Recently in Environment Category

August 15 is India's Independence Day. B and I spent the day marching to save South Asia in Richmond, California, while keeping an eye on the India Day parade in New York.

We spent our day in Richmond, California, participating in a mobilization to turn up the heat on Chevron, a major California polluter, and part of a group of companies that's been trying to thwart the best efforts of citizens from around the world trying to come up with a fair, realistic, science-based approach to dealing with global warming.

The mayor was there, as were labor activists, environmentalists, community health organizations, and representatives from communities around the world where Chevron has a presence (Burma, Nigeria, Ecuador, etc.) The message: Chevron, the 5th largest corporation on the planet, needs to stop poisoning the communities it operates in, and stay out of the climate talks, where the future of the planet will be decided.

In Bangladesh and West Bengal, rural communities are dealing with declining fish catches, and bigger floods and droughts. In Bangladesh today, climate refugees are losing everything they own. This is not theoretical. The front-line affected communities of Bangladesh and West Bengal didn't invent this problem; many of those affected don't even have reliable access to electricity. Man-made climate change was caused by developed nations like the U.S., and we need to take a leadership in dealing with the issue; things won't magically change by themselves.

On the other side of the country, the tri-state Federation of Indian Associations was holding its annual India Day parade in New York. The last year was particularly significant for people of Indian origin, as the Delhi High Court just overturned Section 377, the 150-year-old British-era legislation that criminalized gay and lesbian Indians. Unfortunately, the organizers of the India Day parade didn't get the hint, and refused to let Indian gays and lesbians, their friends, and allies celebrate this momentous victory as part of the parade. (Yup, you can have a Pride parade in Bombay, but you can't have a gay float in New York.)

The Indian-American community supports the Indian government's decriminalization of homosexuality, and B and I did our very small parts to directly question the organizers about their stances. A feminist organization ultimately invited LGBT community members to march with them; I wish we could have been there to cheer them on.

The ultimate result? Loads of happy Indian-American LGBTQ people in the parade, and public embarrassment (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10) for the organizers. While parade organizers have previously gone to court to keep gays and lesbians out, the Indian government's change of stance is a game-changer. New York India Day parade organizers can choose to wallow in their cultural conservatism in New York, or change with the times as India moves ahead.

(photos by Roopa Singh)

Rising Tides

I just ran across the Rising Tides design competition, "an open international design competition for ideas responding to sea level rise in San Francisco Bay and beyond" sponsored by San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission. Submissions are due by June 29.

Per their website:

"Nearly every day, we learn more about sea level rise - one of the most critical impacts of global warming. Individually and collectively, people are seeking solutions to this climate challenge. The issue of sea level rise is clearly of global importance, and both simple and complex design interventions will be needed to sustain quality of life, preserve the environment and ensure continued economic vitality of shoreline communities throughout the world. Challenges include:

  • Rethinking how to build new communities in areas susceptible to future inundation
  • Retrofitting valuable public shoreline infrastructure
  • Protecting existing communities from flooding
  • Protecting wetlands
  • Anticipating changing shoreline configurations

At the intersection of rising seas and our coastal human settlements, your ideas are needed. The Rising Tides ideas competition is open to everyone. All are encouraged to bring forward their vision of a future estuarine shoreline that is applicable to San Francisco Bay and beyond."

There's a raging debate around climate change and intellectual property, and the planet's fate may be linked to the way we think about patent protectionism.

G77 countries at the Bonn climate conference were been demanding access to green technology intellectual property, as a requirement for moving ahead. Industrialized countries have been stonewalling, arguing that greentech IP is private, and can't be shared. G77 countries have come back with a proposal where developed nations would pay into a pool that would buy access to greentech IP, to be shared with developing nations, which has been worrying US politicians advocating for stronger IP rights. This is one of several important threads involved in international climate negotiations, but has been substantially underreported on in the American IP reform community.

I'm particularly interested by India's comparison of greentech IP to essential HIV/AIDS drugs, framing their current demands in light of a widely understood battle over patent protection vs. humanitarian access. I'm hoping to see more folks pick up on this angle, and see where the comparison works, and where it doesn't.

Depressing news from the Daily Californian:

"An April 7 draft report released by the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission predicted that the sea level in the Bay Area will rise 16 inches by mid-century and 55 inches by 2100, flooding areas of the Berkeley Marina and a few blocks of West Berkeley." (read more...)

For more details, look at the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission (SFBCDC) climate change planning site.

White House front lawn

Heard the story about the solar panels on the roof of the White House?

For years now, I've been hearing stories about how Jimmy Carter installed solar panels in the roof of the White House, in an attempt to inspire Americans to invest in clean renewable made-in-America energy. As the story goes, the panels were ripped out during the Reagan administration. Reagan's takedown of the White House solar panels have long been used as a symbol of right-wing inattention to environmental and energy issues.

Turns out the original White House solar panels are still around, and the Google Blog reports on the story.

There's also a documentary in progress about Carter's solar panels. The film, A Road Not Taken, is still in progress. The trailer's on YouTube:

Now if we could only get Obama to support a White House victory garden...

I headed down to UC Berkeley's Sproul Plaza yesterday to see Obama's inauguration on a massive JumboTron. There was a huge crowd, reportedly totaling nearly 10,000 students, faculty, staff, community members, and local schoolchildren. I started getting involved in electoral politics on Sproul Plaza as a UC Berkeley undergrad, volunteering to work on local and national campaigns. Closing the loop at the same place felt very right.

