- July 2012: Shell’s Oil Noble Discoverer drill ship’s anchor dislodges and drags ashore in Dutch Harbor, Alaska
- September 2012: Caught off guard by sea ice, Shell is forced to emergency halt drilling one day after beginning
- September 2012: In a test conducted in Puget Sound, WA, Shell’s Arctic oil spill containment system is “crushed like a beer can”
- November 2012: Noble Discoverer’s engine “backfires” and causes large fire.
- Dec. 31, 2012: Shell’s Kulluk drilling rig grounds offshore Kodiak Island after repeatedly losing its tow line during a fierce storm
- Today: Exploratory Offshore Arctic Drilling continues in the Arctic
Noble Discoverer being dragged onshore Crushed dome from containment test
Despite repeated attempts to obtain Arctic oil and repeated potentially dangerous complications due to extreme conditions, human activity in the Arctic continues to increase rapidly. In fact, in just the past couple of years, six of the eight countries that control land in the artic, the United States, Russia, Norway, Canada, Denmark and Iceland, have given energy companies permission to begin oil and gas exploration. Why? Because according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the Arctic Circle could contain at least 22% of the world’s undiscovered oil and gas deposits. Although this seems like a great opportunity for industry, the question of whether this oil can be extracted safely and sustainably remains up in the air.
Unfortunately for the Arctic, even without the presence of offshore drilling, this pristine and untouched environment is already being threatened due to climate change. Emissions of greenhouse gases are continuously raising the temperature of the arctic environment, causing significant melting of sea ice. This has detrimental impacts on the Arctic terrestrial animals, such as the polar bear, that rely on sea ice for survival. Arctic drilling further perpetrates this melting problem because with more drilling comes more emissions, as well as emissions from transportation vessels bringing workers and supplies, continuing the cycle of global warming and consequently melting ice.
Many environmentalists are arguing that Arctic offshore drilling will only further degrade this fragile Arctic environment. Regardless of precautionary measures, offshore drilling in any location has inherent risk of causing an oil spill because of the challenges of building underwater infrastructure. In order to prevent this from happening, governments have established emergency response plans if a potential blowout were to occur, but responding to a blowout after it occur is often too late when it comes to preventing ecosystem damage.
That being said, the oil industry claims that they can drill in the Arctic safely. In their perspective, arctic drilling is much less risky than drilling in other existing locations, such as the Gulf of Mexico, because they are drilling in wells that have significantly lower pressure and are at much shallower depths. These are relevant factors because if a blowout were to occur, the oil would leak into the water much slower, and the shallower depth would allow the rescue team to get to the pipe in less time.
However environmentalists counteract these arguments by pointing to two characteristics of the arctic that make a potential blowout particularly concerning. The first being that because of the low air and water temperature, oil does not break down the same way it would in a temperate environment where there is significantly more bacteria. Additionally, because of the large amounts of sea ice, oil from spills tends to gather around and under the ice, where it can remain for decades. Studies have shown that as a result of these two factors, the best technology to date would only able to recover 10-30% of oil released in an Arctic spill, leaving more than 3/4 of oil to remain in the ecosystem for years. This impacts the animals living in the water, as well as the indigenous people who rely on these animals for hunting and survival.
So after looking at both sides of the argument, the big question is: what amount of risk is allowed to exist for Arctic offshore drilling to be considered sustainable and safe? In my opinion, the answer should be absolutely no risk. It seems that regardless of precautionary measures and rescue plans, any amount of oil spilling into the arctic inflicts a great amount of harm on the Arctic environment and the species living there. The only way to drill sustainably would be to create a way that would guarantee absolutely no blowouts, and from what I can see, this seems nearly impossible. Unfortunately, this leaves a classic decision for our politicians and world leaders: prioritize our economic interests or prioritize our already dwindling environment? We’ll see how we proceed.
Like millions of other Americans, I’ve been overall enthralled by the athletes’ abilities and the venues’ beauty at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. Regretfully, the splendor has made me forget about the toll of the games on the surrounding environment. In my mind, the International Olympics Committee (IOC) most likely has lofty goals concerning international cooperation, human rights, and, of course, sustainability. I imagined that the organization worked hard to promote these values. Unfortunately, I was dismayed to learn that this last pillar – sustainability – has been all but ignored during the Russian games.
When Russia originally made a bid for the Olympics seven years ago, President Vladmir Putin promised a list of environmentally friendly measures: zero waste, heavy investment in alternative energy, restoration of endangered species to the surrounding areas, and the first carbon neutral Games in history (1). However, none of these targets have been realized and some have even worsened. For instance, the environmental group, Environmental Watch of the North Caucus (EWNC), has charged that construction in Sochi has severely damaged the surrounding lands (2). EWNC has also accused Russia of illegal dumping, blocking brown bear migration routes, and limiting access to drinking water for native residents (1).
What was Russia’s response to these accusations?
