Thursday, February 15, 2007


On Not Being Quiet

We are, of course, mightily concerned about the protection of our right to freedom of speech. But we should remember that suppression of speech starts at home, in the sense of choosing not to speak. Nor are the reasons necessarily political. We are more often silent for fear of embarrassment than fear of reprisal.

I should like to suggest that, when we have some reasonable understanding of things, it is better to speak of them than to be silent. We may be wrong, but we should be confident that correction will come with no great harm done. As John Stuart Mill points out in On Liberty, we will be serving more than ourselves.
[T]he peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth produced by its collision with error.

One of the things that perpetually endears Moby-Dick to me is Melville's deep analysis of the story of Jonah, as vividly presented in Chapter 9 (The Sermon). Father Mapple's argument is that it is never enough to know the truth; we must also be tellers of the truth. I excerpt from the end of the sermon:

... and Jonah, bruised and beaten--his ears, like two sea-shells, still multitudinously murmuring of the ocean--Jonah did the Almighty's bidding. And what was that, shipmates? To preach the Truth to the face of Falsehood! That was

"This, shipmates, this is that other lesson; and woe to that pilot of the living God who slights it. Woe to him whom this world charms from Gospel duty! Woe to him who seeks to pour oil upon the waters when God has brewed them into a gale! Woe to him who seeks to please rather than to appal! Woe to him whose good name is more to him than goodness! Woe to him who, in this world, courts not dishonour! Woe to him who would not be true, even though to be false were salvation! Yea, woe to him who, as the great Pilot Paul has it, while preaching to others is himself a castaway!"

He dropped and fell away from himself for a moment; then lifting his face to them again, showed a deep joy in his eyes, as he cried out with a heavenly enthusiasm,--"But oh! shipmates! on the starboard hand of every woe, there is a sure delight; and higher the top of that delight, than the bottom of the woe is deep. Is not the main-truck higher than the kelson is low? Delight is to him--a far,
far upward, and inward delight--who against the proud gods and commodores of this earth, ever stands forth his own inexorable self. Delight is to him whose strong arms yet support him, when the ship of this base treacherous world has gone down beneath him. Delight is to him, who gives no quarter in the truth, and kills, burns, and destroys all sin though he pluck it out from under the robes of Senators and Judges.
My thanks to Gutenberg for the text.


Shrink Your Ecological Footprint

Ann Covalt has sent in this article from the March 12, 2006, issue of The Washington Post, written by Bridget Bentz Sizer. I've added the hotlinks.

Question: How many years does it take an environmentalist to change a light bulb? Answer: Seven, but only if he's using energy-efficient compact fluorescent light (CFL) bulbs. Though slightly more expensive, low-mercury CFL bulbs use less energy and last longer than standard light bulbs. Replace four standard bulbs with the CFL ones, and you'll prevent the emission of 5,000 pounds of carbon dioxide over the life of the bulbs, according to the Center for the New American Dream. The center, which has a "Turn the Tide" campaign (, also estimates that you'll save $100 on your energy bill over the same time period. Though consumers complained of the harsh quality of early CFL bulbs, more recent models have softened the light. A 25-watt CFL bulb emits the same amount of light as a standard 100-watt bulb. And these days, CFL bulbs are sold almost everywhere standard light bulbs are sold.

Comedienne Lily Tomlin tells a story about buying a wastebasket: "The cashier put it in a bag. I brought it home. I took it out of the bag. I crumpled up the bag and tossed it in the wastebasket." The joke works because of its absurdity -- Tomlin generates trash even as she buys a receptacle for the trash -- but also because it taps into a larger truth; each year Americans use an estimated 100 billion plastic shopping bags., a Web site dedicated to reducing the use of disposable shopping bags, estimates that most plastic shopping bags wind up in landfills, where they take 1,000 years to decompose. So next time you're at the grocery store, consider bagging your goods in reusable canvas bags instead of paper or plastic. If you currently bring home 10 grocery bags each week that's a saving of 520 plastic bags each year.

Arsenic, mercury and lead are the kinds of toxins that lead to emergency phone calls to the poison control hotline, but did you know that they might also be in your old cell phone? The EPA estimates that 700 million cell phones containing 250,000 tons of toxic waste already have been discarded in American landfills. Next time you get a new cell phone, try donating your old one instead of tossing it. The National Zoo has partnered with Eco-Cell, a nonprofit based in Louisville, Ken., to collect visitors' unwanted cell phones, batteries and accessories. Eco-Cell will donate up to $15 to the Friends of the National Zoo for every working cell phone collected -- working phones will be refurbished and passed on to low-income people, while "dead" phones will be recycled according to EPA guidelines. Not planning a trip to the zoo? Call Eco-Cell at 888- 326-3357 or visit their Web site ( to learn how to donate a phone.

