Saturday, June 28, 2014

An Inconvenient Truth (for Some): Vegetarianism Cuts Your Carbon Footprint

Today a friend forwarded me a link from the Huffington Post: "Vegetarianism Cuts Your Dietary Carbon Footprint A Ridiculous Amount, Study Finds." According to a new report published in the journal Climatic Change, meat-eaters' dietary greenhouse gas emissions are twice as high as vegans'. "Reducing the intake of meat and other animal-based products can make a valuable contribution to climate change mitigation," the report concluded.

We vegans and vegetarians have actually known this for a long time. In 1990 I took a course called "Changing Global Climates." Though at that time there wasn't such a consensus among climate scientists that human activity was causing global warming (some said it was an artifact of taking temperatures in "urban heat islands"), I wrote a paper about how a vegetarian or vegan diet will reduce greenhouse gas emissions and found ample evidence to prove that point. What was true then is still true today. So why aren't more people vegans?

I don't think you have to look any further than the comments section that follows the Huffington Post article for the answer to that question. On commenter says, "The day I go vegan is the day the sun explodes."  Another says, "Guess that means I'll find some other way to balance out my personal carbon footprint cos there is no way I would ever, ever give up great big slabs of lovely grilled beef." Still another nastier commentator says, "Should just eat vegetarians..." There are also the people I call "vegetarian/vegan deniers," who tell us how long they were vegetarians/vegans and how awful it was and how much better they feel now that they eat meat -- "I am mentally sharper," says one.

I have been a vegetarian/vegan since 1986 for environmental and animal rights reasons. Just FYI, I feel fine. And though I have occasionally used milk products over that time, mostly I've been vegan, which is the way I eat now. You can find the recipe for this Beans and Greens dish here. You're welcome.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Waiting for the 2014 Monsoon Rains

In a few days the summer solstice will be here, and Tucson will be at its hottest and driest. Though we had a few drops of rain the other day, the monsoon rains are nowhere in sight. The birds and animals around me all seem, like me, to be waiting for the rains. And these times of long dry heat may be getting worse in the Desert Southwest (as I noted in my previous blog post) due to climate change.

Desert cottontails, desert spiny lizard, and antelope squirrel
 (click on image to see a larger version)
And as if the dry heat isn't bad enough right now, we in the Southwest are increasingly vulnerable because of our limited water resources. Last Sunday the front page of the Arizona Daily Star featured the story “Tucson is warned of water shortage.” According to Star reporter Tony Davis, the state agency that operates the Central Arizona Project has, for the first time, warned that water shortages could affect Tucson and Phoenix in as little as five years. Though shortages will probably not come that soon, we are still dealing with a combination of drought, growing demand for water, and declining water levels in Lake Mead. Between now and 2026 the likelihood of CAP shortages is 17-29% in a given year. The outcome depends on weather, especially the “impacts of climate change.”

Though Tucsonans have been cutting back on water use (total use sank to 1989 levels last year even though the city has continued to grow), these shortages have been brought about partly by the so-called mega-drought, which is now in its 15th year. Drought been a major factor in reducing Lake Mead from 91% full in 2000 to 45% full today, though there is also a “structural deficit” that existed before the drought started. In other words, in a typical year more water is taken out of Lake Mead than is returned to it. Brad Udall, whose father Arizona Rep. Morris Udall helped extend CAP to Tucson, calls the river’s situation “a ticking time bomb.” He said that, because of continued overuse of water in the West and drought worsened by climate change “there is a cancer on our water-management systems now. It might be slow-growing or fast-growing, but we can’t ignore it and we need to deal with it.” Doug Kennedy, director of the University of Colorado’s Western water policy program says, “Demand on the river caught up with supply around 2000. No one noticed, but the drought also started right there, and (Lake Mead) started dropping like a rock.”

Also on June 15 the Palm Springs, California, paper The Desert Sun featured the third article in its series Scorched Earth: How Climate Change is Altering the Deserts of the Southwest. In this piece called “Vanishing water: An already strained water supply, threatened by climate change," reporter Ian James notes that Lake Mead, the biggest reservoir in the U.S. is dropping one foot each week. Though droughts and even mega-droughts have long been part of the cycle of the Colorado, those fluctuations are now occurring alongside global warming, which puts new pressures on our inadequate water supply. James says scientists aren't sure to what degree climate change is influencing the natural cycle of droughts in the West, but they do know that "hotter temperatures across the West have led to less mountain snowpack and earlier melting of snow in the spring. More of the snow and rain that does fall is evaporating due to warmer temperatures, and that diminishes the flows of water into the Colorado River..." The article includes a chart called "Water supply and water use in the Colorado River Basin," which shows that water use began to exceed water supply during the past decade. There is also a video by Richard Lui and Marilyn Chung ("As Lake Mead declines, climate change poses risks") in which you can see Lake Mead’s earlier water level marked by a white mineral ring and can easily see how much lower the lake's level is compared to 14 years ago. John Entsminger of the Southern Nevada Water Authority says about Lake Mead "That's the bank account for 25 million people," and he says it can hold two full years of the Colorado's flow and now holds only one year's worth.

What will happen to our water supply depends in part on what will happen to our climate, and as is the case with the starting date of the monsoon rains, it's very hard to predict...

