Thursday, February 28, 2008

Climate change? Bah. Humbug!

The 2008 International Conference On Climate Change (ICCC) that will convene in New York this weekend is definitely not what most of us have come to expect from a conference on this topic. Sponsored by The Heartland Institute, a national nonprofit research and education organization, it is a gathering of skeptics. The conference agenda makes it clear that organizers plan to attack the concept of climate change from every conceivable angle.

Heartland's mission is to discover, develop, and promote free-market solutions to social and economic problems. Such solutions include parental choice in education, choice and personal responsibility in health care, market-based approaches to environmental protection, privatization of public services, and deregulation in areas where property rights and markets do a better job than government bureaucracies. You can view the ICCC video promo on YouTube.

I know about this only because I came across a 3/4 page paid advertisement for the event in this Wednesday's New York Times. The ad included photographs of 23 of the 98 individuals scheduled to speak over the three days. I must admit I only recognized a few of them including Roy Innis, National Chairman of the Congress of Racial Equality and John Stossel, co-anchor on ABC-Tv's 20/20.

I guess there really are parallel universes. (GW)

Global Warming: Truth or Swindle?

International Conference On Climate Change
Sponsored by the Heartland Institute
Marriott New York Marquis Times Square Hotel
March 2-4

There is no consensus.

More than 400 scientists, economists, and experts will meet in New York on March 2-4 to challenge the claim that global warming is a "crisis." The include leading climatologists and experts from around the world. Fifty nonprofit organizations have come together to sponsor the event.

This event proves there is no scientific consensus on the causes or likely consequences of global warming.

Global Warming: Crisis or Scam?

The debate over whether human activity is responsible for some or all of the modern warming, and then what to do if our presence on Earth is indeed affecting the global climate, has enormous consequences for everyone in virtually all parts of the globe. Proposals to drive down human greenhouse gas emissions by raising energy costs or imposing draconian caps could dramatically affect the quality of life of people in developed countries, and, due to globalization, the lives of people in less-developed countries too.

The global warming debate that the public and policymakers usually see is one-sided, dominated by government scientists and government organizations agenda-driven to find data that suggest a human impact on climate and to call for immediate government action, if only to fund their own continued research, but often to achieve political agendas entirely unrelated to the science of climate change. There is another side, but in recent years it has been denied a platform from which to speak.

The 2008 International Conference on Climate Change promises to be an exciting event and the point of departure for future conferences, publications, and educational campaigns to present both sides of this important topic.

Conference Goals

The goals of the 2008 International Conference on Climate Change are:

  • to bring together the world’s leading scientists, economists, and policy experts to explain the often-neglected “other side” of the climate change debate;
  • to sponsor presentations and papers that make genuine contributions to the global debate over climate change;
  • to share the results of the conference with policymakers, civic and business leaders, and the interested public as an antidote to the one-sided and alarmist bias that pervades much of the current public policy debate; and
  • to set the groundwork for future conferences and publications that can turn the debate toward sound science and economics, and away from hype and political manipulation.

Attendance is limited to 500 people. Registration will be closed when that total is reached. Approximately 100 scientists, economists, and policy experts will participate as speakers and panelists. Admission is open to the public, but the following people are specifically urged to attend:

  • scientists, economists, and policy experts whose work has focused on some dimension of climate change, particularly challenging popular misconceptions about the causes, extent, and consequences of the modern warming
  • elected officials from all countries and at all levels of government who are grappling with legislative proposals being put forward in the name of “stopping global warming”
  • civic and business leaders, including the leaders of Chambers of Commerce, manufacturers associations, trade associations, foundations, and charities that have a voice or seek a voice in the current debate over climate change policies
  • publishers, editors, journalists, and free-lance writers who set editorial policy or write regularly on the debate over climate change science, economics, or politics.

Discounts for registration are available for journalists and students to encourage their attendance. Free admission and travel and hotel scholarships are available to elected officials, scientists, economists, and policy experts who are recommended by sponsors and track chairmen.

Please direct inquiries to James M. Taylor at Elected officials interested in attending should contact Trevor Martin, director of government relations for The Heartland Institute, at

After the Conference

The 2008 International Conference on Climate Change is the first major international conference questioning global warming alarmism, but it will not be the last one. This event is intended to be a catalyst for future meetings, collaboration among scientists, economists, and policy experts, new research, and new publications.

The proceedings will be transcribed, edited, and published as a major contribution to the debate over global warming. Other possible follow-up activities now being discussed include:

  • an event in London in 2009;
  • launch of a new journal devoted to climate change;
  • launch of an association of philanthropists willing to support further research and public education opposing global warming alarmism;
  • support for an International Climate Science Coalition that will act as an alternative voice to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change; and
  • expanded cooperation among the scores of organizations currently sponsoring research, publications, and events on the dubious claims in support of the theory of man-made catastrophic global warming.

Soaring wheat prices reach all-time high

Twenty-eight years ago I worked at a wonderful do-tank/appropriate technology incubator called the New Alchemy Institute -- a collection of scientists, activists, poets and practical philosophers committed to discovering environmentally sound approaches for providing food, energy and shelter. The feeling was that if individuals and communities could be empowered if they were able to gain some measure of control over meeting these basic needs.

Over the past couple of months news of oil prices hovering around the $100/barrel level, and a housing market in chaos have dominated the headlines. Today we learn that the third leg of the the basic needs stool is also in trouble. Wheat prices have reached $24 a bushel -- a record high. Don't forget that corn prices have also skyrocketed due to its use in the production of biofuels.

Trying to make sense of what's going on can be frustrating. Economists and Wall Street analysts say the way to drive down the high price of wheat is to raise the price even higher. Huh? That, you see, will encourage more farmers to plant wheat that will eventually glut the market and drive down prices.

Stephen A. Marglin thinks he knows what gives. His book "The Dismal Science: How Thinking Like an Economist Undermines Community" does provide an insightful perspective on all this. He argues (persuasively I submit) that the market operates under assumptions (half-truths if you will) that acknowledges the importance of the individual and the nation-state -- at the expense of community. Sadly, reality would seem to support his argument.

Two perspectives on this important development. One from The Christian Science Monitor, the other the Wall Street Journal's.(GW)

Wheat prices hit record high

The cost of March spring wheat hit $24 a bushel Monday, double its cost two months ago.

The Christian Science Monitor
February 28, 2008

Dressed in his white apron and baker's hat, Jose Espinal puts the finishing touches on a chicken pot pie that will be sold to customers of Cucina & Co. later in the day. He carefully places a crust on the pie and crimps the top and bottom together.

But to make the dough for about 300 pies, Mr. Espinal, the pastry chef, used 22 pounds of flour – an item that the store knows will soon be rising in price.

"I'm expecting it this week," says Michael Salmon, director of operations of Cucina, which is in Macy's in Manhattan. "Maybe 20 or 30 percent."

Why the increase? The prime ingredient in flour is wheat, which these days is acting more like oil – rising sharply on commodities exchanges. On Monday, the price of March spring wheat on the Minneapolis Grain Exchange shot up to $24 a bushel, the highest price ever. Within the past month, the price of some types of wheat has risen over 90 percent. Already, agricultural experts say, it's getting hard to find the type of wheat used to make pasta, noodles, pizza, and bagels.

"Supplies of some types of wheat will be extremely tight," says economist William Lapp, president of Advanced Economic Solutions in Omaha, Neb. "I don't think we'll see physical bread lines, but supplies will be just tight."

Companies that use wheat say they are overwhelmed by the sharp rise and have little choice but to pass on at least part of the increase to consumers. Flour manufacturers, for example, are raising prices by at least 30 percent or more. Since the beginning of the year, bread in the supermarket has risen anywhere from 10 to 30 cents a loaf.

Overall, in January, consumer food prices were up 4.9 percent in comparison with January 2007. Cereal and baked goods rose 5.5 percent. Some items went up even more: Dairy products increased 12.8 percent and fruits and vegetables 6.1 percent.

Rising food prices, combined with escalating energy prices and falling home prices, are putting a squeeze on consumers' pocketbooks. A drop in discretionary spending is one reason that economists are increasingly worried about the economy moving into a recession.