Reproduced with permission of the copyright owner. Further reproduction or distribution is prohibited without permission.

Other points made in this article:

  1. Get rid of stuff by giving it away via Freecycle (Freecycle DC is at ). The Freecycle Network is an international collection of free listservs aimed at reducing landfill waste by making one person’s trash another person’s treasure.
  2. Get rid of junk mail. A good place to start is by contacting the Direct Marketing Association to request that your name be placed on a “do-not-mail” file.
  3. Visit the Green Guide ( to find environmentally friendly cleaning products.
  4. Replace four standard bulbs with compact fluorescents, and you’ll prevent the emission of 5,000 pounds of carbon dioxide over the life of the bulbs, along with $100 on your energy bill.
  5. Eliminate 20 miles of extra driving a week, by using public transport, consolidating errands, etc., to eliminate nearly 1,000 pounds of greenhouse gas emissions each year.
  6. Skip the screensaver, which is actually an energy waster. Instead set your computer to “sleep mode” so that the screen goes blank when not in use. Or better yet, turn off your monitor. “Smith University estimates that 30 monitors set to sleep mode represent a reduction in emissions and energy consumption equal to taking one car off the road.”


The Energy Diet

Ann Covalt has sent in this item from the October 5, 2006, issue of the New York Times, written by Andrew Postman. I've added some hotlinks.
I'VE tried to be responsible.

I've thought pro-green thoughts and occasionally even done pro-green things. I've run the dishwasher and washer-dryer only with full loads. I've recycled, as ordered, though like every New Yorker I've ever met, I suspect the system does more good for our feelings than for the environment. I've shaved while showering, although I can't remember anymore whether that's a good or a bad thing.

I've been too busy to do much more, though, and too confused and overwhelmed by all the eco hype out there, and too inflexible to seriously change my lifestyle. No way am I hanging clothes out to dry on a clothesline. I won't drive more slowly -- as President Bush, like past presidents, has urged Americans to do to save gas -- and neither will you, and neither will anyone. And I recently bought a flat-screen high-def 37-inch TV, an energy-Hoover you'll have to pry from my cold, dead hands; if you haven't seen an N.F.L. game on something like that, my friend, you might as well watch curling.

But the morning after I saw Al Gore's ''An Inconvenient Truth,'' I was spurred to action. I bought 50 compact fluorescent light bulbs -- 50 -- intent on replacing every incandescent one in my home. The new bulbs were supposed to be 67 percent more efficient and last up to 15 times longer. Unfortunately, the ones I bought also cast a considerably colder light, so I aborted my plan after just two bulbs when I realized the quality of light they emitted reminded me of a bus station bathroom.

In the weeks since, I dispatched the six cartons of unused C.F.L.'s to the basement, and my guilt grew alarmingly. As the father of three very young children, I had to do something -- but something I would actually follow through with, something that would take minimal effort. Then, two weeks ago, while eating a doughnut and watching the scintillatingly clear images of Mets and Yankees scampering across my TV screen, I saw what I needed to do.

Flipping channels, I came across the news that Bill Clinton's Global Initiative had just ended with Richard Branson, the British mogul, pledging $3 billion to fight climate change over the next decade. On another channel, Mayor Bloomberg stood at a podium in California and announced, to my pride and delight, his sweeping eco-initiative for New York: the city's carbon emissions would be measured, an Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability would be created. Meanwhile, the man standing next to him, Governor Schwarzenegger, was set to sign legislation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions for his state -- the world's 12th largest contributor of such gases -- at a level the federal government had continually rejected. Everyone was chipping in, even Arnold, the first civilian ever to drive a Hummer. I took another bite of doughnut.

And that's when it came to me. I should go on a diet.

A half-ton diet.

I knew, having taken the ''Calculate Your Impact'' survey on, the companion Web site for the Gore movie, that our household produced some 19,100 pounds of CO2 last year, 4,100 pounds more than the national average. (The concept of a ''pound'' of gas is a nebulous one -- depending on the pressure and temperature, it can fill a thimble or a stadium -- so maybe it's best portrayed this way: one pound of CO2 is what's released per each mile driven, or each mile flown per person; it's what's produced to heat five gallons of water.)

For easier math, I rounded my number to 20,000 pounds, or 10 tons. As a family, as a household, couldn't we drop a half-ton, a mere 5 percent of our weight? That's 10 pounds for a 200-pounder to lose, 6 for a 120-pounder.

