Water is life, but have you ever thought about what that really means?

Cross-posted from Drink Local. Drink Tap., Inc.

 

World Water Day 2015 is coming up this Sunday, March 22. This year, in advance of this September’s UN summit to create a set of Sustainable Development Goals, World Water Day will focus on the links between water and sustainable development.

The axiom that “water is life” has become something of a cliche. But have you ever actually sat down and considered, even for a few moments, just how central water is to essentially every aspect of your life? Let’s consider a hypothetical day to demonstrate this effect, shall we?

Morning

7:00am: Your alarm clock goes off. You step out of your bed and head for the bathroom. About that bed – is it made from cotton? Well, cotton is one of the most water-intensive crops on the planet. It is the single largest consumer of water in the apparel industry, accounting for more than 40% of total water use. It takes more than 700 gallons to produce one t-shirt alone. Much of this impact stems from the fact that cotton is widely farmed in some of the driest areas of the world, including India, Pakistan, and Central Asia (we’ll return to this issue later).

7:05am: You step into the shower to get ready for the day. Well, this one is pretty straightforward. But do you know how much water and energy you’re using? According to the EPA’s WaterSense program, the standard showerhead uses 2.5 gallons of water per minute. As a result, the average American family uses 40 gallons of water per day in the shower, accounting for 17% of total household water use. If we waste roughly 20% of water in each shower, as the EPA estimates, that means we are washing more than 200 billion gallons of excess water down our drains each year.

7:30am: You sit down in the kitchen to eat breakfast. Do you drink coffee? Each cup of coffee has a water footprint of 37 gallons, meaning it takes the equivalent of 37 gallons of water to grow, process, roast, ship, and brew your morning caffeine fix. Are you eating cereal with milk? That requires 22 gallons of water. But it’s still better than eggs, which have a water footprint of 37 gallons each. And that morning glass of orange juice is another 53 gallons.

7:50am: You head out the door and start your morning commute. Are you driving? Well, it takes roughly 39,090 gallons of water to manufacture a new car and its four tires. How far is your commute? If you’re driving the average 12.6 miles each way in a car with average fuel economy (23.6 miles per gallon), then your gas tank is consuming 6.89 gallons of water on your way to work. Round trip, that will add up to 13.77 gallons (not to mention more than 19 pounds of carbon emissions).

Work Day

8:15am: You arrive at work and head into the building. But what is the building made of? Steel? That’s 62,000 gallons of water per ton used. Concrete? Try 1,360 gallons per ton. While the totals will vary by the type of materials used, there’s also water embedded in every window, square foot of flooring, gallon of paint on the walls, desk, chair, and trash can. Every step you take is dripping in water.

9:07am: You check your email and start answering the flood of requests that came in since you left work yesterday. Are you using a desktop computer? It probably took around 42,000 gallons of water to produce. A laptop fares better at around 10,500 gallons, given its more compact size. But let’s not forget that you need electricity to power that computer, along with your phone, desk lamp, and the building’s HVAC system. Where you live matters, as different energy sources have different water footprints. Here in Ohio, we get roughly two-thirds of our electricity from coal, along with 15% from natural gas generation, and another 12% from nuclear power plants. Every kilowatt hour of electricity produced from these three fuel sources requires 7.14 gallons, 2.99 gallons, and 1.51 gallons of water, respectively. Assuming that the average Ohio household uses 750 kWh of electricity per month, that means that your electricity use will consume 4,170 gallons per month, or nearly 140 gallons of water per day.

10:12am: You’re eventually going to need to use the restroom. The average toilet requires around 3.5 gallons per flush. And don’t forget to wash your hands, which may take up to 5 gallons per minute, depending on the faucet.

12:00pm: Lunch time. Maybe you’re a carnivore and have a hamburger; that will take a whopping 634 gallons. Or perhaps you’re eating healthy these days and opt for a salad, which has a considerably smaller footprint (31 gallons).

2:53pm: Hitting that mid-afternoon lull? You run out to the nearest coffee shop and grab a latte. All that extra milk and sugar adds water to the coffee, requiring a total of 52 gallons.

Evening

5:00pm: Finally, the work day comes to an end. Are you going straight home? If so, don’t forget about the water you’ll use on your commute. Or do you meet some coworkers for a drink afterwards? Choose carefully. That pint of beer requires 20 gallons of water. Wine fares even worse at 31 gallons.

6:00pm: Dinner time. Every pound of beef demands nearly 2,000 gallons of water. And that baked potato will add another 34 gallons per pound. Thinking about dessert? Chocolate will cost you an incredible 2,061 gallons per pound (though I doubt you’re eating that much chocolate in one sitting).