Rising food prices also make it difficult for the Federal Reserve, which has to balance rising inflation with a slowing economy.

Yet despite the recent rise in food prices, over a longer period of time, spending on food as a percentage of household income has been declining, points out Michael Rizzo, senior economist at the American Institute for Economic Research (AIER) in Great Barrington, Mass. For example, in 1970, food represented 19.3 percent of household expenditures. By 2006, it had shrunk to 12.6 percent.

"One of the reasons for the decline is the huge increase in productivity: It's become less expensive for the farmer to produce food," he says. "Even among the poorest, the share of their budget going to food purchases is at an all-time low."

Still, there is no doubt that over the short term, products made with wheat will rise in price. Because of the weak dollar and poor harvests abroad, exports of US wheat are up 30 percent this year. It hasn't helped that some parts of Kansas and Oklahoma have had drought conditions. At the same time, some farmers have shifted crops from wheat to corn and soybeans to take advantage of demand for biofuels.

"This has been a very unique year," says Steve Mercer, a spokesman for US Wheat Associates, which promotes American exports of the grain.

In fact, US stocks of wheat are now at their lowest level in 60 years. By the time the June harvest of spring wheat begins, there will be 27 days of wheat left in storage, estimates the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). (The normal supply is three months.)

"We think it's a dire situation," says Lee Sanders, senior vice president for government relations for the American Bakers Association, a lobbying group, which has asked its members to brief members of Congress on March 12. The group has also set up meetings with Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer and the White House. Their goal is to free up land that has been put aside for conservation purposes.

While Washington debates, the impact of rising wheat prices is already being felt on many levels. Wegmans, a grocery chain based in Rochester, N.Y., says it has raised prices on packaged breads from 10 to 50 cents. Prices have also gone up on cakes mixes, crackers, cookies, and cereal. "We have absorbed some price increases, but at a point, you have to charge more," says Jo Natale, a spokeswoman for the grocer.

The flour that consumers use to do their own baking is also going up in price. Last October, King Arthur Flour, a producer of premium flour based in Norwich, Vt., raised prices by 12 percent. It just announced another price increase – of 46 percent – for grocery stores and retailers effective April 1. It has tried to explain the price hikes to its customers on its website.

"My biggest worry is the consumer," says Michael Bittel, the company's general manager. "It will take three years of top-notch crops that exceed demand and refill stocks."

Some bakeries say they're having trouble getting some products. In Brookline, Mass., the Clear Flour Bakery has worked hard to introduce whole-grain German rye bread to its customers. But now, it can't get hold of the rye.

"It's frustrating after building up the market that for three weeks in a row, we have not had it," says Abe Faber, co-owner of the bakery and a board member of the Bread Bakers Guild of America.

Wheat growers say the best cure for high prices is .... high prices, since they will prompt farmers to plant more wheat. Last week, the USDA estimated that would happen in the next growing season.

Unfortunately, many US farmers won't benefit from the current prices since they won't have a crop until June or July. "The vast majority have not been able to benefit," says John Thaemert, president of the National Association of Wheat Growers and also a farmer in Sylvan Grove, Kan.

He ticks off how the farmer has been hit by higher energy costs and fertilizer expenses. "We've had seven years of drought, people questioning my sanity while we're out here busting our buns," he says. "Now, there is the possibility of healing some of the hurt, paying some bills, and hopefully bringing another generation into farming."

In his part of Kansas, there has been good moisture this winter. He hopes to do all he can to produce wheat for the markets. "We've had some rain and a foot of snow. It was just beautiful," he says.

Markets on Tear: Wheat, Oil, Euro; Grain Trading Explodes In the Minneapolis Pits; Speculators Flood In

By Lauren Etter
Wall Street Journal
February 27, 2008

The little-known Minneapolis Grain Exchange is suddenly one of the hottest spots in the global financial markets as the price of its flagship commodity -- the wheat used to make bread and pizza crust -- shatters records, enriching farmers and fueling fears about shortages.

"We're up here doing things in the wheat market we've never done before," says Rich Feltes, senior vice president and director of commodity research at MF Global. "It's absolutely mind-boggling."

Yesterday, wheat closed at $22.40 a bushel on the Minneapolis Grain Exchange, up from about $5 a year ago. Monday, the price of the hard red spring wheat that trades in Minneapolis closed at a record $24 a bushel, touching $25 during intraday trade.

Ordinarily, the Chicago Board of Trade dominates the wheat market, but that changed in January when the U.S. Department of Agriculture said winter-wheat plantings were less than expected. That put pressure on the next wheat crop in the ground, the hard red spring wheat that trades on the 126-year-old Minneapolis exchange.

So Minneapolis has become ground zero for the global wheat shortage, which has been caused by drought in Australia and poor weather in other grain-producing countries. Global stocks are projected to reach 30-year lows this year, while U.S. stocks will reach 60-year lows, according to figures from the Agriculture Department.

In the trading pit, floor traders say they are in disbelief as records get tested daily. The worry among traders is that prices have gone up too far and the market could collapse.

Average daily trading volume on the Minneapolis exchange soared to about 9,600 contracts traded this year, from about 6,800 a year earlier, according to the exchange. The contracts include spring wheat futures, options and indexes, but are primarily spring wheat futures, according to the exchange. The relatively limited trading in Minneapolis (on average, more than 123,000 contracts trade daily in Chicago) may have helped drive up prices.

"This is unprecedented volatility that we're seeing," says Mark Bagan, chief executive of the Minneapolis Grain Exchange. "With the volatility, there are more opportunities than ever...but people are very cautious about what they're doing."

As one of the last independent futures exchanges, the Minneapolis exchange's seat prices have risen sharply over the past two years. Investors have been snapping up seats, thinking the exchange is a takeover candidate.

Higher prices are likely to entice farmers to plant more wheat, along with corn and soybeans. Prices for those commodities are up in part because of demand for biofuels, and those higher prices led to more planting. Already, farmers are ramping up acreage in all of the major crops. Corn, soybean and wheat combined will reach 225 million acres this year, the highest since 1984, according to the USDA.

World wheat production could reach a record high this year, assuming weather is amenable. In the U.S., wheat acreage is expected to increase to 64 million acres, up from about 60 million aces last year. Still, the increased supply isn't expected to allow carry-over stocks to recover much, because supply has been drained so low.

"The market's doing its job trying to ensure that supplies are being built back up," says Jim Peterson, marketing director at the North Dakota Wheat Commission. "Sometimes, it takes awhile."

Dean Stoskopf, chairman of the Kansas Wheat Commission, grows about 1,000 acres of wheat in central Kansas. He said the surge in wheat prices last year came after most producers had sold their crops. This year, he is hoping to take advantage of the soaring prices to pay off debt and buy equipment such as a combine and a sprayer.

The rising wheat prices have "given us tremendous opportunity here for the next year," Mr. Stoskopf said.

The rise in agricultural prices, combined with high oil prices (crude futures closed above $100 a barrel yesterday) have contributed to higher food inflation in the U.S. and around the world. Last year, U.S. food prices increased 4% from the year before level, the highest level since 1990.

Helping drive up grain prices are speculators flooding the market, looking to park their money in places not tied to the stock market. Traditionally, agriculture commodities have a low correlation with interest rates, stocks and foreign-exchange markets.

Another byproduct of the rally by wheat and other grains is that food is becoming more politicized as countries dependent on food imports fear they will be left at the mercy of volatile markets and shrinking supplies. Such a development could exacerbate hunger while generating food riots or political problems at home.

To cope with high prices, countries have been rationing supplies by leveling tariffs or taxes on grain exports. Kazakhstan said Monday that it would impose custom duties on its exports. Jordan has been scouring world markets for wheat so it can build its domestic grain reserves to a six-month supply. Syria recently canceled some of its wheat export contracts. In turn, an Egyptian newspaper editorial accused Syria of "using wheat as a weapon" in diplomatic talks. Pakistan recently stopped exporting some of its wheat flour to Afghanistan.