Absolutely. It was a goal, one I could stick to. Ambitious as it sounded, it was, amazingly, not excessive. I could keep living generally the way I wanted. I gave myself eight hours, no more, to lose the weight. In a world where texting passes for conversation and hooking up for a relationship, perhaps I'd just defined the new activism. Very little pain, not insignificant gain.

Mindy Pennybacker, the editor of The Green Guide and, was also enthusiastic about my plan. ''Americans have too much weight in many ways, so it's a metaphor that makes sense,'' she said when I called her. ''If it motivates you because it's familiar and part of your everyday life, that's terrific.''

''It's all about attitude,'' said Laurie David, the founder of the Stop Global Warming Web site ( and a board member of the National Resources Defense Council. ''Change one or two things, you end up changing four or five things. You can't put the toothpaste back in the tube. Before you know it, you start influencing people around you.''

Like most dieters, I cut deals with myself. If you're trying to lose real weight, you vow, say, to give up beer and ice cream but retain your pizza rights. Since I was trying to emit less CO2, I vowed to lower the thermostat at night by one degree -- not two, as often recommended by tree-huggers -- a tweak I expected none of us would notice. (That saved 79 pounds; each degree equals approximately 315 pounds of CO2; turning it down only at night, for the six colder months, or 1/4 times 315). In return? No more guilt over TV size.

Friends I called for suggestions understood my deal-making. Judy said she never used electrical kitchen appliances -- ''Opening a can is something I'm able to do'' -- but was still not ready to swap Vaseline for non-petroleum eye-makeup remover. Victoria said she saw a young mother with her baby in some sort of recycled paper diaper that did not look at all absorbent. ''My baby is wearing Pampers, probably one of the most wasteful things I do,'' she said. Then again, as much as she loves S.U.V.'s -- the way they feel and handle -- she and her husband realized that if they bought one they would be ostracized by half their circle. They bought a station wagon that gets three times the mileage.

I vowed to quit my profligate morning habit of turning on the shower and leaving the bathroom, not returning until several minutes after the water was hot. On the flip side, once I stepped into the shower I was not going to turn the experience into a 60-second spasm of sudsing and rinsing. Two minutes shower going unnecessarily times 2.5 gallons per minute times 365 morning showers times three ounces of CO2 produced per gallon of hot water equals 342 pounds. (My calculations, here and elsewhere, were made with the help of experts at the National Resources Defense Council and The Green Guide, several credible Web sites and a few smart relatives who grew up to be physicists and engineers.)

When washing white loads, I'd switch from the warm/warm cycle to warm/cold, comfortable that neither I nor my wife would notice the difference. (We didn't.) Sixty-two pounds saved.

Four hundred and eighty-three total pounds, 30 seconds of effort to reprogram the thermostat, two no-brainer decisions. Maybe my diet was riddled with compromises, but it was working.

I found further validation for my lack of rigor. ''When people equate efficiency with discomfort and sacrifice -- like when Jimmy Carter put on a sweater and encouraged Americans to lower the thermostat -- they shy away from it,'' said Bill Prindle, the deputy director of the nonprofit American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy. ''A month later they're back to their old ways. We need to ask people to act from their values'' -- meaning fundamentals like ''physical security, clothing, food and shelter, including thermal comfort.''

I felt certain I could unearth more savings in what Danny Seo, an eco-expert with a TV show, a Sirius radio show and a series of books all titled ''Simply Green,'' described to me as ''bad habits we don't even realize are bad habits.'' For example, was it really energy-wiser, as I'd often heard, to leave a light or computer on for the few minutes you're out of the room, rather turning it off and then on again?

''Total myth,'' Mr. Prindle said. ''Actually, I think that's a projection. Because it takes me more work to shut it off, people think, then it must generally require more energy. It's like the better-to-leave-the-car-idling theory.''

There were other bad habits that were just as easy to break. A friend suggested this quickie: Call retailers to get them to stop sending the print catalogs to which our house had become addicted. I chose 10 -- L. L. Bean, Crate & Barrel, J. Crew, Eddie Bauer, Garnet Hill, Design Within Reach, Lands' End, Restoration Hardware, Hammacher Schlemmer and the Company Store. (Originally I'd included Williams-Sonoma, but my wife vetoed that idea.) It took me 22 minutes total to cancel them -- eight phone calls and two e-mails. Ninety (the average number of pages) times 12 (number of issues per year we seem to get) times 10 (retailers) equals 10,800 pages. Since my research shows that one tree produces about 25,000 pages of the coated, lower-end virgin paper used in most catalogs, I'd just saved 43 percent of one tree. One tree produces 260 pounds of oxygen, 43 percent of that is 112 pounds, which converts to 154 pounds of CO2 saved.