7:45pm: You head to the laundry room to do a load of laundry. That standard, top-loading washing machine will use 40-45 gallons of water per load. Efficient, front-loading machines can halve that total.

11:00pm: You brush your teeth and head to bed. Hopefully you remembered to shut off that faucet, as Americans waste more than 1 trillion gallons of water each year from leaking sinks, toilets, and sprinkler systems.

Total

All told, the average American uses approximately 2,167 gallons of water per day, more than double the global average of 1,056 gallons. But because most of this water is embedded in the manufacture and transport of the products we consume, we rarely, if ever, consider the true scale of our water footprint. Instead, we tend to focus on just the amount of water we actually use each day (i.e the amount of we drink or use to shower, flush the toilet, brush our teeth etc.). This number – roughly 90-100 gallons per person, per day – is a (pun intended) drop in the bucket of our total footprint. And Americans tend to vastly underestimate even this number.

Unintended consequences

Clearly, there is a disconnect here, one that can have unintended consequences. It builds a wall of ignorance between our decisions and their downstream effects. Consider the Aral Sea, one example of how our actions can drastically alter the world around us.

During the Cold War, the Soviet Union decided to turn the steppes of modern-day Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan into vast fields it cotton. In the 1960s, engineers constructed a vast network of dams, canals, and irrigation ditches to divert the water of the Amu Darya and Syr Darya Rivers and channel it to the world’s largest cotton plantations.

Until this point, all of the unused water in these rivers – the lifeblood of the dry region – flowed into the Aral Sea. Prior to this, the Aral Sea was the world’s fourth largest lake. It surface area spanned more than 25,500 square miles. Its average depth was 52 feet, though the water reached a depth of 223 feet at its lowest point. The sea supported a thriving fishing industry among the various communities located along its shore. More than 40,000 people fished its waters.

All of that changed. Once completed, this irrigation system captured more than 90% of the water flowing into the Aral. As the sea began to shrink, it grew ever shallower. This process facilitated surface evaporation, hastening the process. As the surface are constricted, the land formerly covered by several feet of water turned into a dry, salt-caked desert crust; this reflected the sun’s radiation, causing surface temperatures to rise and evaporation to speed up. Wetlands and other aquatic vegetation dried up and died. The loss of these plants allowed stronger breezes to flow across the shallower water, which exacerbated surface evaporation even further.

Today, the Aral has lost more than 90% of its original volume. NASA reported last October that the entire eastern basin of the sea is now dry for the first time in at least six centuries. The Aral has entered a death spiral, and experts project that it may disappear forever in the next few years. It is, perhaps, the worst man-made environmental catastrophe of all time.

This is why Drink Local. Drink Tap., Inc. exists. Our work, including our annual World Water Day events, seeks to reconnect people with water and illustrate the essential role it plays in every aspect of our lives. Hopefully by bringing people closer to water, we can stave off the next Aral Sea-type disaster before it is too late.

Geoengineering makes climate change less polarizing! It’s still a bad idea.

sardar sarovar dam
sardar sarovar dam

India’s controversial Sardar Sarovar dam, located on the Narmada River (courtesy of Mittal Patel).

About 20 minutes after I posted my piece yesterday arguing that we are nowhere near ready to begin researching geoengineering, the Washington Post‘s new Energy and Environment section ran its own piece on the topic. But this post, by Puneet Kollipara, took a vastly different tone.

Rather than delving into the NRC report, it looked at a study in the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, which explored various tactics to make debate around climate change less polarizing. The researchers broke participants into three groups and laid out the reality about climate change. One was told that the best approach was to curb carbon pollution, the second heard a pro-geoengineering message, and the third group acted as a control. From the post:

Conventional wisdom might hold that telling people about geoengineering would make them less concerned about climate change’s risks by making them complacent about it; if geoengineering works, then maybe climate change isn’t such a big deal. But that’s not what the researchers found. The geoengineering group viewed climate change as posing a slightly higher risk than did the control group and a similar level of risk as did the anti-pollution group…

[W]hen it came to the scientific information on climate change that the researchers made all participants read, the geoengineering group was actually less polarized on whether the science is solid than the control group was…Not only was it a matter of conservative skepticism of climate science shrinking in the geoengineering group, but liberals in the geoengineering group became more likely to question the science.