The crowd was happy, electric, friendly, diverse; I loved seeing such huge numbers out to cheer on our first President of Color, a once (and future?) progressive, and someone who might stand up for some semblance of "San Francisco values."

Obama did well, though as happy as I was to see him namecheck Hindus, Muslims, and nonbelievers, it was equally irritating to see him gloss over our major environmental crises, suggesting "we will not apologize for our way of life." Damn straight, we'd better apologize, and start working toward more sustainable futures.

A new president's honeymoon period is lovely, before he's gotten a chance to disappoint us all. As I worry about how to hold Obama accountable on the environment, health care, and the war, it's nice to be able to enjoy a day or two of good thoughts.

B and I crossed the Pacific Ocean. Or rather, we just got to India. The longest leg of our journey was 14 hours, from SFO to Hong Kong. We slept much of the way, then watched movies (her), read (me), and played video games (us),

We bitch about plane travel--the food, the cost, the security restrictions, the poor customer service--but it's pretty amazing how things have changed. We both have family stories of relatives traveling from India to the UK by ship. It seems like another world. B's uncle did that journey sometime in the 1950s; we talk about the journey as a curiosity from the past. He flew back to India, decades later, married to a British woman; it's the marriage that people remarked on at the time, not the mode of transportation. Air travel has become utterly mundane; how else would you get around?

It's no joke that global warming is an inconvenient truth. Air travel is currently responsible for somewhere upwards of 3% of human-generated emissions, but is rising swiftly; the IPCC fears it may grow to as high as 15% by 2050. Assuming we actually want to slow down global warming, the facts seem inconveniently biased against air travel as we know it.

But what are the alternatives? We keep hearing of aviation tech efficiencies, but there's been no magic bullet yet. If there were, could we replace the entire global airline fleet in a matter of years?

Which brings me back to ships. It takes about a week and a half to cross the Pacific Ocean by freighter -- each hour by plane turned into almost a full day of travel. I'm tempted to try it sometime. It could be a way of exploring the past, or possibly a glimpse at part of an alternate future. Either way, it'd be a very different way of interacting with vast swaths of our "flyover" planet.

Offset Consumer Offset Consumer - Top providers

I've launched a new website, Offset Consumer, to help consumers learn about researching and buying voluntary personal carbon offsets. Please check it out.

After watching An Inconvenient Truth, I pulled up a carbon calculator and tried plugging in our household numbers. B and I don't own a car, live in a relatively dense city, and rarely use heat or cooling. I was shocked to discover that not only were we not low-carbon emitters, but that we were actually in the 90th percentile of most carbon-spewing Americans that year. Oh, the shame! Those pesky plane trips, most to visit family, had thrown us over the top, and turned us into the moral equivalent of Hummer drivers.

We've been working on lowering our carbon footprints, and have gotten much more involved in work to lower everyone's footprints through systemic change. But we also decided to buy carbon offsets, as part of the mix. Offsets are complicated. The more I read, the more clear it became that while offsets really do work (on a micro level), offsets products also vary wildly in quality and price--but nobody (besides the climate science geeks) are talking about it. It's been incredibly frustrating to see how little information there is out there for normal folks contemplating buying offsets.

The Offset Consumer website is aimed at reducing that information gap. It addresses questions everyone needs to know about offsets (pros and cons, and how to evaluate them), recommended carbon calculators, as well as a meta-analysis of top offset providers based on five separate carbon offset provider evaluators.

I'm particularly happy with the list of recommended providers. Building the list has forced me do more homework, and I'm confident in being able to tell folks they should consider getting offsets from CarbonCounter, a Portland nonprofit with a great mix of high quality offset products, at a surprisingly low price.

The process of researching the site has also helped me come to terms about my feelings about offsets. I started off more skeptical of offsets, but I'm now very confident that the top providers really do divert emissions from the atmosphere that would have been emitted, had it not been for the funded project. Global warming is a moral and humanitarian crisis. For those who are responsible (and I say this as someone very much in that camp), buying high-quality voluntary offsets can--and possibly should--go hand in hand with reducing personal emissions and working on better systemic solutions.

Try a calculator for yourself. The numbers may surprise you.


Yum. City CarShare, our local carsharing coop, just got its first smart fortwo cars. I love the way they’ve maintained their values, working closely with community groups, supporting transit and livable cities, and investing in cars like the Prius, fortwo, Mini Cooper, and Toyota Yaris — all of which are on the government’s list of the most fuel-efficient cars.

(This, in light of the way carsharing industry behemoth Zipcar is rapidly moving away from its greener roots, and stocking earth-unfriendly cars like BMWs and Mustangs. What use market share, if you give up on your values getting there?)

A senior official at the Vatican recently discussed his list of seven mortal “social” sins:

  • “bioethical” violations such as birth control
  • “morally dubious” experiments such as stem cell research and DNA manipulation
  • drug abuse
  • polluting the environment
  • contributing to widening divide between rich and poor
  • excessive wealth
  • creating poverty

“A person that commits a mortal sin risks burning in hell unless absolved through confession and penitence,” (emphasis mine) per AP’s description of Catholic theology. The media’s been particularly fixated on the environmental angle.

While the list doesn’t carry the weight of the Pope or the Vatican as a whole, it’s interesting to see a massive 2000-year-old institution working to amend points of theology, particularly those of personal sin, to adapt to changing understandings of the world. Not all Church policy positions (e.g. opposition to the Iraq War) get dealt with at the level of God-will-condemn-your-soul-to-hell mortal sin.

(And isn’t it fun to be able to change God’s rules as you go, like when the LDS Church suddenly declared in 1978 that men of African descent—but not women of any race—could become priests?)