Everyone but me seemed to know about ''vampires'' -- those energy suckers plugged into the wall when not in use (toasters, coffeemakers, hair dryers, cellphone chargers), consuming energy in standby mode. The easiest solution? Pull out individual plugs or, particularly for areas near computers and home entertainment equipment with lots of components, plug everything into a power strip (with surge protector) and, when done for the night or weekend, flip off the illuminated switch. Doing that would save me about 115 pounds annually on the computer, about 200 pounds on the TV, DVD and VCR. (Cable and satellite boxes draw huge amounts of energy, but turning them off may result in considerable reboot delays. I'm not going to turn mine off every night, but I might when I go on vacation.)

My boys and I drove to Lowe's for surge protectors as well as a thermal insulating blanket for our 75-gallon hot-water heater; wrapping it, every expert I spoke with told me, significantly reduces the massive heat loss, especially in winter. (Newer water heaters tend to have higher levels of insulation built in.) The largest blanket they carried, though, was for a 60-gallon tank, and a check of their Web site (and, later, of the Home Depot's) also showed no blanket for a tank our size. Forget it, then; this was the lazy man's diet, minimum effort.

On our way to the cashier, we passed an aisle with motion sensors, and I remembered my brother had them in his bathrooms, where they shut off the lights soon after people left. They seemed an easy enough item to buy and install. I called my brother, Marc. ''Be honest,'' I said. ''Will there be re-wiring?'' My brother, an astrophysicist, said no, there wouldn't be; then something to the effect that, unless I was too stupid to remove a light switch plate and put another one on, I was fully capable.

''Wait,'' I said. ''Why does anyone need a motion sensor in their bathroom? Don't people turn the light on when they go in and turn it off when they leave?''

''Ah,'' he said. ''You don't have teenagers yet.''

Scratch the motion sensors, at least for six more years.

I was now up to 952 pounds, more than 90 percent of the way to my goal. Okay; I was ready to turn back to the C.F.L.'s. I decided I could tolerate the cool white ones in two places only: our outside vestibule (60 watts replaced with 13 watts, with the same number of lumens, or brightness), and one overhead fixture in my office (75 watts replaced with 19), where its effect was neutralized by incandescent track lighting. They were lights that were on much more often than most. Together, they would save me, annually, about 300 pounds in 20 minutes, including shopping time.

Three hundred pounds. No typo. Two bulbs.

I wasn't done, though -- soon but not yet. I learned from Laurie David of Stop Global Warming that it makes almost no sense to rinse dishes in very hot water when they're just going into a dishwasher to be rinsed in even hotter water. I would hereby skip that step, plus I'd also hand-wash dirty dishes created after 10 o'clock (no real chore since I find it relaxing). Should buy us two loads weekly, down to four instead of six -- or 200 pounds saved for the year.

And I would have to give up my screensaver habit, much as I loved images of my children floating across my line of sight while I thought up sentences. In screensaver mode, my computer still draws a lot of power, according to David Goldstein, the energy program director for the Natural Resources Defense Council. He advised that by changing my settings so that computer and display both go to sleep when inactive for 10 minutes (as opposed to my original setting of three hours), I would save about 250 pounds annually. It took me 30 seconds to click on the Apple icon, then ''System Preferences,'' then ''Energy Saver.''

Seventeen hundred pounds dropped in 68 minutes -- a little more than one of the eight hours I'd allowed for. All that would be required of me in the future was 10 seconds nightly to shut off two power strip switches and five to 10 minutes, every now and then, of pleasant dishwashing.

I ought to be done with it now -- even if my numbers were a bit off, I'd blown past my goal, after all, a dangerous thing to do early on with a diet. But maybe Ms. David is right: make one change, soon you're ready to make three. Maybe one day soon I'll be ready to change a whole floor's worth of light bulbs; I learned after buying my 50 bulbs that it's possible to find C.F.L.'s that cast a warm glow, and the Green Guide's helpful light bulb product report suggests that C.F.L.'s have been improving. Danny Seo says that Ikea carries lighting fixtures that handsomely mask the shortcomings of C.F.L.'s, with tinted glass or a strip of wood veneer. Maybe we'll replace a roll or six of virgin toilet paper with post-consumer waste napkins -- maybe. This is all I'm willing to do right now. Don't look for me to carpool at elevators.

Then again, I can't help but wonder how much I might accomplish if I actually put in more effort than a garden slug. I'm intrigued by what a friend, an architect, told me: That if just one teensy change were made to New York City -- if all black roofs were painted white or silver, a simple, surprisingly inexpensive fix -- the financial and energy savings would be jaw-dropping, not to mention that it would severely reduce the possibility of blackouts and brownouts. Relatively meager effort, monster bang for the buck.