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Climate Change Denial vs. Climate Change Reality

Yesterday I had a chance to talk with writer Christina Birchfield, who is a fellow National Writers Union member and a blogger at the Green Builder magazine website. Christina has written a number of posts about global warming, the most recent of which is "Changing Climate Deniers' Minds? In that post, she reviews Pew Research data and notes that Republicans and those Independents who "lean Republican" are much more likely to be global warming skeptics – this seems to be related to the fact that there has been a real downturn in the number of Republicans (and Republican-leaning Independents) who place a high priority on the environment compared to 20 years ago. Christina also referred to an article in Bloomberg View, which asserts, based on Gallup Poll data, that “Americans' views on climate change increasingly have more to do with politics than science.” “When I studied at the University of Chicago, one of the political science truths was that once people had formed an opinion it was unlikely to change,” Christina notes in the post. “They would distrust or disbelief the messenger who delivers facts that refuted their opinions.”  

Despite the existence of climate change deniers, Christina remains optimistic. Both in her blog and in our conversation, Christina focused on the importance of renewable sources of energy, particularly solar energy. She mentioned the Idaho-based Solar Roadways start-up (which she blogged about in an earlier post as having potential to make a difference. The Solar Roadways people want to pave driveways, roads and parking lots with hexagonal solar-cell paving. Christina  noted that the indiegogo campaign for Solar Roadways met and exceeded its fundraising goal and said that as of June 4 more than 44,000 people contributed nearly $2 million, which she found heartening.

But in spite of occasional good news, it's hard not to feel real concern about climate change. On the front page of today’s Daily Star there was an Associated Press story called “Global warming hits SW states hardest, as summer temps soar.” The AP analyzed federal temperature records and found that the average Arizona summer is now 2.4 degrees warmer than it was in 1984. This is the fourth fastest summertime increase in the contiguous 48 states, and the article goes on to say that Tucson’s average annual temperature rose 1.1 degrees in the past thirty years. Apparently, climate scientists used 1984 as a starting point for this analysis because it had an average temperature, and it was not “a cherry-picked year to skew a trend either way.” Tucson is a hot place, it’s getting hotter, and though climate change doesn’t always manifest itself in terms of warming trends, it’s certainly doing so here. This afternoon I went out and walked around the nearby desert for a few minutes and saw that even cacti are having a hard time of it.

Heat-stressed prickly pear cactus

Monday, June 2, 2014

What's Wrong with the Keystone XL Pipeline?

Today President Obama made a significant move toward fighting climate change by unveiling a plan aimed at cutting 30% of power plant emissions of CO2 by 2030 (though some states that rely most heavily on coal will not have to cut their emissions by a full 30%). This is heartening progress, and I fervently hope Obama’s next step will  be to say no to the Keystone XL pipeline, a project with the potential to contribute massively to the problem of greenhouse gas emissions.

Last Friday evening, I attended a potluck fundraiser for Occupy Tucson, and Vince Pawlowski from Tucson Climate Action Network was the guest speaker. His topic was the Keystone XL Pipeline. Vince started out by talking about why the “oil” that is being violently wrenched from the Alberta Tar Sands is so problematic. (For some visual proof of just how violent that process is, see “Photographer Captures Tar Sands 'Destruction' from Above.") Vince said that in the first half of the 20th century, when oil literally gushed from the ground here in the U.S., it cost about one barrel of oil to take 100 barrels of oil out of the ground. But in the Tar Sands, one barrel of oil gets you roughly 3-5 barrels. That’s poor rate of return, by anyone’s standards, but the Tar Sands project is viable because of cheap frack gas from Alberta, which is used to heat the bitumen, the crude product that comes out of the earth.

This bitumen is corrosive, toxic, and contains compounds that are known carcinogens and mutagens. Two scientists from Environment Canada – Jane Kirk and Derek Muir – have confirmed that there's a “bull’s-eye” of mercury around the Tar Sands project that covers 19,000 square kilometers. And as if that's not already a toxic nightmare, there are a variety of toxic compounds like benzene, toluene, and  xylenes  in the diluted bitumen. These toxic substances pollute the air, water, and soil of nearby Canadians – most of whom are from the Alberta First Nation (the people who just hosted Nobel Peace Prize winner Desmond Tutu at a weekend conference on treaty rights and the environment, at which he called the production of bitumen “filth.”)

This huge expenditure of fossil fuels – not to mention the number of toxics involved – is supposedly justified because of the jobs that will be created and the American industry the project will support. Yet, as Cornell University predicted, little American steel has gone into production of the pipeline infrastructure, and only a few thousand part-time, temporary, and short-term jobs have been created. So who will really benefit from the pipeline? Vince said that Koch Industries holds a lease on 1.1 million acres in the tar sands area, the single largest foreign holding. According to the Washington Post their lease holdings could be closer to 2 million acres, and they have a huge stake in this largest civil engineering project in the world. It’s not hard to see that the Kochs benefit, but the rest of us – the whole biosphere – will suffer the consequences of human addiction to fossil fuels as this project helps heat our climate.

Vince has an engineering background, so I asked him what he thought of some of the geoengineering projects that have been proposed as a solution to global warming; what’s notable about them is that they will not require the Koch Brothers – or us – to change our ways. He said he was skeptical about geoengineering because of the fact that tampering with complex natural systems can have unpredictable results, as the people who propose the space mirrors and atmospheric aerosols should well know. But he said there’s one geoengineering solution that he does favor – planting more trees. In addition to what I plan to do to reduce the size of my carbon footprint, I support planting more trees is a sustainable form of carbon-offsetting.  Over the weekend I looked at some of the mesquite trees in my neighborhood, which are still flowering and also starting to make bean pods.

Edible bean pods of the mesquite tree
Edible bean pods of the mesquite tree
I know the solutions aren't so simple as planting trees and opposing Keystone, but for now those are two things I can do!

A Fifth and Final Ekphrastic Essay About Our 2022 Road Trip: the Prairie and the Dust Bowl

  Erosion No. 2, Mother Earth Laid Bare by Alexandre Hogue When Greg and I were planning our 2022 road trip, our goal was to visit friends a...