Five of the world's wheat-producing nations -- Russia, Kazakhstan, Ukraine, Argentina and China -- have taken some wheat off the world market to address supply shortfalls at home. Those countries account for about a third of the global wheat trade, according to MF Global's Mr. Feltes.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Swaying without tilting in wind and deep water

Wind energy will have to play a pivotal role in any successful strategy to mitigate global climate change. For the past decade it has been the fastest growing source of electricity in the world. Until recently most wind energy systems have been developed on land. Beginning in 1990 wind turbines began to migrate offshore where the winds are generally stronger and steadier.

Technology has limited the development of offshore wind projects to shallow water sites (up to 50 feet). In the United States offshore shallow water sites free of conflicts with other uses are far and few between. Deeper water sites are plentiful but pose formidable engineering challenges.

Pioneering wind engineer William Heronemus anticipated these opportunities and challenges while teaching at the University of Massachusetts.
He was the first to identify the potential of offshore wind off the coast of New England. In the 1970's he designed floating platforms capable of supporting multiple wind turbines.

The notion of offshore wind was, as you can imagine, originally dismissed. Floating wind turbines were considered outrageous if not just completely ignored.

The concept of floating wind turbines is now being taken very seriously -- especially given the rising cost of steel and other materials. Sway Systems is one company that has accepted this design challenge head-on. There are and will be others. (GW)

Deep-Water Wind: In the Wind, Out of Sight

By Philip Proefrock
February 25, 2008

A lot of EcoGeeks think that there is a beauty to wind turbines, even beyond their ability to provide emissions-free energy. But to others, wind turbines are an eyesore. A Norwegian company called Sway is developing a deepwater system that will allow turbines to be situated farther out to sea where winds can be steadier and stronger, and where the turbines are hidden from all save a few passing ships. "The SWAY® system is a floating foundation capable of supporting a 5MW wind turbine in water depths from 80m to more than 300m in some of the world's roughest offshore locations." This could allow wind farms to be farther off shore where they would be out of sight.

Off-shore wind turbines have needed to be situated in relatively shallow waters to be able to have sufficient footings to anchor and support them. This new deep-water turbine uses a floating tower to support the turbine, and is anchored to the sea bed with a single tension rod. Because the turbine body floats itself, the rod only needs to help the structure resist the forces of wind and waves, but does not need to support the entire structure.

The SWAY concept, which is covered by several patents, is based on a floating elongated pole extending far below the water surface with ballast at the bottom part. Since the center of gravity in this manner is placed far below the center of buoyancy the tower has sufficient stability to resist the large loads and weight from the wind turbine placed on top of the tower.

The more compelling part of the Sway system is that it keeps the tower upright against the wind forces that would otherwise overturn it. (The wind pressure on the rotor for a 5MW turbine is approximately 60 tons.) The Sway tower maintains a nearly vertical configuration, and only tilts less than 1 degree from its equilibrium position in storm conditions so as not to lose power.

There is some added cost in situating these turbines further from shore and from the end energy users. But the tradeoff with political acceptability and availability of wind may make these turbines more than useful for providing wind power. Sway wind-power towers could also be used near off-shore oil and gas rigs, and provide clean power for their operation, instead of the diesel generators these platforms utilize presently.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Buy design

Having survived the "me-generation", environmental consciousness is once again capturing the hearts and minds of a new generation of young adults. And none too soon. The planet could use some fresh recruits in the battle to mitigate climate change.

Today's environmentally conscious youth like to dress well and live comfortably. A new web site called the ecosocialite aims to prove that these goals are not at odds with one another. Environmentally sound design can be beautiful, cool -- even hip.

Bucky Fuller was convinced that design and beauty are intimately linked. Well designed artifacts, be they buildings, automobiles, furniture or clothes are inherently beautiful. By using sustainable production processes this new generation of designers can create beautiful products, realize profits and make a difference in the world. (GW)

Welcome to the Ecosocialite

By the Urban Socialite
February 25, 2008

It has occurred to me recently that I’ve been posting a lot about socially conscious and environmentally conscious deisgners. The e-mail response to these posts has been overwhelmingly positive. I know there are a lot of eco-friendly sites out there, at the same time, I know there are a lot of fashion sites out there as well. My new site, ecosocialite seeks to bridge the gap between the worlds and create a place where you, Urban Socialite readers, can get consistently great posts about responsible designers. It’s in the beginning stages here and of course I welcome feedback from all of you as to the direction of the site. I also welcome input from designers for t-shirt and logo design. I actually had a real web designer work on the site, so I have more freedom with the overall look of the site, plus cool extras like shopping cart capability. Definitely check out the site and I look forward to your feedback!

A Noah’s Ark of food

Update: On February 3rd I posted a story on the Svalbard Global Seed Vault -- a repository for the world's crop varieties -- by Brian Walsh that ran in Time Magazine. At the time seeds were being delivered but the vault was not officially operative.

Well the vault opened for business this past weekend. Two days ahead of schedule.

Feeling more secure are you? (GW)

Arctic ‘Doomsday Vault’ Filled With World’s Seeds Comes to Life

by Pierre-Henry Deshayes
Agence France Presse
February 24, 2008

An Arctic “doomsday vault” filled with samples of the world’s most important seeds will be inaugurated in Norway today.

The vault aims to provide humankind with a Noah’s Ark of food in the event of a global catastrophe.

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso and Nobel Peace Prize winning environmentalist Wangari Matai will be among the personalities present at the inauguration of the vault, which has been carved into the permafrost of a remote Arctic mountain, just 1000km from the North Pole.

The vault, made up of three spacious cold chambers each measuring 27m by 10m, creates a long trident-shaped tunnel bored into the sandstone and limestone.

It has the capacity to hold up to 4.5 million batches of seeds from all known varieties of the planet’s main food crops, making it possible to re-establish plants if they disappear from their natural environment or are obliterated by major disasters.

“The facility is built to hold twice as many varieties of agricultural crops as we think exist,” explained Cary Fowler, executive director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust and project mastermind.

“It will not be filled up in my lifetime, nor in my grandchildren’s lifetime,” he predicted.

Norway has assumed the €6 million ($9.6m) charge for building the vault in its Arctic archipelago of Svalbard, where ironically no crops grow.

Secured behind an airlock door, the three airtight chambers have the capacity to house duplicates of samples from all the world’s more than 1400 existing seed banks.

Many of the more vulnerable seed banks have begun contributing to the “doomsday vault” collection, but some of the world’s biodiversity has already disappeared, with gene vaults in both Iraq and Afghanistan destroyed by war and a seed bank in the Philippines annihilated by a typhoon.

By the time of the inauguration, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault should hold some 250,000 samples, which will remain the property of their countries of origin.

Pakistan and Kenya, both undergoing periods of serious unrest, have sent seed collections, while samples sent from Colombia have been closely scrutinised by police to avoid the project becoming a vehicle for drug trafficking.

“I’ve been working in this field for 30 years and I thought I knew at least all the crops,” Mr Fowler said.

After receiving a list of all the different seeds in the vault, however, “I must admit there are a number of crops I’ve never heard of before”, he said.

That’s a spectacular amount of diversity for Svalbard, where no trees can grow due to the permafrost and where the mercury plummets to an average 14C below zero in winter.

The Norwegian archipelago, which is home to some 2300 people, was selected not despite but because of its inhospitable climate, as well as its remote location far from civil strife.

The seeds of wheat, maize, oats and other crops will be stored at a constant temperature of minus 18C Celsius, and even if the freezer system fails the permafrost will ensure that temperatures never rise above 3.5C below freezing.

“Svalbard really met all the criteria,” Mr Fowler said.

Protected by high walls of fortified concrete, an armoured door, a sensor alarm and the native polar bears that roam the region, the “doomsday vault” has been built 130m above current sea level - high enough that it would not flood if the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets melt entirely due to global warming.

The concrete cocoon has also been built to withstand nuclear missile attacks or a plunging plane, something that could come in handy in light of the 6.4-scale tremor - the biggest earthquake in Norway’s history - registered near the archipelago on Thursday.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Can sustainable construction help China meet its environmental goals?