So, like, I don't know, maybe some weekend soon we all just get brushes and roof paint, fan out across the city, and just do it and get it over with? And afterward everyone comes by my place to watch the World Series on my big old flat-screen?

The Green Web -- Footnotes to Andrew Postman's article This guide has in-depth product reports (on light bulbs, diapers and so on), blogs and a comfy feeling; especially good on health and nutrition. Mr. Seo, an eco-friendly designer, blogs about ways to greenify your home, inside and out. Good conversion data is available here. Also, while some may find their eyes glazing over at descriptions of Energy Star-rated appliances, it's interesting to check out differences between what you have and what's available now. The American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy offers refreshingly straightforward information for both regular folks and wonks. The National Resources Defense Council weighs in with good policy papers on almost every aspect of the environment -- air, water, cities, waste, etc. This site lets users join the Stop Global Warming Virtual March (in about as much time as it takes to read this sentence twice). It also has consumer tips.

Cutting Back - How one man dropped 1,700 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions
ActivityInconvenience FactorAnnoyance FactorTime RequiredCostReduction in CO2 emissions (pounds/year)
Turn the thermostat down 1 degree at night in winterReprogram thermostatNone expected30 secondsNone79
Don’t leave the bathroom while the shower heats upNoneNoneNoneNone342
Wash whites with warm/cold cycleNoneNoneNoneNone62
Cancel delivery of print catalogs8 phone calls, 2 e-mailsNone22 minutesNone154
Buy and put in 2 cool white compact fluorescent bulbs in non-annoying placesInstall bulbs (but won’t have to install again for about 80 years)Light less warm, but in unobtrusive places20 minutes$4 more than for 2 regular bulbs, but they last longer300
Buy 2 power strips with surge protectors, turn them off at nightTrip to hardware store, plug inTurn off at night and on in the morning25 minutes, plus 10 seconds per day$33315
Hand-wash any dishes made dirty after dinnerNoneExtra time for dishwashing, but I enjoy the reverie5–10 minutes some nightsNone200
Set computer to “sleep” soonerModify “System Preferences”A few extra seconds to get going after a lull20 secondsNone250

Tuesday, February 06, 2007


Ronald Dworkin on the "24 Scenario"

In his latest book, Is Democracy Possible Here?, legal scholar Ronald Dworkin proposes a framework for analyzing political issues that is based on two "principles of human dignity." Principle #1 – “the principle of intrinsic value – holds that each human life has a special kind of objective value. It has value as potentiality; once a human life has begun, it matters how it goes." Principle #2 – “the principle of personal responsibility – holds that each person has a special responsibility for realizing the success of his own life, a responsibility that includes exercising his judgment about what kind of life would be successful for him." In the book, he looks at how analyses based on these principles would play out for several important contemporary issues.

One of the issues he studies is the question of human rights for suspected terrorists. After a long analysis of the Guantanamo problem, he turns briefly to what I call the "24 Scenario." Suppose we have captured a terrorist, and we know he has planted a nuclear bomb, ready to explode. Is it permissible to let our hero, Jack Bauer, torture the villain in order to find the location of the bomb, so that millions could be saved? Dworkin's treatment is quite interesting:
Let us now accept, if only for the sake of this discussion, that it is morally permissible to violate human rights in a sufficiently grave emergency like this one. Then our question becomes: how grave must the emergency be?

Remember our premises. ...[We] damage ourselves, not just our victim, when we ignore his humanity, because in denigrating his intrinsic value we denigrate our own. We compromise our dignity and our self-respect. So we must put the hurdle of emergency very high indeed. We must take care not to define "emergency" as simply "great danger" or to suppose that any act that improves our own security, no matter how marginally, is for that reason justified. We must hold to a very different virtue: the old-fashioned virtue of courage. Sacrificing self-respect in the face of danger is a particularly shameful form of cowardice. We show courage in our domestic criminal law and practice: we increase the statistical risk that each of us will suffer from violent crime when we forbid preventive detention and insist on fair trials for everyone accused of crime. We must show parallel courage when the danger comes from abroad because our dignity is at stake in the same way. ...

We are in great danger of falling into the trap [of]… thinking that anything that improves America’s security, however marginally or speculatively, is wise policy. That makes a terrified prudence the only virtue we recognize; it sacrifices courage and dignity to a mean and cowardly prejudice that our own security is the only thing that matters. We do not make that mistake in our own lives or our own domestic law, and it is not plain that the danger from terrorism is greater, all in all, than the dangers from drugs, serial killers, and other crimes. But the threat to our dignity is certainly greater now, and we must stand together to defeat that greater danger. The metaphor of balancing rights against security is, as I have said, very misleading. A different metaphor would be much more appropriate: we must balance our security against our honor. Are we now so frightened that honor means nothing?