Instead of addressing the problems, the government chose to suppress the faultfinders. Environmental activists, such as Yevgeny Vitishko (a member of EWNC), were arrested for criticizing the ecological impact of the Winter Olympics. Vitishko was taken into custody right before giving an environmental report on Sochi and was sentenced to three years in prison (2). Another EWNC member, Suren Gazaryan, is now living in exile in Estonia after releasing a statement on ecosystem loss and hazardous conditions present in Sochi due to poor and rushed construction (1). His statements have been supported by other academics. Natalia Prudnikova of Altai State University backed Gazaryan, noting that there was a “serious threat of destruction of the most valuable and natural complexes” of the Caucasian reserve (3). She explained that any clearing of trees for downhill ski or snowboarding would damage the unique biodiversity and habitats of the Western Caucasus, a UNESCO World Heritage Site (4).
Of course, I understand that the Olympics hold mostly entertainment and monetary value. So why should the IOC even care about how the Games are conducted? Why does the construction (and destruction) matter? Why should Russia put the environment first?
My answers are honor and precedent.
For Russians, Sochi is a source of pride. Being chosen as an Olympic venue, a stage for the entire world to watch, instantly grants the nation renown. Already mired in controversy over human rights issues, Russia should attempt to uphold its reputation by ascertaining that its Olympics has a clean record all around. Unfortunately, it seems that the government has already lost favor with some members of the IOC. Former IOC member, Els van Breda Vriesman, has been outspoken over the fact that she (and other committee members) would not cast their votes for Sochi today, predominantly due to the environmental devastation that has occurred there (5).
It is also important for each Olympics Games to be an exemplar model for what will come four years down the road. If construction at Sochi had not disturbed surrounding ecosystems and the planning committee had implemented greener policies, future Olympics may be planned in the same way. Admittedly, Russia’s initial promises were impressive and have already inspired future countries to include similar goals in their bids for upcoming Olympic Games. Already, South Korea has promised to invest in technologies such as rain and wastewater recycling and renewable energy sources for a carbon neutral 2018 Winter Olympics (1). Hopefully, they will follow through.
Finally, IOC turning a blind eye to Russia’s lack of responsibility is shameful. IOC has avoided directly addressing sustainably problems because it asserted “environmental complaints put forward by NGOs needed to be considered against [Russia’s] local context” (5). However, it is in the Olympic Charter to uphold sustainability values. In 1994, IOC adopted the environment as its “third dimension of Olympianism” (6). It is unfortunate that only a decade later, the same organization has allowed the haste of production and presentation to overcome accountability and quality. While the Olympic Games are about the sports, they are also about the principles we value. We applaud the hard work and dedication of athletes, so the Olympic organizers should practice the same in adhering to their own tenants. Like the competitors, every Olympics is another chance for IOC to ostentatiously show off what means the most to them. As Dr. Allen Hershkowitz of the Natural Resources Defense Council cites, only one-tenth of the populations pays attention to science. Two-thirds watch the Olympics (1). As far as Sochi 2014 goes, a green message was not delivered.
3.11.11-Breaking news hits the media: a 9.0 earthquake strikes the eastern shores of Tōhoku, Japan. A subsequent tsunami and nuclear meltdown devastate the prefecture, halts the nation, and grabs the attention of billions around the globe. Over 20,000 people are reported dead and/or missing under the massive amounts of rubble, and we’re reminded about the shear power of the environment. Natural disasters quintessentially represent the power nature has over us. At little or no warning, the earth can instantly overcome regions of the world. In regards to how we respond to natural disasters, a growing industry, volunteer tourism, has arisen. Technology and globalization has moved the world to assist each other in times of need. Though in this wake of increased humanitarian aid, what have been the effects on how we look at and strive to mitigate catastrophe?
Crisis calls our attention and you can’t look away. 24-hour news surveillance and instantaneous reports bring an event happening on the other side of the globe to the palm of your hands. We attach ourselves to this sort of media and addict ourselves to the nearly identical news articles in search of new information on the tragedy. Technology has brought us to a whole new proximity to the source of devastation and charges people react. Through social media and other news outlets, people now more strongly respond to disaster, calling for change and an urge to personally participate. Individuals now solicit friends to donate, and NGOs call for volunteers, making people feel more involved in the recovery stage. Volunteerism, as such, has become an industry.
The volunteer tourism sector offers many positives and is understandably very popular. People can travel across the world, see new places, and embark on rewarding selfless adventures. Participants see volunteering as win-win situations-they offer free labor and in return receive a sense of self-gratification. Although the industry itself is not dishonorable, there are negative effects of international volunteerism.
For one, inexperience tends to be quite high among volunteers. The highest rate of volunteers abroad is below 24 years old. This is in part because college students make up a majority of this group. They for one have the time to volunteer, and secondly have access to such programs. Though as a consequence, the core of many volunteer group is comprised of young people who do not necessarily have the skills or expertise to asses and manage projects. Volunteers don’t always know the language of where they’re serving, and their presence can end up being a burden more than asset.