China's historic migration may prove to be the ultimate test for advocates ans practitioners of sustainable development. Time has run out for theories and debates. According to Josh Adams in the following article from Asian Times, as many as 10 million people are expected to relocate from China’s countryside to urban areas every year for the next 20 years!

China's explosive growth -- and the way that the U.S. and the rest of the world respond to it -- could very well be the story of the 21st century. Consequently, a lot of attention is being focused on Dongtan, China's highly touted "eco-city of the future". If it's for real it could spark a revolution in urban design. On the other hand, if it turns out to be mostly hype, it may not be too soon to be thinking about building that ark. (GW)

China's green race against urban surge

By Josh Adams
Asian Times
February 23, 2008

BEIJING - Every year for the next 20 years, up to 10 million people will move from China’s countryside to urban areas. This unprecedented migration will place huge demands on existing cities, and on the environment. On average, Chinese city dwellers use three times more energy than their rural counterparts, and by 2020 China will account for 16% of the world’s total energy consumption. This is a prospect that is causing serious concern, both inside and outside China.

If China follows the historic trends of the West as it develops, residential and commercial building energy consumption could soon skyrocket to account for a third of the nation’s total energy use. If coal, China’s most abundant fossil fuel, continues to supply most of the country’s energy needs, and China’s buildings continue to multiply and consume energy as they do now, the resultant increase in the country’s carbon dioxide emissions will dwarf any reductions achieved elsewhere.

Many individuals, organizations and the Chinese government feel that a committed drive toward sustainability is the only way that China can reduce the size of its ever-expanding environmental footprint. For years, the most widely bandied piece of eco-jargon in the field of corporate social responsibility, "sustainability", has been all about preserving the world’s natural resources and environment for future generations.

Since China won the bid to hold the 2008 Olympics, renewed vigor in learning about sustainability has abounded in Chinese circles, not least because Beijing has vowed to make the August Games the most technologically advanced and environmentally sustainable to date. In China’s current Five Year Plan (2006-2010), the government has tried to turn away from growth-driven policies toward sustainable development, demonstrating the desire of the country’s leaders to address the country’s dire environmental problems.

One of the key objectives of the plan is to reduce the amount of energy required to produce a unit gross domestic product (GDP) by 20%, and China’s total discharge of carbon dioxide by 10%. As the country urgently needs to erect 100 million more homes, and huge numbers of office blocks are in the urban pipeline, it’s obvious that new construction will have to go green in a big way if these targets are going to be realized. With over 2 billion square meters of new Chinese floorspace added last year alone, the challenge is daunting.

Sustainable construction in China, as in many other countries, is still in its infancy and faces many obstacles. To most real estate developers caught in the construction gold rush, the game is about erecting second-rate buildings as quickly and profitably as possible. Although China has 11 "eco-city" projects under construction and 140 building projects, few foreign experts feel these projects would pass a genuine international green test - involving low energy use, low cost, recycling water systems and "intelligent" integrated design and materials.

One of China’s most vaunted sustainable building projects is the eco-city of Dongtan, being built on the Manhattan-sized island of Chongming in the mouth of the Yangtze River, just north of Shanghai. According to Arup, the UK firm that designed Dongtan, and which is also working on a range of other high-profile China-based projects, the city’s population will swell from a few farmers and fishermen today to 80,000 by 2020, and up to 400,000 by 2050.

The delicate nature of Dongtan’s virtually pristine ecosystem has been one of the driving factors behind the city’s design. Arup plans to enhance the existing environment by returning agricultural land to its former wetland state, thereby creating a "buffer zone" between humans and nature and increasing biodiversity. By implementing the latest green building technology, Dongtan’s buildings will run entirely on renewable energy, and the city is expected to recover, recycle and reuse 90% of all its waste.

Opinion is still divided over whether Dongtan really will be as green as it claims. Dan Ilett, editor of London-based Greenbang magazine, comments, "Anyone who claims to be able to build a sustainable city had better be sure they know what they’re talking about, and there are still a lot of questions that need to be answered. Everyone knows the Chinese government doesn’t have such a great track record when it comes to the environment, and it’s entirely possible Dongtan is just another case of 'greenwashing' on a mammoth scale."

Other critics claim that local planners are more concerned with raising Dongtan’s profitability than ensuring sustainable development, and that the expensive eco-housing due to be built will force locals out and bring China’s wealthy elite in. Peter Head, the Arup director overseeing Dongtan, counters, "In order to be sustainable socially and economically, the city will need to be populated by a wide range of demographics. We don’t yet know how the residents will be selected as this is under the jurisdiction of the Shanghai and Chongming Island Governments. However, 30% of accommodation in the city will certainly be affordable housing."

Head continues, "The sustainable development model developed by the Shanghai Industrial Investment Corporation (SIIC) and Arup for Dongtan is directly relevant to cities, both new and old, around the world. Our intention is to create a sustainable, resource-efficient and culturally rich environment, a blueprint for sustainable urban development across China." Arup, SIIC, HSBC Bank and Sustainable Development Capital LLP (SDCL) have just formed a consortium to develop a funding model for Chinese eco-cities, and have helped found the Dongtan Institute for Sustainability at Shanghai’s Tongji University.

Despite the latent skepticism over large-scale projects like Dongtan, the trend toward sustainable buildings in China is nevertheless gaining momentum. In November 2005, the US Green Building Council (USGBC), an American NGO, presented awards to 10 Chinese real estate developers and government leaders for their "pioneering work in transforming the world’s largest building industry". The developers, representing some of China’s largest construction companies, had one thing in common: they were the first private sector companies to pursue the USGBC’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification.

The LEED Green Building Rating System is the internationally accepted benchmark for the design, construction and operation of high performance green buildings. It promotes a whole-building approach to sustainability by recognizing performance in five key areas of human and environmental health - sustainable site development, water savings, energy efficiency, materials selection and indoor environmental quality.

In 2003, the Century Prosper Center, a 150,000 square meter twin office tower in Beijing’s CBD, was the first large commercial project in China to be registered for LEED. Another milestone was reached in 2005 when the Coastal Greenland Group took the decision to seek LEED for Neighborhood Development (LEED ND) registration for a large mixed-use development, also in Beijing. In total there are now 50 construction projects across China that have applied for LEED certification.

There are plenty of people on hand to give China advice and financial help in the sustainability arena. Starting in 2002, and supported by the US Department of Energy, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), another American NGO, began work with the Chinese Ministry of Science and Technology (MoST) on constructing the Agenda 21 Energy-Efficient Office Building in Beijing. This "living building", which uses 70% less energy than similar government buildings and saves 10,000 tons of water a year through rainwater collection, is now finished, and was the first building in China to receive an LEED Gold rating in 2006.

George Bialecki, founder of the American NGO Alternative Energy Builders (AEB), feels energy efficiency is the area where green homes and offices can bring the biggest benefits in China. He comments, "Now there is a debate over which causes more pollution - a home or a car. Even applying conservative estimates and using a ratio of 1:1, we can see that if China’s next 100 million homes are green, with drastically reduced energy requirements, then we are preventing a pollution increase equivalent to that caused by 100 million new cars. This, in itself, would be an incredible achievement."

As part of a project authorized by China’s Ministry of Construction in 2003, the AEB is involved in construction of Future House USA, a showcase sustainable house being built on a site outside Beijing, along with eco-houses from seven other countries.

Changing ingrained behavior is always slow, and it’s too early to say whether sustainable construction can really help China meet its environmental goals. Eyes will remain focused on high-profile projects like Dongtan to see how the government’s green rhetoric fits in with the nation’s concern with economic development. Despite the many problems to be faced, however, it’s hoped that Chinese developers will gradually come to appreciate that sustainable construction is a true win-win proposition, and that making money and saving the planet don’t have to be mutually exclusive.

Josh Adams is a freelance writer and photographer who has lived in Beijing for the last two years.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

“I have the same feelings about wind as I had about the best oil field I ever found”

For all of you who think the nation's strongest advocates for wind energy are maturing counterculturalists from the 1960's, wait a second. Take a look at what's going on in Texas.

Government officials in Texas are taking wind energy very seriously. So are many (current and former) oil developers and investors. The Lone Star State leads the nation in installed wind energy and wind turbines now provide Texas with three percent of its electricity needs.