Monday, February 05, 2007


Web Resources on Global Warming

This post strings together a number of useful links to Web resources on the topic of global climate change and what the individual can do to address it. This is a modification of the post in From the Rachel, done on Saturday; it includes additional information provided by Ann Covalt.

I note in passing that the phrase ‘global climate change’ is preferred over ‘global warming.’ From the perspective of atmospheric science, what is actually going on is the retention of energy in the global weather system, energy that normally would have leaked out (hence the preferred term of some scientists, ‘global heating’). As a result, there are various predicted effects, such as an increase in the global average surface temperature (‘global warming’, which is of course also a measured effect), an increase in the extremes of weather phenomena, like storms (not yet fully established as a measured effect), and shifts in the long-term weather patterns in various parts of the planet (‘climate change’). So, ‘global climate change’ is kind of a compromise that satisfies most.

Education and Information

There are some good overviews to the science, in addition to what we’ve already seen in An Inconvenient Truth. For example, there are introductions by the Koshland Science Museum, and by the Pew Center. The science historian Spencer Weart has an extensive review from a historical standpoint. There are also very useful reports prepared by the Congressional Research Service. Unfortunately, these are not generally made available to the public – unless you have good friends in low places, like the Federation of American Scientists, or, for this subject, the National Council for Science and the Environment. Of course, many of the other organizations mentioned below also have explanatory material. (And, many of the sites identified for one resource also have links to other types of resources, so I’ve tried to spread the listings out among the topics.)

At a more advanced level, you might as well go to the scientists actually doing the work. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is the UN-sponsored structure in the news this week; their most important products are the Assessment Reports, of which the Third (Climate Change 2001) can be accessed from their publication page. For an excellent summary of the latest report – the Summary for Policy Makers of Working Group #1 – check out Andrew Dessler’s post on Gristmill. Within the US, the key organization is the US Climate Change Science Program, whose most recent annual report to Congress is only a few months old. In addition, you can get a climate perspective on short term events from the NOAA Climate Prediction Center.

Another useful method for keeping up on current events is to check out what the climate scientists themselves are saying. The prominent group blogs are Real Climate and World Climate Report. Stephen Schneider uses his personal web site as a library of useful documents. For quirkier takes, there’s John Fleck and Ross Gelbspan. For a contrarian (but not knee-jerk skeptical) viewpoint, check out the loyal opposition, the Roger Pielkes, father and son. The best general environmental site covering the news is Grist; you can subscribe to a free daily e-newsletter. And finally, don’t neglect what our own local meteorologists are saying.

There are lots of good books on the subject. My current favorite (because it is the one I’ve read most recently) is The Rough Guide to Climate Change by Robert Henson.

Politics – High Level Actions

There are a lot of activities going on in which individuals can participate. Most immediately, there is the April 14th, National Day of Climate Action, organized by StepItUp2007. And if you don’t want to risk the weather, you can add your signature to the Stop Global Warming Virtual March. Contact your representatives to support the McCain-Lieberman Bill, which is the best thing Congress has to offer so far.

Speaking of Congress, you may want to keep an eye on the daily struggles against obfuscation and inactivity in both legislative and executive branches. Particularly useful for this are Chris Mooney’s blog – he wrote The Republican War on Science, and is bringing out a new book on climate change and hurricanes – and Rick Piltz’s Climate Science Watch – he’s a veteran of both the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology and the US Climate Change Science Program.

There are plenty of organizations engaged in a range of climate related actions. Greenpeace has an initiative to reduce CO2 emissions by half by 2050. Vote Solar presses actions at federal, state, and local levels. And then there’s the League of Conservation Voters, Project Vote Smart, the Alliance to Save Energy, Environmental Defense, the Union of Concerned Scientists, the American Solar Energy Society, the American Wind Energy Association, the Interstate Renewable Energy Council, the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council, The Nature Conservancy, and Friends of the Earth.

If that’s not enough, you can find other groups via the World Directory of Environmental Organizations.

Politics – Community Actions

There are several organizations focusing on making a difference at the community level. Closest to home is the Arlington Initiative to Reduce Emissions, which is actually a good model for a county-level activity. It would be good to see things like it in the other DC-area suburbs. The County is also working with Arlingtonians for a Clean Environment to promote the 2007 Green Living Challenge, encouraging individuals to complete 16 conservation actions by Halloween. Boulder CO recently passed a Climate Action Plan; they also have tax rebates for using solar power. Other relevant activities are the US Mayors’ Climate Protection Agreement, the US Green Building Council, the Sustainable Buildings Industry Council, and Fresh Energy.