The topic of volunteerism is a bit tricky. Here at Duke we love to volunteer. For example, the DukeEngage program sends students around the world on a variety of humanitarian and environmental projects. Though the objective of DukeEngage is to provide an experience rather than a most effectively means of service, many relief organizations work off of this model. It’s Not Just Mud (INJM) for example is an international grassroots NGO based in Japan that recruits international volunteers for its programs. Their projects provided aid after the great East Japan earthquake through a core of international recruits. They cleared rubble, built homes, and helped rebuild the community in northern Japan. There is physical evidence of their contributions, however is this really the best model to provide assistance on? Probably not…
After 3.11, Americans, like myself, saw what was happening in Japan and wanted to volunteer. It was through Facebook campaigns and dramatic live news coverage that lead me to really want to go to the scene, see it for myself, and volunteer. The drive eventually got me to Japan, and I interned with a relief organization for a summer. I appreciate and value the experience I gained through my volunteer work, however I do not believe that I effectively really contributed to the relief effort. My time was appreciated, however the money spent to get me to and live in Japan could have put to better use. Rather if that money was given to a Japanese aid organization to help dispatching local volunteers, more work could have been done.
This is an issue that does not only relate to the 2011 Japanese earthquake, but relates to every natural disaster globally. It is not that volunteer tourism organizations are doing anything inherently bad, it’s rather that they’re selfishly sending volunteers for the purpose of the volunteers’ personal experience. These organizations will not cease to exist, however it is important to consider the gains and losses attained when dispatching a volunteer from abroad. When disaster strikes in the future, how will you support the cause?
Earlier this February in Eden, North Carolina, a major coal ash spill has raised the nation’s attention. The coal ash was found leaking into a storm water discharge pipe buried under the pond and then spewed into the Dan River. As a consequence, 82,000 tons of toxic sledges into the Dan River, making it the third largest coal ash leak in the US history.
Former NC NEDR administrator, now environmental coordinator of Appalachian Voice, Amy Adams demonstrates the coal ash in Dan River, NC. Sources: Associated Press
While the leakage was finally halted, contaminates level fallen to normal and federal investigation proceeding, we cannot let the story end here. The problem of coal ash demands public attention and need to be addressed timely by the government.
The convention is to store the coal ash waste either through impoundment or landfill, yet the Dan River Spill and the even more catastrophic spill in Kingston, Tennessee have demonstrated these methods are not so assuring. The increasing amount of coal ash storages is a growing concern around the nation. Neither impoundment nor landfill reduces the waste but instead creates sources of chronic problems or builds up risks of future catastrophe.
To solve the problem of coal ash, regulations should both aim on improving current storage standard and encouraging alternative handling methods. However, the very first step is to raise the salience of the problem, including both public as well as administrators’ awareness. The problem of coal ash had been historically grossly understated by public and even environmental regulators. With an initial estimation of 710 ponds in the nation, EPA conducted a survey under the request of two environmental groups in 2010, and found out there were actually more than 1100 ash ponds in the nation; 46% of those did not have liner to protect from leakage, another data previously unknown by EPA. The two coal ash ponds at Dan River are but 2 of the 44 Highly Hazardous Coal Ash Ponds identified by EPA in 2009. Immediate actions are required to avoid more serious accidents in future.
Besides, the identity of coal ash remains disputable in legislative context. Coal ash is currently considered as an exempted waste under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA). Despite EPA was warranted the right to regulate coal ash as a solid waste after the 2000 amendment, it had never issued any regulation on coal ash. After the disastrous accident in Kingston Tennessee, the administration submitted two options to regulate coal ash as special waste or non-hazardous waste respectively. However, almost four years after the proposals, the final conclusion of the identity of coal ash is still lacking. Fortunately, once again thanks to pressures from environmental organizations, EPA signed a consent decree that it shall, by December 19, 2014, publish its final action revising. It would be interesting to see how the Dan River accident will influence EPA’s final decision.
The Kingston, Tennessee Spill in 2008 was the largest coal ash incident in the United State, more than a billion US gallons of coal ash was spewed in consequence. Source: Wikipedia
In addition to improving safety of coal ash ponds and landfills, alternative methods should be considered to reduce the total amount of coal ashes. The market may generate innovative ideas, yet it requires regulation to ensure safety and promote pervasion. Indeed, business has introduced various solutions to reuse coal ash. Coal ash has been used and construction projects. Further, fly ash bricks, contrary to the common perspectives viewing coal ash as wastes and pollutants, have even been labeled as environmental by both waste recycling and emission reducing. Nevertheless, the amount of usage is substantially lower than the amount produced. Based on the report of the American Coal Ash Association (ACAA), even in 2012, when the percentage of recycle is at its highest, the nation had a net increase of 30 million tons of coal ash. Provided that the use of coal ash bricks is safe, it should be promoted to reduce the accumulation of coal ash and eventually reduce the total amount.
It is equally important though, to realize many of those proposals regarding coal ash may inspire new controversies, just as what was seen in the case of Chesapeake Golf Course. Given the potential health and environmental risk associated with coal ash, and its tight relation with the fossil fuel industry, policy design needs to incorporate rigorous safety standards and inspections to ensure the safety of usage. This issue may be further complicated by the EPA’s current effort identifying coal ash, as the industry may be hampered due to fear of litigation if the extra inspections are imposed on coal ash.