Surprisingly, while the primary impetus behind the development of wind energy has been it's importance as a source of clean energy that does not produce greenhouse gas emissions, it can be argued that Texans have embraced wind as much (if not more) because of economics. (GW)

Move Over, Oil, There’s Money in Texas Wind

SWEETWATER, Tex. — The wind turbines that recently went up on Louis Brooks’s ranch are twice as high as the Statue of Liberty, with blades that span as wide as the wingspan of a jumbo jet. More important from his point of view, he is paid $500 a month apiece to permit 78 of them on his land, with 76 more on the way.

“That’s just money you’re hearing,” he said as they hummed in a brisk breeze recently.

Texas, once the oil capital of North America, is rapidly turning into the capital of wind power. After breakneck growth the last three years, Texas has reached the point that more than 3 percent of its electricity, enough to supply power to one million homes, comes from wind turbines.

Texans are even turning tapped-out oil fields into wind farms, and no less an oilman than Boone Pickens is getting into alternative energy.

“I have the same feelings about wind,” Mr. Pickens said in an interview, “as I had about the best oil field I ever found.” He is planning to build the biggest wind farm in the world, a $10 billion behemoth that could power a small city by itself.

Wind turbines were once a marginal form of electrical generation. But amid rising concern about greenhouse gases from coal-burning power plants, wind power is booming. Installed wind capacity in the United States grew 45 percent last year, albeit from a small base, and a comparable increase is expected this year.

At growth rates like that, experts said, wind power could eventually make an important contribution to the nation’s electrical supply. It already supplies about 1 percent of American electricity, powering the equivalent of 4.5 million homes. Environmental advocates contend it could eventually hit 20 percent, as has already happened in Denmark. Energy consultants say that 5 to 7 percent is a more realistic goal in this country.

The United States recently overtook Spain as the world’s second-largest wind power market, after Germany, with $9 billion invested last year. A recent study by Emerging Energy Research, a consulting firm in Cambridge, Mass., projected $65 billion in investment from 2007 to 2015.

Despite the attraction of wind as a nearly pollution-free power source, it does have limitations. Though the gap is closing, electricity from wind remains costlier than that generated from fossil fuels. Moreover, wind power is intermittent and unpredictable, and the hottest days, when electricity is needed most, are usually not windy.

The turbines are getting bigger and their blades can kill birds and bats. Aesthetic and wildlife issues have led to opposition emerging around the country, particularly in coastal areas like Cape Cod. Some opposition in Texas has cropped up as well, including lawsuits to halt wind farms that were thought to be eyesores or harmful to wetlands.

But the opposition has been limited, and has done little to slow the rapid growth of wind power in Texas. Some Texans see the sleek new turbines as a welcome change in the landscape.

“Texas has been looking at oil and gas rigs for 100 years, and frankly, wind turbines look a little nicer,” said Jerry Patterson, the Texas land commissioner, whose responsibilities include leasing state lands for wind energy development. “We’re No. 1 in wind in the United States, and that will never change.”

Texas surpassed California as the top wind farm state in 2006. In January alone, new wind farms representing $700 million of investment went into operation in Texas, supplying power sufficient for 100,000 homes.

Supporters say Texas is ideal for wind-power development, not just because it is windy. It also has sparsely populated land for wind farms, fast-growing cities and a friendly regulatory environment for developers.

“Texas could be a model for the entire nation,” said Patrick Woodson, a senior development executive with E.On, a German utility operating here.

The quaint windmills of old have been replaced by turbines that stand as high as 20-story buildings, with blades longer than a football field and each capable of generating electricity for small communities. Powerful turbines are able to capture power even when the wind is relatively weak, and they help to lower the cost per kilowatt hour.

Much of the boom in the United States is being driven by foreign power companies with experience developing wind projects, including Iberdrola of Spain, Energias de Portugal and Windkraft Nord of Germany. Foreign companies own two-thirds of the wind projects under construction in Texas.

A short-term threat to the growth of wind power is the looming expiration of federal clean-energy tax credits, which Congress has allowed to lapse several times over the years. Advocates have called for extending those credits and eventually enacting a national renewable-power standard that would oblige states to expand their use of clean power sources.

A longer-term problem is potential bottlenecks in getting wind power from the places best equipped to produce it to the populous areas that need electricity. The part of the United States with the highest wind potential is a corridor stretching north from Texas through the middle of the country, including sparsely populated states like Montana and the Dakotas. Power is needed most in the dense cities of the coasts, but building new transmission lines over such long distances is certain to be expensive and controversial.

“We need a national vision for transmission like we have with the national highway system,” said Robert Gramlich, policy director for the American Wind Energy Association. “We have to get over the hump of having a patchwork of electric utility fiefdoms.”

Texas is better equipped to deal with the transmission problems that snarl wind energy in other states because a single agency operates the electrical grid and manages the deregulated utility market in most of the state.

Last July, the Texas Public Utility Commission approved transmission lines across the state capable of delivering as much as 25,000 megawatts of wind energy by 2012, presuming the boom continues. That would be five times the wind power generated in the state today, and it would drive future national growth.

Shell and the TXU Corporation are planning to build a 3,000-megawatt wind farm north of here in the Texas Panhandle, leapfrogging two FPL Energy Texas wind farms to become the biggest in the world.

Not to be outdone, Mr. Pickens is planning his own 150,000-acre Panhandle wind farm of 4,000 megawatts that would be even larger and cost him $10 billion.

“I like wind because it’s renewable and it’s clean and you know you are not going to be dealing with a production decline curve,” Mr. Pickens said. “Decline curves finally wore me out in the oil business.”

At the end of 2007, Texas ranked No. 1 in the nation with installed wind power of 4,356 megawatts (and 1,238 under construction), far outdistancing California’s 2,439 megawatts (and 165 under construction). Minnesota and Iowa came in third and fourth with almost 1,300 megawatts each (and 46 and 116 under construction, respectively).

Iowa, Minnesota, Colorado and Oregon, states with smaller populations than Texas, all get 5 to 8 percent of their power from wind farms, according to estimates by the American Wind Energy Association.

It has dawned on many Texans in recent years that wind power, whatever its other pros and cons, represents a potent new strategy for rural economic development.

Since the wind boom began a few years ago, the total value of property here in Nolan County has doubled, and the county judge, Tim Fambrough, estimated it would increase an additional 25 percent this year. County property taxes are going down, home values are going up and the county has extra funds to remodel the courthouse and improve road maintenance.

“Wind reminds us of the old oil and gas booms,” Mr. Fambrough said.

Teenagers who used to flee small towns like Sweetwater after high school are sticking around to take technical courses in local junior colleges and then work on wind farms. Marginal ranches and cotton farms are worth more with wind turbines on them.

“I mean, even the worst days for wind don’t compare to the busts in the oil business,” said Bobby Clark, a General Electric wind technician who gave up hauling chemicals in the oil fields southwest of here to live and work in Sweetwater. “I saw my daddy go from rags to riches and back in the oil business, and I sleep better.”

Wind companies are remodeling abandoned buildings, and new stores, hotels and restaurants have opened around this old railroad town.

Dandy’s Western Wear, the local cowboy attire shop, cannot keep enough python skin and cowhide boots in stock because of all the Danes and Germans who have come to town to invest and work in the wind fields, then take home Texas souvenirs.

“Wind has invigorated our business like you wouldn’t believe,” said Marty Foust, Dandy’s owner, who recently put in new carpeting and air-conditioning. “When you watch the news you can get depressed about the economy, but we don’t get depressed. We’re now in our own bubble.”

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Redrawing the economic map of the oceans

The world's oceans seem to be taking hits from just about every conceivable direction these days: global climate change, over fishing, pollution -- you name it. Now the Wall Street Journal reports on an activity going on, fairly unnoticed that has major implications for the oceans and the global economy as well.

A part-time commission of geoscientists is in the final process of determining how the sea floor beneath the world's oceans will be divided up among nations for the purpose of exploiting its rich mineral resources. What's truly amazing is that the members of this commission admit that they are not up to the task!