Personal Conservation – General

But what, you ask, can we do to reduce our own feelings of responsibility? (And I guarantee that the more you study this, the more you realize that any civilization has an impact on the earth, and a responsibility to address it, both individually and collectively.) Fortunately, any sufficiently advanced civilization will have Wikipedia; there are two rather good overviews of both individual and political actions for addressing climate change under the headings of Mitigation of Global Warming and Climate Change Response. There are also some handy checklists to follow, prepared by Environmental Defense, Al Gore’s Climate Crisis organization,, and Grist.

Personal Conservation – Carbon Calculation

One thing you will want to do is figure out just how bad your personal impact on the environment is, so you can get a sense of how much you have to clean up your act. There are many carbon calculators out there, at, Climate Crisis, [SafeClimate], the Bonneville Environmental Foundation, Resurgence,, and The Conservation Fund.

Personal Conservation – Optimize Your Home Energy Use

There are two major things you can do to reduce your carbon footprint. The first is to improve the energy efficiency of your home. Depending on how bad you are when you start, and how aggressive you are in correcting it, you can reduce your home carbon load by 13 to 18%. You’ll probably want to start by doing an energy audit, following something like the DOE Home Energy Saver. Then nibble away at things; the DOE Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy site provides a good structure and checklist. Don’t be as warm in the winter or as cool in the summer as you have been. Turn down the water heater (both for showers and laundry). Check your insulation, and caulk your windows. There are several comprehensive consumer guides to help out, run by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, Consumer Reports, and your friendly neighborhood federal government. Shop green. And change to compact fluorescent light bulbs.

Of course, there are major changes you can make by remodeling and rebuilding. A good starting place is Home Energy, but you’re probably as well off by starting with Google. There is a good overview of sustainable architecture and design at the National Building Museum Green House site, which accompanies a major museum exhibit (running through June 3).

For general green consumer tips, check out Consumer Reports, the ACEEE Consumer Guide, the Alliance to Save Energy Consumer site, and the NRDC Guide to Green Living.

Personal Conservation – Optimize Your Transportation

The other really big thing you can do is reduce your driving impact. By cutting back your personal consumption of gasoline, you can cut your carbon load by something like 10%. Ideas? Well, you could walk, ride a bike (check out Commuter Connections, the Arlington Bike Commuting Page, and the Washington Area Bicyclist Association Commuter Mentors), telecommute (DOE has a page on this, but you might also look at articles here and here), or share the car (as in the Arlington Car Sharing Program, or Flexcar). You could get rid of your gas guzzler and buy a less guilt-ridden vehicle, following the advice of the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, or Yahoo (working with Environmental Defense), or the feds. Don’t forget to maintain it properly. And when you travel, why not rent a hybrid?

Speaking of travel, there are companies that actually work with you to offset your car or plane CO2 output by investing in recovery methods (like planting trees in Brazil). Some are independents, like TerraPass. Some are travel agencies, like Travelocity. And some offer offsets for home use as well, like Climate Care.

Personal Conservation – Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

This may not be obvious, but there is a significant carbon impact from making all the packaging that you use, and from getting rid of it when you’re done with it. The typical estimate is that you can reduce your carbon footprint by 5% if you can recycle half your trash. There’s lots of advice on the web about recycling, and about reducing use of grocery bags, etc. One nice site to check out is freecycle, which can also help you deal with that clutter problem.

Personal Conservation – Purchase Green Tags

Needless to say, it would be far better if what energy you used came from renewable sources (sun, wind, wave, geothermal – Aristotle may have been on to something). Much better than burning coal, which is truly demonic from the standpoint of global climate change. But few states allow you to select your power source. Instead, you can buy tradable renewable energy certificates, or ‘green tags.’

Federal law says that, whenever the prices are equal, power suppliers must prefer the renewable source over the nonrenewable. Of course, the prices are never equal, and renewable sources are often not available in your locality. But what counts is the power in the national power grid. If you buy a green tag, that cost gets added to the cost of your nonrenewable power to make it equal to that of a renewable source. That means that, as your local power distributor is giving you evil power, it is committed to purchasing the equivalent amount of good power and putting that into the grid, to be available elsewhere. Another way to think of it is that, for the cost of the green tag, you are providing a discount on the cost of the equivalent amount of renewable power somewhere, so that it will have preference when someone in the vicinity served by that renewable source needs it. You can check into green tags at, at the Bonneville Environmental Foundation, at Virginia Interfaith Power and Light, or at the DOE/EPA site.