Somewhere in the world, a green energy revolution is occurring. New renewable energy projects hold the capacity to sustainably generate around half of a country’s electricity, vastly improving its citizens’ quality of life. Wind, thermal, and—maybe most importantly—hydropower serve are green alternatives to fossil fuels, that can greatly enhance a country’s industrial capacity and creating a realistic and maintainable trend of economic development.
So, who is this revolutionary innovator, leading the charge in green energy and sustainable development in a world still heavily reliant upon fossil fuels and antiquated patterns of development? Is it Germany, with its engineering expertise and (successful) political action of its Green Party? No. How about the United States, who has historically lead the world in engineering feats and is a developed country now expressing (some) political concern to environmental issues such as climate change and sustainable development? Nope. Well then, it must be China, whose massive hydro-electric dam projects have shown national initiative in creating sustainable sources of energy. Close, but still, no.
Ethiopia has invested over a billion dollars into its green energy plan—which includes solar, hydropower, geothermal, and wind-energy projects—in an effort to provide electricity to 47% of its nation still in the dark. Beyond providing sufficient electricity to citizens, Ethiopian authorities plan to sell electricity generated by renewable energy projects—funded primarily by Chinese, French, and Italian donors—to its neighbors, further generating economic revenue that could continually spur statewide, economic development.
Ethiopia’s green energy plan aims to expand its generating capacity—primarily from renewables—from 2,000 MW to 10,000 MW in three to five years. Nearly 6,000 MW of annual generating capacity is projected to come from the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on the Nile (currently under construction). The new, 210 million euro (289.68 USD) Ashegoda Wind Farm—constructed by French firm Vergnet SA and financially backed by French Development Agency—will contribute to the projected 800 MW/yr. of electricity generated from wind power. Furthermore, the Ethiopian government has signed a preliminary contract with a U.S.-Icelandic construction firm for a four billion dollar private sector investment targeting Ethiopia’s immense geothermal resources (which are, are maximum predicted capacity, able to produce 5,000 MW of electricity annually).
But just what are the political, economic, and environmental implications of such rapid and massive development? Does the development of a green electric industry imply that an entire nation will undergo sustainable development?
Well, in the case of hydropower, no.
While hydropower is a fantastic alternative source of electricity generation when compared to industrial age coal-fired power plants, and has the capacity to generate significantly more power than other renewable energy sources, it comes with an acute set of environmental, political, and social consequences.
Mega-dams have the potential to cause great environmental harm to the river ecosystem in which they are implanted. The implementation of most hydropower projects in developing countries is seldom determined by the outcomes of an EIS—given that one is even conducted—and thus the projects often become result in environmental degradation. Consider the Merowe Dam in Sudan, for which no EIS was conducted prior to construction. The dam (and its reservoir) acts as a major sediment sink, accelerates bank erosion rates downstream, limits fish habitats in producing anoxic water conditions, and disrupts aquatic biodiversity. Similarly, a mega-dam on the Omo River in Ethiopia has the potential to severely reduce water levels (~80%) and fish populations of Lake Turkana (located in Kenya). Clearly, with both of these cases, it is apparent that acute negative environmental externalities exist that challenge the notion the hydropower is a viable solution for environmentally sustainable development.
Mega-dams also have a tendency to exacerbate political and social tensions found within and shared between affected countries. The Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (which, as I mentioned earlier, is projected to generate ~6,000MW of electricity/yr. for Ethiopia) is being constructed in close proximity to the Sudanese border. This will undoubtedly aggravate political tensions over water-scarcity, as the dam will utilize large amounts of water that usually flows into Sudan (a downstream riparian). Ethiopian authorities are having to finance this project in the absence of international aid, which clearly indicates the political volatility and fragility of the project. Additionally, mega-dam projects are generally associated with the mass-displacement of large groups of people. The Three Gorges Dam in China is estimated to have displaced 1.2 million people; similarly, the Merowe Dam in Sudan has displaced over 50 thousand people from the fertile lands of the Nile valley to the arid desert. Here, we can see that the social injustices produced by mega-dam projects—along with a project’s capacity to negatively influence fragile political relationships—further assert that hydropower may not be a viable vehicle for achieving sustainable development.
The question surrounding hydropower and sustainable development is a difficult one, given that hydropower is—technically—a cleaner and greener method of generating electricity vital to spurring economic development. Needless to say, this topic will become increasingly contested in the coming decade, as traditional Western donors become more involved in implementation through heightened investment.
I’m from Houston, the largest city in Texas and fourth largest in the United States with a GDP to match. With over 5,000 energy firms doing business in our greater metropolitan area and leading the world in petrochemical manufacturing thanks to the top ranked Port of Houston, we lay claim to the title “energy capital of the world.” Unsurprisingly, I grew up in Houston because my dad has worked for the past 35 years in the energy industry. Specifically, he’s spent most of his career involved in natural gas and, most recently, the U.S. shale gas revolution. Because of the huge economic impact it is having on American energy independency as well as its controversial extraction methods, shale gas has received a lot of media attention these past few years. Most of this attention, however, is seldom positive.