One of my very favorite singer/songwriters Tom Waits wrote a song entitled " God's Away on Business". In today's unfolding geopolitical theater of the absurd he offers what may be the most plausible explanation for what's going on . (GW)

Board of Scientists Is Swamped By Claims for Rich Sea Floors

By Robert Lee Hotz
Wall Street Journal
February 22, 2008

Few people know of Alexandre Albuquerque. The 67-year-old retired Brazilian naval commander slips in and out of New York several times a year, unnoticed among dignitaries and tourists around the United Nations Plaza. There, in a windowless fourth-floor conference room, he works in secrecy to redraw the economic map of the oceans.

An expert in maritime boundaries, Mr. Albuquerque is brokering the largest peacetime expansion of national territories in modern memory, encompassing millions of square miles of potentially rich reserves of oil, gas and minerals on unclaimed coastal sea floor. As international legal deadlines come due next year, economic ambitions in up to 60 countries ride on his technical acumen -- and limited time.

Mr. Albuquerque is the new chairman of the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf, a part-time group of 21 geoscientists from around the world who serve as sole referee for coastal sea-floor claims brought under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea.

Already, the commission has more than it can handle. It expects as many as 50 new sea-floor claims to be filed by the May 2009 submission deadline for many treaty signatories. (The U.S. hasn't signed the Law of the Sea convention.) Those claims may take decades to settle, with trillions of dollars in untapped mineral resources held in abeyance.

The commission has pressed in vain for more funding to review so much new data. The delays are "not fair to the coastal states," says Mr. Albuquerque.

"We are part-timers; we have other jobs," adds commissioner Peter Croker, an Irish petroleum expert and former chairman who helped to prepare Ireland's Law of the Sea claim. "Are we up to the task? Not really, to be honest."

At Mr. Albuquerque's conference table, science substitutes for gunboat diplomacy. Rising to greet a recent visitor, Mr. Albuquerque -- 6 feet, 2 inches tall with curly white hair -- smiles discreetly. It is a measure of his delicate position that, in granting a rare interview as chairman, Mr. Albuquerque has to be circumspect about his work. He is bound by the treaty that employs him to keep commission proceedings and details of claims confidential.

Mr. Albuquerque is by training a hydrographer. For 20 years, he helped map Brazil's continental shelf and still works for its directorate of hydrography and navigation. Since 1991, he has devoted his professional life to the 600 words of Article 76 of the Law of the Sea, which in archaic and elusive terms defines the borders of the ocean floor and any allowable claim to it.

Policing this scientific frontier, Mr. Albuquerque and his colleagues parse the technical nuances of sea slopes and sediments in the voluminous data submitted by countries seeking, or challenging, authority over bands of ocean floor up to 150 miles beyond the existing 200-mile limit.

What is at stake? "Money. Money, of course," Mr. Albuquerque says. Contested areas of the Arctic, for example, may contain 25% of the world's oil and gas. "The commission is important to allow countries to make agreements among themselves in a peaceful way, instead of struggling for resources."

Countries must justify any expansion of their underwater territory with sonar surveys, seismic readings, gravity maps, depth charts and geomagnetic tracings. All must pass muster with Mr. Albuquerque and his board.

The commission doesn't have the authority to settle any maritime disputes between countries. Instead, it works toward consensus on the scientific details of each sea-floor claim. "The commission is not entitled to tell the coastal states what to do and how to do it. Our work is to verify, check, examine," Mr. Albuquerque says. "Of course, we have doubts, and then we have questions. We cannot say we accept or reject. We examine the submission and make recommendations."

Once a coastal country accepts the commission's recommendations, however, the maritime borders are "final and binding," by the terms of the 1982 convention. There are no provisions for appeal, and the jurisdiction of any international court has not been tested.

The 11-year-old commission has been working on the nine claims submitted since it began accepting cases in 2001. They have yet to finalize most rulings, requesting more precise data.

It's expensive to open a case. New Zealand reportedly budgeted $40 million to prepare its submission. New Zealand and Australia each are said to seek half a million square miles or more of sea floor. Russia wants the North Pole. It also seeks portions of the surrounding Arctic sea floor; so do Canada, Denmark and Norway. A hard copy of data from the Russian Federation could fill the conference room from floor to ceiling.

No one outside the proceedings knows all the technical details of the territory at stake; the commission makes public only a summary of each submission.

Should it ratify the treaty, the U.S. is poised to claim areas in the Arctic, the Pacific and the Atlantic that encompass an area the size of California, with resources valued at an estimated $1.3 trillion. The Bush administration sought Senate approval of the treaty this year but that now appears unlikely, a senior U.S. State Department official said. Opponents fear U.N. interference in U.S. sovereign affairs.

Friday, February 22, 2008

"Fighting like a soldier of ideas"

I was about ten years old when I saw Fidel Castro being interviewed by Edward R. Murrow on television. I was too young to know who he really was, but there was something about him that really caught my attention.

It must have had something to do with the fact that he was wearing pajamas, smoking a cigar, and if memory serves me well, donning his well-worn army cap.

I was vaguely aware of the cold war, but Nikita Khrushchev seemed to be the most threatening figure on the scene back then -- a more belligerent and menacing character. I was impressed by Fidel's cool defiance.

Make no mistake: Castro was a dictator and his regime was controversial to the end. However it struck me that what the U.S. seemed to fear most about him were his successful social programs including Cuba's health care, education and urban agriculture systems.

In announcing his resignation he vowed to carry on "fighting like a soldier of ideas". (GW)

So farewell, Castro

By Isabel Hilton
New Statesman
February 21, 2008

News that Cuba's Fidel Castro is stepping down brings an end to the longest, and most controversial, presidency in the world.

The 81-year-old leader, who has been ill for some years, said in a letter published on a state newspaper's website: "It would be a betrayal of my conscience to accept a responsibility requiring more mobility and dedication than I am physically able to offer."

The final words of his message promised "I will be careful", possibly a wry reference to the more than 600 assassination attempts he has survived since becoming president.

Fidel Castro Ruz has ruled Cuba for 49 years, despite unrelenting efforts by the US to kill or overthrow him, and has outlived most of those who led the Cuban revolution with him.

His legacy is fiercely disputed: clearly a man of charisma and courage, he has always understood getting and retaining power better than the art of government. Having led a nationalist revolution against a brutal dictatorship, he instituted a more effective one of his own.

Castro seized power in 1959 in a country that had one of the highest per capita incomes in the Americas. Today it lags behind most of the hemisphere. But he has left it with a rate of infant mortality lower than that of the US, and health and education systems that support a long-lived and literate population, albeit one restricted in what it is allowed to read.

As a student in the 1950s, Castro shared the widespread discontent with the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista, the army officer who had dominated Cuban politics since the 1930s, first as kingmaker and then as millionaire dictator and mafia henchman. Fidel thought of standing for parliament, but became convinced that anything short of armed struggle was futile.

His claim to be a hero of the revolution is based on two disastrous revolutionary expeditions. The first was the assault on the Moncada barracks in Santiago on 26 July 1953. Fidel and his brother Raú led 160 rebels in a misconceived and bungled attack that even lost the element of surprise when Castro crashed one of the cars in the convoy: 61 rebels were killed and most of the others, including Fidel, were captured. Many were summarily executed.

Fidel escaped the death sentence and was sentenced instead to 15 years in prison. Amnestied 15 months later, Fidel and his younger brother Raú went to Mexico where they met the Argentinian revolutionary Ernesto "Che" Guevara and plotted their return. This was his second disastrous military expedition. Castro and 81 followers crammed into a motor yacht, now enshrined in a large glass case in Havana as one of the world's more unusual revolutionary monuments, and sailed for Cuba with the aim of starting an armed uprising. Within days, 70 of the band were killed, wounded or captured. The survivors, who included Fidel, Guevara, Raú and Camilo Cienfuegos, made it to the Sierra Maestra mountains where, with the support of existing peasant movements, they finally succeeded in launching a guerrilla campaign.

