XL pipeline? Won’t it create some well needed jobs? What about lowering oil prices? I’ll try to answer a few of these questions now, but be sure to check out the Green Rant tomorrow where the discussion will cover every aspect of the KXL.

A Big Old F.U. to the Environment: (Courtesy to Friends of the Earth)

GRAPHIC: Laris Karklis - The Washington Post.

Keystone XL pipeline map

  • Tar sands oil is dirty, really dirty. “Levels of carbon dioxide emissions are three to four times higher than those of conventional oil, due to more energy-intensive extraction and refining processes. The Keystone XL pipeline would carry 830,000 barrels of dirty tar sands oil into the United States daily, and result in climate-damaging emissions equal to adding more than 5.6 million new cars to U.S. roads.” With rising oil prices, the tar sands have become economically viable for oil companies. This is because the externalities are not currently included in oil prices. As long as we don’t include externalities in our pricing, the tar sands, offshore drilling, and fracking are all possibilities.
  • Where is all the water? Oh, it’s waste now. “Vast amounts of heat, water and chemicals are needed to separate the tarry substance (known as bitumen) from sand, silt, and clay and to flow up the pipeline. The water used in the process comes from rivers and underground aquifers. It takes three barrels of water to extract each single barrel of oil.” And at about 2.4 million barrels per day, that is quite a bit of water. If you didn’t notice the United States (particularly Kansas) and the rest of the world are beginning to face water scarcity issues. So it makes perfect sense to use potable water to extract oil, to burn, contribute to climate change, and increase droughts, right?
  • Here’s to a few more trees, and species. “The tar sands oil are underneath the world’s largest intact ecosystem, the Boreal forests of Alberta. The forests not only serve as an important carbon sink, but its biodiversity and unspoiled bodies of water support large populations of many different species.” With the impact that the tar sands will have on the environment, it may surprise some that Alberta has quite a few environmental laws in place. Unfortunately, the permitting process holds a much higher weight for economic benefits than environmental. Maybe a proper ecosystem valuation of the tar sands would have more appropriate in this case? “The net present value of oil sands wealth net of GHG cost is thus $1,413.3 billion.”
  • Indigenous communities say what. What? “Not only have indigenous communities been forced off of their land, but also those living downstream from tailing ponds have seen spikes in rates of rare cancers, renal failure, lupus, and hyperthyroidism. In the lakeside village of Fort Chipewyan, for example, 100 of the town’s 1,200 residents have died from cancer.” The US EPA is currently working on their own Indigenous Peoples Environmental Justice Policy, in order to help the tribal people who tend to suffer the most from environmental injustices. Alberta also has an Aboriginal People and the Alberta Human Rights Act, I wonder how many complaints have been ignored concerning the KXL? Indigenous groups are being pretty clear, they DO NOT WANT A PIPELINE.
  • These are not the spills you are looking for. “The probability of spills from this pipeline is high and more threatening than conventional spills, because tar sands oil sinks rather than floats, making clean ups more difficult and costly. Experts warn that the more acidic and corrosive consistency of the type of tar sands oil being piped into the U.S. as well as the risk of external corrosion from higher pipeline  temperatures makes spills more likely.” In 2010, the Enbridge Kalamazoo Spill resulted in over 1 million gallons of spilled oil and cost over $1 billion. Earlier this year, the Exxon pipeline in Mayflower, Arkansas spilled up to 420,000 gallons of oil, ruined an entire neighborhood, and serves as an example of things to come. Pipelines break and spills happen, as long as we continue to rely on them, or more importantly, as long as we rely on oil.
  • It takes carbon (and other toxic chemicals) to make carbon, duh. “Refining tar sands oil is dirtier than refining conventional oil, and results in higher emissions of toxic sulfur dioxide and nitrous oxide.These emissions cause smog and acid rain and contribute to respiratory diseases like asthma. Communities near the refineries where the Keystone XL pipeline terminates, many of them low-income and communities of color, already live with dangerously high levels of air pollution.” Similar to the injustices that the indigenous people are facing in Alberta, minority communities in Texas will face increased pollution and higher healthcare costs (and likely death). In fact, the pollution would reach levels that are higher than the legal allowable limits.
  • 2°C is more than just a number. “In order to avoid devastating effects on the climate from a global rise of 2 degrees Celsius, such as the melting of the Arctic ice, sea level rise, and more extreme tornados and hurricanes and more floods and heat waves, the International Energy Association says that up to two-thirds of known fossil reserves must remain untouched.” I don’t even need to tell you why 4°C of global temperature rise needs to be avoided, but this report does a great job of painting a terrifying future for humanity.

Thanks Obama: (use sarcasm in case of KXL approval)

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Understanding Fukushima

Posted by Malcolm on 7th September 2013

In order to rant about Fukushima and the radioactive mess that is occurring the Pacific Ocean, it is important to understand the nature of radiation, the benefits (or issues) with maps, and the nature of the problem. In March of 2011, an earthquake struck off the coast of Japan and the resulting tsunami overwhelmed the seawalls. During the earthquake the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant lost outside power and faced degraded safety systems. The tsunami then hit, resulting in explosions in 4 units of the facility, 1 of which was never able to achieve cold shutdown, i.e. it continues to leak radiation. Part of the issue is that the facility had noticeable safety flaws that were never addressed, but the unpredictable nature of natural disasters was the main issue. Recent news articles have begun to highlight the new high levels of radiation leaking from the plant.

This NOAA map represents the height of the tsunami wave that swamped the Fukushima Dai’ichi nuclear plant in 2011, NOT the extent of radiation flowing outward from the spill.