Opponents to hydraulic fracturing cite the migration of gas into groundwater resulting from the drilling as a serious health risk. However, the incidence rate of the construction of faulty well seals is only 1-3%, and most of the allegedly affected areas have longstanding reserves of methane unrelated to fracking that lack any kind of pre-drilling baseline data.
Anti-fracking groups also claim that hydraulic fracturing fluids contain dangerous chemicals not disclosed to the public, that the process itself uses outrageous quantities of water, and that disposal of wastewater harms the environment. In actuality, hydraulic fracturing fluid is typically comprised of more than 99.5% water and sand, and 0.5% chemicals, most of which are present in common household applications. The industry is taking steps to voluntarily disclose more information about the chemical composition of fracking fluids, and some states have even established mandatory reporting requirements.
Companies are working to lessen the overall amount of water used in the process through technological advances, and shale gas production requires less water than conventional production of oil and other forms of energy (compare 1.3 gallons per MMBTU for shale gas to more than 2,500 gallons per MMBTU for biofuels). Wastewater is most commonly disposed of through injection into deep, lined, underground wells where it is not at risk of contaminating freshwater resources, and with advances in onsite treatment technologies the percentage of wastewater being recycled by companies is increasing.
And though some anti-fracking groups claim that the drilling technology is too new to judge its environmental effects and lacks scientific research on the subject, a significant number of studies have been undertaken by universities, governmental agencies, and independent research groups exploring the impacts of hydraulic fracturing on human health and the environment.
All of this is not to say that these concerns about shale gas are not valid; there is no such thing as a riskless energy source. Rather, my frustration stems from the seemingly one-sided approach most media takes in airing the aforementioned potentially negative impacts of the shale revolution without balancing them out by reporting on the positive externalities.
Not nearly as publicized as the heated debates over fracking consequences are the huge benefits the shale revolution is bringing to the United States. Oil and natural gas provided more energy in the United States for residential and industrial use than any other energy source in 2010—37% and 25%, respectively. But you’ll probably have to pick up a scientific journal to find an IHS report’s estimation that mainly due to lower energy prices, average disposable income per household increased by more than $1,200 in 2012 and is predicted to grow to more than $3,500 by 2025.
Maybe tucked away in one of the back pages of the newspaper you’ll read about the $12 billion the natural gas industry invested in Pennsylvania in 2011, supporting the creation of more than 200,000 jobs across the region. The American Chemistry Council determined that a 25% increase in domestic ethane supplies derived from shale gas could add over 400,000 jobs across the economy, provide over $4.4 billion annually in federal, state, and local tax revenue, and spur $16.2 billion in capital investment by the chemical industry.
Switching to natural gas over coal-fired power plants, a transformation already well underway thanks to the discovery and extraction of newly accessible shale resources, also greatly reduces comparative environmental degradation an increases public health. Air pollution, mostly from coal burning, kills over three million people each year (primarily in the developing world); coal-fired power plants in the United States emit 17-40 times more SOx emissions per MWh than natural gas, and 1-17 times as much NOx per MWh. Lifecycle CO2 emissions from coal plants are 1.8-2.3 times greater (per KWh) than natural gas emissions.
So as someone who has worked in and been raised around the natural gas industry her entire life, I tend to bristle at sensationalistic news reports or disparaging Hollywood portrayals that all too often depict shale gas extraction as the single greatest threat to America’s health and happiness. Shale play development is bolstering the U.S. economy, reducing energy-related environmental degradation, increasing public health, and increasing national security by lessening our dependence upon unstable foreign oil sources. Hydraulic fracturing is not going anywhere anytime soon, so rather than fighting it (which is distinct from educating about it), we should instead continue to focus on improving existing energy technologies, implementing regulatory measures that prioritize public safety and environmental consciousness, and developing alternative energy sources to position us for a more secure, sustainable future.
February 3, 2014
On the night that millions of Americans in the Southeast were hit with the snowstorm of the decade, President Obama addressed the nation: “Climate change is a fact.” Winter Storm Leon (as named by the Weather Channel) wreaked havoc in a part of the nation that rarely experiences this level of extreme winter weather. Horror stories of people trapped in their cars in Atlanta, Georgia took over national news headlines. Perhaps Atlanta and other southern cities were ill prepared for this disastrous weather, but nonetheless, this type of weather is atypical for this part of the country.
Unfortunately, extreme weather patterns are no longer uncommon in many parts of the nation. From cases of severe drought in the Midwest to the decimation caused by Hurricane Sandy in the North East and the greater frequency of tornado occurrences- scientists are claiming that many of these events are human induced. In September 2013, NOAA published a report titled, “Explaining Extreme Events of 2012 from a Climate Perspective”. The report cites several examples of extreme weather patterns and attributes the changes in climate to human activity. Specifically, scientists explored the high July 2012 temperatures of the Midwest in relation to decreased precipitation and increased solar radiation. Carbon emissions and inefficient land use have contributed to the temperature changes experienced in this part of the nation.