Green Business and Green Investment

We should not forget that, while the hand of the market may be invisible, the conscience need not be. The most prominent business group in the news recently is the US Climate Action Program, which has published a blueprint for market-driven climate protection. There are a number of other efforts promoting more earth-friendly business activities, including the Social Investment Forum, Ceres, [Safe Climate] for Business, the World Wildlife Fund, and the Center for Energy & Climate Solutions.

Nicholas Kristof recently (New York Times, 1/30/07) highlighted several social entrepreneurs who have established self-sustaining operations that serve social needs. One of these, Easy Being Green, is an Australian group that distributes “Climate Saver Packs” (energy-efficient light bulbs and water-saving shower heads) to households. In return, the householders sign over the resulting energy credits to Easy Being Green, which then trades them as carbon credits.

Last Thoughts

Living green can be… interesting. You will need support groups. Keep an eye on TreeHugger Blog, the Green Options Blog (which is getting underway this month), and Global Cool. And drink with like-minded friends; Green Drinks DC is having its inaugural imbibe Tuesday at 6 PM at Zaytinya, at the Gallery Place Metro stop.


Interview with Vladimir Sorokin

The latest Spiegel Online includes an interview with Russian novelist Vladimir Sorokin, on the occasion of his latest novel, Day of the Oprichnik. The interview is a stark reminder of the difficulties within the current Russian state; we may think that things are bad here, but...

One comment in particular caught my eye.
The citizen lives in each of us. In the days of Brezhnev, Andropov, Gorbachev and Yeltsin, I was constantly trying to suppress the responsible citizen in me. I told myself that I was, after all, an artist. As a storyteller I was influenced by the Moscow underground, where it was common to be apolitical. This was one of our favorite anecdotes: As German troops marched into Paris, Picasso sat there and drew an apple. That was our attitude -- you must sit there and draw your apple, no matter what happens around you. I held fast to that principle until I was 50. Now the citizen in me has come to life.

Sunday, February 04, 2007


Back in Business

Just thought I'd add a post to indicate that the previous difficulties with Blogger have been resolved, and the 16th Street Forum is now running under the new Blogger software, administered by Google. As far as I can tell, group privileges remain the same. If anyone else wants to be able to post, contact me and I'll add you to the list. Of course, everyone can post in the Comments to previous posts.

Friday, February 02, 2007


Background on the IPCC Report

Today’s news is full of the latest results from the international assessment of the projected climate situation. As the report itself is still not available online, it seemed appropriate to lay out some background about what is and isn’t going to be in it.

The report comes from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which was established by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) in 1988. Its charter is “to assess on a comprehensive, objective, open and transparent basis the scientific, technical and socio-economic information relevant to understanding the scientific basis of risk of human-induced climate change, its potential impacts and options for adaptation and mitigation. The IPCC does not carry out research nor does it monitor climate related data or other relevant parameters. It bases its assessment mainly on peer reviewed and published scientific/technical literature.”

The IPCC has three working groups that assess the scientific aspects of the climate system and climate change; assess the vulnerability of socio-economic and natural systems to climate change, the negative and positive consequences of climate change, and the options for adapting to it; and assess options for limiting greenhouse gas emissions and otherwise mitigating climate change. It also runs a Task Force that inventories the release of greenhouse gases internationally.

On a roughly six-year timescale, the IPCC releases an Assessment Report that gives the most up-to-date status that can be agreed upon by the working group members. The Third Assessment Report, Climate Change 2001, is available online.

The news today is about the release of the report from Working Group I, on the science issues. Much of the report is devoted to the observational evidence from surface and atmospheric temperatures, from changes in the cryosphere (the poles, glaciers, etc.), and from changes in the oceans. The big news-making part is the section on modeling the climate system, with the concomitant projections on how the climate is likely to change in the coming century.

Working Group II, which addresses the current and projected impacts on ecosystems, on water and food supplies, on health, on industry, and on relocations, will release its report after a meeting April 2 – 5, in Brussels. It has already submitted a draft report last month. Working Group III, which focuses on mitigation actions, will meet on its final report April 30 – May 3, in Bangkok, but will release a draft on February 12. A final synthesis report will go out for review during the summer, and will be the subject of the full IPCC meeting November 12 – 16, in Valencia, Spain.

So, the primary emphasis of today’s news is the growing consensus on the man-made component of climate change – the Working Group committed to a 90% likelihood that human activity is the dominant factor – and the smaller range of uncertainties on the changes projected by the ensemble of climate models.

Short summary: we’re screwed. Details will follow.

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?