Castro's guerrillas never numbered more than 1,000, but he appropriated credit for a revolution made by many hands: socialists, social democrats, trade unionists, students and democratic liberals - a coalition so broad that, in 1958, the US recognised the hopelessness of the Batista regime and withdrew military support. On 1 January 1959, Batista fled. Castro's moment had arrived. By February, he had been sworn in as prime minister.

Few knew his politics. In the early days, he spoke of reform and elections. He studied Lenin in prison but was not a Communist. In 1959, Castro visited the US. He hired a public relations firm and went on a charm offensive but Eisenhower refused to meet him. He met Richard Nixon, who was not charmed. This was the Cold War and Washington was touchy about the appearance of socialism in its backyard. When the USSR did an oil-for-sugar deal, the US looked on coldly. The wealthy white elite began to leave for the US. With important Cuban exiles, the CIA began to play a role in shaping US policy towards Cuba.

The botched attempt to invade Cuba at the Bay of Pigs in April 1961 with 1,400 CIA-trained exiles, provided Fidel with a narrative that entrenched his power. Finally, he announced that the revolution henceforth was Communist. In February 1962, the US imposed an economic embargo.

Cuba's enduring poverty is, in part, a product of the continuing US embargo. When the Soviet Bloc began to disintegrate in 1989, Cuba was dependent on the USSR and its satellites. When it all collapsed, the Cuban economy plummeted. By 1994 there were riots in Havana.

Castro survived, instituting grudging economic reforms. Increasing tourism, the legalisation of remittances from Cubans abroad and concessions to private economic activity saw Cuba through hard times. There has been a price. Those who benefited were petty entrepreneurs, black marketeers and those with relatives in Miami, while impoverished professionals carry tourists' suitcases for hard currency tips. It was not how Fidel's revolution was meant to be.

Dissent became more evident but has been met with a crackdown on journalists, librarians and other peaceful dissenters. In 2003, 75 defendants, among them prominent journalists, were tried and convicted, receiving savage prison sentences for such crimes as unauthorised lending of books.

Castro has had time to plan for his succession. A younger generation occupies the key posts in government. Visibly frail in recent years, Castro's stumblings and lapses of memory have been picked over by enemies. Even as he resigns office, it is clear that the post-Castro era has dawned.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Alberta's toxic tarsands

This morning as I prepared to post the story below the price of oil was $99.98 a barrel. The oilsands of Alberta, Canada have been identified as the largest source of oil outside the Middle East. They have often been cited as the reason why many energy experts say "peak-oil" concerns are exaggerated.

Once again, the devil is in the details. A new report calls the process used to extract the tars from these sands and convert them into synthetic oil are extremely harmful to the environment. Indeed, environmentalists call the Alberta site the "most destructive project on Earth"! (GW)

Most destructive project on Earth: report

Alberta's oilsands. Aboriginal leaders accuse government of cover-up

Federal and provincial health officials in Alberta are trying to cover up "the most destructive project on Earth," aboriginal leaders said yesterday during the release of a report on the oilsands sector.

The report, called Canada's Toxic Tarsands: The Most Destructive Project on Earth, and released by the leading green group Environmental Defence, accused the federal government of being "missing in action" by failing to enforce federal laws to clean up oil extraction from tarsands in Alberta.

It said excavation of the oilsands in Alberta - home to the richest petroleum deposits outside the Middle East - is producing vast amounts of greenhouse gases and poisoning local water supplies.

The process to strip the tar-like bitumen out of the sands and turn it into synthetic crude oil is highly energy intensive.

Chief Allan Adam of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation accused the federal and provincial health departments of harassing a local physician who has sounded alarm bells about rare cancers striking the community downriver from the oilsands. Both departments have filed complaints in an attempt to get Dr. John O'Connor's licence revoked because they believe he was raising undue alarm, but locals say the physician was doing his job.

"I think it seems like one organization drops the issue and another one picks it up to carry on to take his practice away from him," Adam told a news conference yesterday. "If that's the case of how they do their business, in that sense, we feel that there is a cover-up on health issues and on environmental impacts in our region." Alberta is a Conservative Party stronghold, and critics say the government does not want to alienate the powerful energy industry by clamping down.

The report estimates that Environment Minister John Baird's new proposal to regulate pollution from industrial facilities would allow greenhouse gas emissions to double to about 80 million tonnes per year by 2020 because of soft targets that require industry only to reduce emissions per unit of production instead of hard caps.

Matt Price, program manager with Environmental Defence, said that, as a result, growing emissions from the oilsands sector would wipe out gains from industries in other provinces, such as British Columbia or Ontario.

"Politically speaking, the reason we have weak federal standards on climate change is to let the tarsands grow," said Price. "There's a tailor-made loophole for the tarsands. Otherwise, we would have hard caps on industry all across Canada. So this is why the impacts of the tarsands extend well beyond the borders of Alberta." An industry spokesperson acknowledged that petroleum producers need to adopt greener practices, but suggested that they shared some common ground with environmental groups.

"While I don't see there's a lot new that's raised in here, it certainly does highlight the shared concern that the public has, the government has, the environmental group has on the environmental issues around the oilsands," said Greg Stringham, vice-president of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers.

"Carbon capture and sequestration is the biggest kind of technology that we have right now to address the issue and we are getting on with it, but we need to get on with it quicker." Baird said his government has taken the first ever federal steps to regulate pollution from industry, but is open to studying the recommendations in the report. "Environmental Defence is a pretty credible group," said Baird. "I think I'll do them the courtesy and the favour of reading it and reflecting on what it has to say." The Harper government's plan calls for annual emissions to be slashed by 150 million tonnes by 2020, putting Canada nearly 20 years behind its legally binding international Kyoto Protocol commitments.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Forty-six years ago today: Friendship 7, Fireballs and Fireflies

Do you remember when John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth on this date in 1962? Were you even born?

I remember it well. I was thirteen. Back then I thought the National Aeronautics and Space Administration was the absolute greatest thing since Hostess Twinkies. I would regularly write to NASA for information on projects and would receive boxes (yes boxes) of pamphlets and books (yes books) on topics ranging from "Space Biology" to "Magnetohydrodynamics". I didn't understand most of it, but it was quite a rush to have the postman deliver packages to me with that neat NASA logo on them.

Four years earlier when I was nine years old the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the first successful unmanned satellite to be placed in orbit. I was upset that the Russians beat us into space. It was a very different time. Spaceflight was new, exciting, even cool. President John F. Kennedy challenged the U.S. to land an American on the moon by the end of the decade. I was totally caught up in the euphoria.

I was downright distraught when Yuri Gagarin became the first human to orbit the Earth in April 1961 and took the undisputed lead in the"Space Race" between the Soviets and U.S.

So I was filled with pride when John Glenn boarded Friendship Seven and helped launch the U.S. into history. I wrote to President Kennedy urging him to declare the day a national holiday. OK, full disclosure: it was also my thirteenth birthday. (GW)

First American in orbit

The Ultimate Space Place
February 20, 2004

The Mission Objectives were fairly simple by today standards: Place a man into earth orbit, observe his reactions to the space environment and safely return him to earth to a point where he could be readily found. However, back in 1962 they were anything but simple. The U.S.A. had been taking a backseat to the U.S.S.R. and it was time for America to send a man into orbit. So on February 20, 1962 at 9:47:39 am EST, John Glenn rode Friendship 7 from Cape Canaveral's Launch Complex 14 to become an American hero.

Over the Indian Ocean on his first orbit, Glenn became the first American to witness the sunset from above 100 miles. Awed but not poetically inclined, he described "this moment of twilight is simply beautiful. The sky in space is very black, with a thin band of blue along the horizon." On the nightside of Earth, nearing the Australian coastline, Glenn made his planned star, weather, and landmark observations.

Within voice radio range of the Muchea, Australia, tracking station, Glenn and Gordon Cooper began a long space-to-Earth conversation. The astronaut reported that he felt fine, that he had no problems, and that he could see a very bright light and what appeared to be the outline of a city. Cooper answered that he probably saw the lights of Perth and Rockingham. Glenn also said that he could see stars as he looked down toward the "real" horizon - as distinguished from the haze layer he estimated to be about seven or eight degrees above the horizon on the nightside - and clouds reflecting the moonlight. "That sure was a short day," he excitedly told Cooper. "That was about the shortest day I've ever run into."