In regards to climate change, President Obama was very blatant in discussing the urgency of a safer environment for future generations. His brief recommendations include stronger regulation of carbon emissions and innovative technology to support sustainable energy sources. In order for this sense of urgency to resonate with the American people and a very polarized congress, Obama used the protection of future generations as a motivating factor. He stated, “And when our children’s children look us in the eye and ask if we did all we could to leave them a safer, more stable world, with new sources of energy, I want us to be able to say yes, we did.” This quote simply explains that it is imperative for our generation to limit the footprint we leave behind for our children. Every person is responsible for how their actions shape the climate and environment.
Finding or creating alternative and sustainable energy sources is one of the largest factors in reversing climate change that is induced by human action. Our national dependence on fossil fuels has caused complete decimation of ecosystems and the burning of these fuels contributes to ozone pollution. I believe there are two main entities that hold responsibility in expediting the process of finding innovative energy sources.
First, the United States military is arguably the most crucial stakeholder in alternative energy sources. From a tactical perspective, the increased frequency of natural disasters puts a significant strain on national security. As the military has become more responsible for first response aid work, they have a stake in preventing huge natural disasters. If alternative energy sources could limit extreme weather patterns that are exacerbated by carbon emissions, the military has an incentive to investigate these alternatives. Furthermore, the oil industry is still largely concentrated on international grounds with unstable governments. National security also becomes a concern in international oil trade. The military would like to prevent overseas conflicts caused by oil dependence. With the current adequate funding and elite research teams within the military, the race to find alternative energy could likely reside in military efforts.
The second main entity that will be responsible for innovative energy technology is university institutions. Similar to the military, elite American universities are equipped with research facilities and faculty who are passionate about climate change. Competition between universities will create a market incentive for the best alternative energy source. A tool that could be helpful in accelerating this process would be a competition with a lump sum prize. Something like the Google X-Prize foundation, which offers $30 million for the development of a spacecraft to explore the surface of the moon, could benefit the energy industry. In fact, President Obama’s State of the Union addressed the use of Google and other corporations in aiding the implementation of innovative technologies.
How many more disastrous weather storms will it take for climate change to become a top priority in the United States? Some progress has been made to alleviate climate change. However, the current climate action agenda is very limiting. Our current energy situation must change! In order to protect our future generations as Obama has prompted us to do, the US military and America’s universities will be the primary agents in discovering alternative energy sources.
I turn the lights on in the bathroom and a slight uneasiness settles over me. I go to Uncle Harry’s, at first excited to see the avocados available for purchase, but ultimately decide against it since they were grown in California. I need to buy shampoo and am in a hurry so I drive my car instead of walking, though I silently chastise myself for not planning ahead better.
I consider myself an environmentalist, however most days I do not feel I have earned that title. It can be very exhausting when everyday things most people don’t think twice about fundamentally challenge my convictions. Sometimes I make the decision that is best for the environment and sometimes I give into the ease of this carbon-powered life. Looking around though, I realize that many of these decisions are not truly free decisions for me or for anyone else to make, especially when it comes to energy.
65% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions are a product of burning fossil fuels in order to generate electricity, heat buildings, power vehicles, etc (1). We all use and depend on fossil fuels on a daily basis. However, the uncomfortable truth is that if we intend to limit the warming of the planet to the IPCC (International Panel on Climate Change) recommended 2°C, 60-80% of the current fossil fuel reserves held by the top fossil fuel companies must remain in the ground (2).
These sobering facts have helped launch fossil fuel divestment campaigns at over 500 colleges and universities across the nation (3). Thus far the majority response from administrators and university presidents at the country’s most prestigious academic institutions such as Harvard, Cornell and Brown, has been “No.” (4)
The most oft cited reasons that university presidents have given in support of their decision not to divest are 1) if universities sell their shares in the top 200 fossil fuel companies they lose their ability to influence those companies through shareholder advocacy, 2) it is hypocritical to divest from fossil fuels when we continue to rely on them in our daily lives, 3) divesting from fossil fuel companies could hurt the endowments’ returns.
In response to the first argument about shareholder advocacy, while it can be an effective way of creating change in regards to fossil fuel companies, their entire business model is based around finding, refining and burning more and more fossil fuels. In order to avoid climate disaster we need to see a major shift in how we produce energy. Shareholder advocacy might work for smaller changes such as fairer labor practices, but we need to send a message to fossil fuel companies that it is socially irresponsible for them to continue operating as they do at a very fundamental level.
Some people have argued that fossil fuel companies have made positive steps by investing in renewable energy projects. However, if you look at the numbers, the top fossil fuel companies have committed a very small portion of their budgets to developing renewable energy, and some have already started pulling out of renewable energy projects (5). But really the bottom line is, as long as fossil fuel companies continue to seek out new fossil fuel reserves, they are threatening the future of us all.