While researching for the Green Rant this week I had to give myself a thorough refresher over radiation and its impacts on people and nature. Radiation is complex and one could spend their entire life studying it and still not understand it. There are a few terms that need clarification to understand the issue unfolding in Japan. First is the peach amount of radiation from the plant of about 2,200 millisieverts/hour. Sieverts (Sv) are a measure of the biological impacts of a radiation dose. For example, there are about 2.5 mSv/year of typical background radiation from natural sources and one sievert carries with it a 5.5% chance of eventually developing cancer. The next term is the amount of radiation that will reach the CA coastline (and is being diluted throughout the Pacific) of 10-20 becquerels/cubic meter. Becquerels (Bq) are a measure of radioactive decay and have no implications on biological impacts. Radiation, in the form of cesium-137 and strontium-90 (the isotopes radiating from Fukushima), have similar properties to potassium and calcium respectively. This means that they are able to bioaccumulate in in cells of animals and in bones (again respectively).

A major issue with the fallout of Fukushima is the maps that are being distributed on the internet. The map to the right has been used to demonstrate the radiation in the Pacific. The map actually displays wave height from the tsunami and not radiation. As mentioned, there is a trace amount of radiation that will reach the west coast of the US (and all of the Pacific) that is better demonstrated in a series of maps found here.

The biggest concern right now is that we are now unable to eat fish in the Pacific due to the radiation. Technically, the levels are not high enough to have serious health impacts. I would be more concerned about the sustainability concerns and the mercury levels.

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Understanding the Rim Fire

Posted by Malcolm on 30th August 2013

Containment of the Rim Fire

So for next weeks Green Rant I will be talking about the Rim fire that is burning threw Yosemite National Park. More importantly I will be talking about the effects of climate change on wildfires, a phenomenon that has always existed. It has only been recently that wildfires have turned into an insurance nightmare as well as reaching new unbelievable sizes. Before you listen to the podcast there are a few links you should check out.

First is the Fire Tracker, from 89.3 KPCC. This widget has been tracking containment, acres burned, and the impact of the fire on homes/structures. Currently, about 228,670 acres have burned and over 5,000 structures are threatened. What is lacking from this tracker is the current impact on campgrounds in Yosemite, all of which have remained open despite concerns over air quality.

Second is a video that links climate change to wildfires. Like the many other impacts of climate change, it is impossible to say something like “the Rim Fire is the result of climate change.” It is not, however, impossible to say that the higher frequency and intensity of wildfires is the result of a changing climate. Essentially, warming temperatures, prolonged drought, and a century’s worth of fire suppression policy are “priming the system to make it more flammable.”

The last link ties into my GIS class this semester, which is a Perspectives Map. Geographic Information Systems, “lets us visualize, question, analyze, interpret, and understand data to reveal relationships, patterns, and trends.” (ESRI) The series of 4 maps visualize the Rim Fire in an easy to understand way. The critical points of interest and the power/water infrastructure maps relate the importance of containing the fire.

I have faith that the fire will be contained soon with few, if any, casualties. But without addressing climate change, can we say the same for all future wildfires?

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Earth Overshoot Day

Posted by Malcolm on 24th August 2013

For the first episode of the Malcolm Radio Show, the Green Rant was dedicated to the sustainability initiative at MIIS. I know that this topic will come up time and time again, but what I really wanted to rant about was Earth Overshoot Day. On August 20th, humanity exhausted nature’s budget for the year, but this is nothing to celebrate. From this point forward, we are borrowing resources from future generations, essentially putting humanity in debt to itself, with no means to ever repay (unless you count mass exodus or cultural collapse as payment). But how exactly did we get the idea of Overshot Day?

What I always heard growing up was that the amount of resources we consume on a yearly basis requires about 1.5 Earths. I’m not sure this is the precise number, but the idea is fairly straight forward. Garrett Hardin used the lifeboat metaphor, similar to the Spaceship Earth model but with the lack of a captain. Essentially, there is a lifeboat in the middle of the ocean with 50 people with enough provisions for an additional 10 people. around the boat are people, hundreds if you consider projected populations. If 20 more people got in, the resources would deplete before you get saved. Another way to put it, either you enjoy a hearty amount of provisions at the cost of hundreds of lives, you tough through a rationing of resources to benefit a greater number of people, OR you use up all your resources before everyone has a chance to get in the lifeboat.

Every year, Earth Overshoot Day has occurred earlier and earlier in the year and before long it will happen in June and we really will be using 1.5 Earths a year. So who’s to blame? Everyone! Well, those nations that have economies fueled by overconsumption. I mean, who doesn’t need 20 pairs of shoes, 50 shirts, and literally tons of food waste each year? It’s hard to deny the fact that we are raised from a young age to always want more, it is ingrained in every aspect of our culture. In Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael, the gorilla describes two cultures: the takers and the leavers. We live in a taker culture. Fisheries are collapsing, carbon emissions are skyrocketing, and there are still people starving all over the world. We can’t change the culture we live in, but we can change our own actions in response to it.

The first step is to open your eyes to the ecological footprint you have. Knowing where you have room to improve is essential. Writing out ways you can reduce your footprint and sticking to them is the next step. If you make one small improvement a day, before long you will be a crazy environmentalist like myself. There are tips and tricks galore to decrease your impact, from taking shorter showers to buying in bulk. Then you need to start spreading the word. If everyone knew their impact and how they can reduce it, it is more likely they will. Lastly, don’t just follow mainstream culture of taking and consumption. It is perfectly alright to indulge occasionally, but do you really need that 3rd iPad? You can get much more happiness from going to the beach, sitting under a tree, or hanging out with friends and family. So happy Earth Overshoot Day, go save the world.

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