Moving onward above the Pacific over Canton Island, Glenn experienced an even shorter 45-minute night and prepared his periscope for viewing his first sunrise in orbit. As the day dawned over the island, he saw literally thousands of "little specks, brilliant specks, floating around outside the capsule." Glenn's first impression was that the spacecraft was tumbling or that he was looking into a star field, but a quick hard look out of the capsule window corrected this momentary illusion. He definitely thought the luminescent "fireflies," as he dubbed the specks, were streaming past his spacecraft from ahead. They seemed to flow leisurely but not to be originating from any part of the capsule. As Friendship 7 sped over the Pacific expanse into brighter sunlight, the "fireflies" disappeared.

At Mercury Control Center an engineer at the telemetry control console, William Saunders, noted that "segment 51," an instrument providing data on the spacecraft landing system, was presenting a strange reading. According to the signal, the spacecraft heatshield and the compressed landing bag were no longer locked in position. If this was really the case, the all-important heatshield was being held on the capsule only by the straps of the retropackage.

Almost immediately the Mercury Control Center ordered all tracking sites to monitor the instrumentation segment closely and, in their conversations with the pilot, to mention that the landing-bag deploy switch should be in the "off" position. Although Glenn was not immediately aware of his potential danger, he became suspicious when site after site consecutively asked him to make sure that the deploy switch was off.

Meanwhile the operations team had to decide how to get the capsule and the astronaut back through the atmosphere with a loose heatshield. Flight director Christopher Kraft and Mercury operations boss, Walt Williams, weighed the information they had received and decided it would be safer to keep the retropack. Walter Schirra, the California communicator, passed the order to Glenn to retain the retropack until he was over the Texas tracking station.

Now came one of the most dramatic and critical moments in all of Project Mercury. In the Mercury Control Center, at the tracking stations, and on the recovery ships ringing the globe, engineers, technicians, physicians, recovery personnel, and fellow astronauts stood nervously, stared at their consoles, and listened to the communications circuits. Glenn and Friendship 7 slowed down during their long reentry glide over the continental United States toward the hoped-for splashdown in the Atlantic.

Almost immediately Glenn heard noises that sounded like "small things brushing against the capsule." "That's a real fireball outside," he radioed the Cape, with a trace of anxiety perhaps evident in his tone. Then a strap from the retropackage swung around and fluttered over the window, and he saw smoke as the whole apparatus was consumed.

Friendship 7 came now to the most fearful and fateful point of its voyage. The terrific frictional heat of reentry enveloped the capsule, and Glenn experienced his worst emotional stress of the flight. "I thought the retropack had jettisoned and saw chunks coming off and flying by the window," he said later. He feared that the chunks were pieces of his ablation protection, that the heatshield might be disintegrating, but he knew there was nothing to gain from stopping work.

Obviously the heatshield had stayed in place and at 28,000 feet the drogue automatically shot out. Glenn, with immense relief, watched the main chute stream out, reef, and blossom at less than 17,000 feet. Friendship 7 splashed into the Atlantic about 40 miles short of the predicted area, as retrofire calculations had not taken into account the spacecraft's weight loss in consumables. The Noa, a destroyer code-named Steelhead, shortly picked up Glenn.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

What a tangled web we unravel

When you stop to realize just how beautifully complex and interdependent Nature's ecosystems are, one has to wonder if we'll ever be able to completely understand them. it seems like the more we learn the less it is apparent that we know.

True we humans are capable of creating our own brand of complex and sophisticated systems. We use them use them to manage and/or outsmart Nature. We've certainly gotten very clever at tracking and netting increasingly larger catches of fish over the years.

A classic case of the tragedy of the commons? (GW)

Ocean's fish food disappearing

By Doug Fraser
Cape Cod Times
February 18, 2008

CHATHAM — In recent years, Chatham fisherman Peter Taylor noticed that the haddock he'd been catching on Georges Banks disappeared after large herring vessels, some towing nets as wide across as a football field, started targeting that area.

He said prey species like haddock move into certain areas of Georges Bank when there are large schools of spawning herring. Cape fishermen, in turn, go there to catch the haddock.

"I've never gone through a year and seen this few herring," he said. "The amount of haddock we caught in that deep water also dropped. There was no doubt in our minds that there was a correlation between herring and what we catch."

It was a lesson that made a big impression on fishermen: no food, no fish.

"People have been fishing here for hundreds of years and they know that a healthy herring population is key to having other healthy fisheries," said Peter Baker, director of The Herring Alliance, a collaboration of environmental groups dedicated to reforming what they call "industrial" fishing by large herring vessels. The group is concerned the fishing power of these large vessels could bring on a collapse of herring stocks as the foreign factory fleet did back in the 1970s.

Raising the alarm

In December, the Marine Fish Conservation Network, comprising 200 environmental groups, fishing associations, aquariums and marine science organizations, raised the alarm on herring, mackerel, menhaden, squid and other species known collectively as forage fish. They want the National Marine Fisheries Service to give greater protection to forage species that serve as prey for many other fish.

They were especially concerned about the rapidly expanding aquaculture industry's dependence on these fish, an increasing number of which are ground up to produce pellets and fish oil to feed fish raised in aquaculture cages.

"We've created a demand and a need for this ... fishery that I don't think is sustainable," Kenneth Stump, a policy analyst for the Washington, D.C.-based Marine Fish Conservation Network, said of fish food for aquaculture.

A letter signed by 92 U.S. scientists, also released in December, urged the National Marine Fisheries Service to drastically reduce the catch of these forage species because of their importance to the ecosystem.

Forage species eat plankton and provide a vital link from that food source to the protein required by larger predator species.

Stump said he believes herring's role as prey is too important to allow large U.S. vessels to catch them. He advocates a return to a small-boat, inshore fishery. He said guaranteeing the availability of their food will also help commercially valuable fish like cod to recover from decades of overfishing.

But NMFS scientists counter that well-managed fish stocks would be sustainable no matter what their ultimate use.

"If we're harvesting conservatively, we should be able to avoid the large swings in prey population that could cascade through the ecosystem," said Steven Murawski, NMFS director of scientific programs, and a chief scientific adviser.

No easy answers

Predator-prey relationships are complex, and some changes might not yield expected results, Murawski said. For instance, when the foreign fleet decimated New England's herring stocks in the 1960s and '70s, other prey species like sand lances prospered and predators like cod simply switched to them. Murawski pointed out that forage species like herring also eat the eggs and larvae of cod and other larger fish, and that an unfished or lightly fished stock could actually have a negative impact on rebuilding those valuable species.

Stump said it was dangerous to rely on fishing to achieve balance in an ecosystem, and that preserving species that form the base of the ocean food chain was critical.

"We're pretty foolish to presume we have to remove this amount to preserve the balance, given the lack of science," he said.

"We have done a fair bit to understand the role of prey species in the food web," countered Michael Fogarty, an NMFS ecosystem scientist.

NMFS and regional fishery management councils have laid the foundation for ecosystem management by gathering data on fish habitat and by extensive work by regional science centers on predator-prey relationships, Murawski said. Ecosystem management pilot programs are also being drafted. Additionally, fishery management scientists already incorporate natural mortality into their estimates of how much of a species can be caught each year without seriously impacting the population, he said.

"We need to be cautious, but that doesn't mean you don't harvest at all," said University of New Hampshire professor Andrew Rosenberg, the former director of NMFS Northeast region and chairman of the U.S. Census of Marine Life. Of more importance is making sure that there is enough prey in areas of the ocean that are critical to commercial fish stocks, Rosenberg said.

Doug Fraser can be reached at

Forage fish and aquaculture

  • Worldwide, wild fish stocks were being caught and fed to caged fish in an aquaculture industry that grew threefold between 1992 and 2003.
    • It takes five pounds of fish to produce one pound of fish meal.
    • Fish meal supplying aquacultural and agricultural needs accounted for almost 40 percent of the fish landings globally in 2002.

Source: Marine Fish Conservation Network