The second argument regarding the hypocrisy of divesting while we still depend on fossil fuels is quite flawed. Yes it is unfortunate that we are so dependent on fossil fuels, but we need to start somewhere. Fossil fuel companies are not going to change out of the goodness of their hearts. They need to be shown that people are serious about demanding change.
In our highly market-based economy, money is a powerful force. Removing one’s money from a company is a great way to demonstrate you do not support that company’s practices in a language they will understand loud and clear. Plus, it frees up money to invest in renewable energy projects and research to help speed along the energy transition!
The third argument that divesting from fossil fuels could hurt the endowment is incredibly short sighted. Pressure is already mounting against the fossil fuel companies, particularly the coal industry. The percentage of electricity produced in the US by burning coal is shrinking fast and coal assets are decreasing in price (6). As divestment campaigns continue to spread and gain traction, it is not unreasonable to think that the same fate awaits oil and gas, causing some financial analysts to warn of an impending “carbon bubble” (7).
Additionally as the demand for environmentally responsible investment portfolios increase, it will become easier and easier for major institutions to divest. Furthermore divesting from fossil fuels has the potential to improve endowment returns as a number of divested portfolios have enjoyed increased returns as compared to a typical portfolio including fossil fuels (8).
No one is saying that divesting from fossil fuels is going to be easy, but I can’t think of a better reason to try hard than to prevent massive climate disruption.
I’ve always loathed the either-or, true-false question that students are often frustrated with. That, however, is the kind of question I faced as a 14-year-old on a father-daughter whitewater-rafting trip through the Grand Canyon.
During the bus ride that brought my father and I to the launch point, we watched a video about the triumphs of whitewater-rafting pioneers as well as the woe in environmentalists’ inability to save Grand Canyon’s sister Glen Canyon from being dammed. The film’s before-and-after footage depicting the disappearance of Glen Canyon’s wispy hues toyed with my emotions, and I couldn’t imagine anything but the pristine canyon safeguarded from human profligacy. Nonetheless, a few hours later while the Colorado River licked the shore of our campsite, my father had the nerve to say he also would have dammed Glen Canyon since it provided people with water and hydropower. My anger at him waned after I realized that it was really directed towards the either-or extremes of the question at hand—leave the canyon entirely alone, or drown the ecosystem to meet human needs. Was there no middle ground?
This polarized question is inherent in the contemporary “hotspots strategy” for protecting organismal biodiversity, valued for medicinal opportunity, food and material provision, and protection from natural disaster. The policy, crafted by Norman Myers of the University of Oxford in 1988, funnels funding into “hotspots,” threatened regions that harbor high species “richness,” or large plant diversity. Today, Conservation International (CI) embraces 34 hotspots home to 50% of world plant species, hoping to protect them by establishing national parks and prohibiting human use and settlement.
CI’s track record has not been so hot, however. By cordoning off these areas, the policy pits humans’ wellbeing against nature’s. In fact, this tension is exacerbated by the fact that the 34 hotspots are also home to some of the most impoverished human populations in places like Burundi, Sierra Leone, and Somalia. Increasingly, with millions of already destitute people now estranged from their homes and income, governments have had to make some tough choices. For instance, in 2005 Kenya’s president Mwai Kibaki returned Amboseli National Park to its original Maasi inhabitants, a reflection of burgeoning discontent.
With more aid from the international community, the picture doesn’t get any better. When revealed in 2007, Ecuador’s ITT-Initiative to safeguard Amazonian rainforest from oil extraction was hailed by environmentalists as “unprecedented.” Ecuadorian President Correa promised protection and no drilling in parts of the Yasuni National Park hotspot on the condition that international donors would reimburse half of lost oil revenue. When the money failed to materialize this past August, however, Correa abandoned the initiative, opening the park up to the petroleum industry.
In addition to this notion of a vacillating pendulum incapable of finding a middle ground, the hotspots strategy is riddled with a spectrum of logistical concerns. For instance, the system exhibits a mismatch between species richness and endemism. A 2013 study analyzing the effectiveness of the hotspots approach and its species richness benchmark in the Southern Central Andes of Argentina discovered that only 19% of endemic species had half of their range protected. This was due to safeguarding the highest plant diversity regions in humid forests with little endemism while largely disregarding the less rich but highly endemic arid regions.
This incongruity causes the hotspots paradigm to neglect the world’s largest tropical desert, the Sahara. The locale’s low species richness renders it insignificant by hotspots standards; though the Sahara covers half of Africa’s landmass, it received only 12% of Global Environment Facility funding to Africa from 1991-2009. The result is that 12 of 14 large vertebrates endemic to the Sahara are considered by the IUCN Red List to be either extinct or in danger of extinction—a drastic blow to insight scientists can gleam about genetic bases to water stress and extreme temperatures.
Thus, what we need to both circumvent such shortcomings and create a middle ground in conservation is a shift in paradigm away from biodiversity hotspots. In order to augment public salience for conservation, we must emphasize ecosystems whose degradation affects human wellbeing—whether that includes such services as water filtration and climate regulation or food provision and inspiration, an “ecosystems services” approach championed by chief scientist at the Nature Conservancy Peter Kareiva. The answer thus lies not in alienating humans from the environment, but rather in establishing them as stakeholders in their communities. Sustainable use programs on a local level entailing reforestation, ecotourism, and even market-based approaches like transferable fish quotas can go a long way in transforming the otherwise either-or conservation question into a multi-faceted approach.
By Kerri Devine
As the winter holidays kick into full swing, we find our dining room tables disappearing beneath stockpiles of decadent dishes. Grandma’s honey-glazed ham, Mom’s famous hot crab dip, and Aunt Pat’s prize-winning apple pie have all been trademarks of the holiday spread for years and will most likely stay on the menu for years to come. We find comfort in the food we know and are oftentimes reluctant to make changes. Occasionally, the appetizer menu will accept a new recipe and the task of preparing the main dish will rotate, but we are ultimately creatures of habit. Should one relative refrain from eating animal products, she would be labeled the ‘hippie’ of the family. And if she were to suggest that all meat be removed from the table entirely? Hogwash.
And yet, the choice may not be ours to make perhaps within the next generation if we continue to rely on concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) to provide our meals. The food we eat is entirely unsustainable, plagued with antibiotic resistant microbes, and fueling global warming. There needs to be a fundamental shift in the way America feeds itself, and I do not subscribe to the belief that a cultural revolution will be the impetus for change. Strong political leadership must step into action and help open the eyes of the American people to the dangers of our factory farm dependency.
A factory farm is defined as a large-scale farming enterprise in which hundreds of thousands of animals are bred in extremely close quarters. The phenomenon was born out of the convenient alignment of the Green Revolution with the need to feed a booming population in the mid twentieth century. Coupled with increasingly meat-rich diets, factory farms have blossomed. Their prevalence is misleading however, as the problems associated with these operations are many. Let’s have a look at the facts.
- Factory-farmed beef requires twice as much fossil fuel energy input as pasture-reared beef.
- Livestock farming accounts for around 18% of global greenhouse gas emissions – more than the global transport sector.
- Livestock farming produces 65% of global nitrous oxide emissions (which are 298 times more potent than carbon dioxide emissions).
- Every 1 kg of meat produced on a CAFO requires an input of 90 bathtubs worth of water.
What’s more is that the industry is incredibly wasteful. Despite labeling itself as an efficient and modern means of providing meat to the masses, there are many hidden costs associated with standard operation. One large farm produces more raw waste than an entire U.S. city, with around a third of the nitrogen and phosphorous entering the country’s freshwaters coming from US livestock farming operations. Pig slurry is 75 times more polluting than raw domestic sewage, and is often concentrated in extremely small areas near aquifers and groundwater supplies. Overuse of antibacterials and hormones results in bioaccumulation. According to a February 2011 FDA report, nearly 29 million pounds of antimicrobials were sold in 2009 for both therapeutic and non-therapeutic use for all farm animal species.
Those 29 million pounds of drugs end up in our food, our drinking water, and the land. This heavy reliance and abuse of antibiotics is allowing for resistant strains of bacteria to proliferate through the food chain. In the first nationwide studyof meat on supermarket shelves, it was found that 47% was infected with strains of Staphylococcus aureus, with more than half of those resistant to antibacterial drugs.
The facts are startling, and yet as consumers we tend to find ways to rationalize away anything that disturbs us. For me, it was a simple choice to switch to a vegetarian lifestyle, but then again- I was the kid who fed her chicken and steak to the dog under the table anyway. My family, while supportive of my choice, has no interest in shying away from their chicken wings or prime rib. They simply say, “Good for you, but I like meat too much.” They have no interest in buying grass-fed meat or even organic food, which they label as a pricey scam. Consumers subscribe to the mentality of “what I don’t know won’t kill me” and thus choose to eat their disease-ridden, drug-stuffed protein in ignorant bliss.
As a result, we need to take the choice away from the consumer. Just as consumers can now no longer purchase products with CFCs as a result of protecting the ozone, consumers should no longer be able to buy factory-farmed meat in its current state. There needs to be major reform of the industry if we want to continue eating meat for generations to come. Very few industries enjoy the luxury of complete unregulated supply-and-demand enterprise from which CAFOs benefit. The meat industry capitalizes on its many exemptions to abuse its resources and the animals it rears. Despite that animal cruelty is illegal, most states have complete exemptions for animals meant for human consumption. These exemptions need to go. There needs to be more transparency from the industry, with explicit labels on food describing how the animal was reared, what drugs it received, and how it was killed. Grocery stores that choose to buy from local, non-CAFO suppliers should receive government subsidies and incentives. We need government support to enable sustainable farms to succeed and accelerate the inevitable destruction of CAFOs.
As we take time this holiday season to share in family and food, it is important that we think twice about the food we pick up from the super market. Do we really want to feed our loved ones global-warming causing soups of hormones and drugs? Support the local farms in your area in the spirit of the holidays, and help change the way America eats.