This result really shouldn’t come as that much of a surprise, when you think about it. Conservatives have long been receptive to geoengineering as a way to address climate change. Newt Gingrich has pushed it as a solution for years, while the American Enterprise Institute endorsed solar radiation management as an “evolving climate policy option.” Geoengineering fits into the broader conservative mindset that pushes engineering solutions to environmental problems. As Clive Hamilton wrote in his book Earthmasters,

As the identity of conservative white males tends to be more strongly bound to the prevailing social structure, geoengineering is the kind of solution to climate change that is less threatening to their values and sense of self….they are consistent with the ideas of control over the environment and the personal liberties associated with free market capitalism.

Geoengineering represents just the latest iteration of this ethos. It’s the same worldview that says massive tree plantations can solve deforestation. Or that calls for building giant indoor, vertical farms as a way to address population and nutrition issues. Or that suggests we can address biodiversity loss by resurrecting species in a laboratory. Why address the causes of environmental degradation, when we can just use our ingenuity to treat the symptoms?

But while these kind of engineering solutions for environmental problems may sound great in the short-term, we really need to consider their long-term implications. As I noted in my previous post, geoengineering is different from these other examples for one key reason: once we go down that road, we are locked into it, forever.

Probably the closest analogue that I can come up with is dam building. Building large dams provides us an engineering solution to a variety of challenges – a lack of energy, unpredictable rainfall, disasters. We can create clean electricity to power cities and industry, easily irrigate our fields, mitigate the risk of drought, and hold back floodwaters. It seems like a great idea on the surface. Of course, megadams create a whole host of unintended consequences, from impeding the movement of fish to drowning villages. But, more than that, they lock us into the need to actively manage nature for the long run.

Jacques Leslie explores all of these issues, and more, in his book Deep Water: The Epic Struggle over Dams, Displaced People, and the Environment. (I highly recommend it if you’re looking for a user-friendly primer on the major controversies over bid dam projects like Sardar Sarovar, Belo Monte, or Three Gorges.)

In the book, Leslie explores the consequences of Australia’s scheme to regulate the Murray River with thousands of dams, canals, and weirs. He spoke with Mike Harper, a former Australian natural resources manager turned activist, about the effort to save the endangered Chowilla floodplain. Before Australians began altering the landscape, the Chowilla experienced an irregular, but essential, cycle of floods and droughts that regulated the ecosystem. With the advent of the water management scheme, the water table rose several feet, bring salt deposits to the surface, effectively poisoning the land. The only way to address this crisis without jettisoning the entire system is for the Australian government to actively replicate this flood/drought cycle in perpetuity:

The ecosystem will have to become dependent on an artificial regime that must be applied forever, [Harper] said. “You might get a good manager for ten years, but the one after him might be a bad one. If we have to manipulate the environment all the time, we’re going to fuck it up sometime.”

Precisely. When you endeavor to play God and actively manage the environment, you are placing the well being of the system in the hands of a few bureaucrats. If Australia’s civil servants screw up, they may irreparably damage a critical ecosystem. If you think that’s bad, spread the risk to the entire planet and multiply it by a thousand.

This is where geoengineering stops being the libertarian panacea some conservatives apparently believe it to be. If we want to control our atmosphere to address climate change, we will need to amass an enormous array of scientists and civil servants who devoted to this task. Because of the global nature of the endeavor and the risks of sparking a geoengineering “arms race” I noted in my last post, no one state or small group of states can be entrusted with this responsibility. We will need to create a supranational organization, perhaps akin to a vastly more powerful UN Environment Programme or World Meteorological Organization. Given how shaky our track record has been on global governance to this point, I’m not particularly convinced that we can successfully regulate our climate for several hundred years. You thought cap and trade was a recipe for big government.

At the risk of being labeled a Tea Partier, I am much more inclined to support a free market approach to climate change like a carbon tax. Hell, you can even use the revenues to offset income taxes. Ultimately, let’s just say I am highly skeptical that geoengineering constitutes a silver bullet to depoliticizing the debate around climate change, let alone to the climate crisis writ large.

The NRC is wrong – we’re nowhere near ready to research geoengineering

mr burns solar shade
mr burns solar shade

Geoengineering: The Simpsons already did it.

Last week, the National Research Council released a lengthy, two-volume report on geoengineering. The central crux of the report and the surrounding debate seems to be that, sure, geoengineering is a crazy idea, but, we need to at least research it, because we’ve gotten ourselves into this mess, and we need every tool available at our disposal. Even the IPCC has dipped a toe in the water, noting in its Fifth Assessment Report that we will most likely end up surpassing the 2ºC warming threshold if we exceed 450ppm of CO2. The only way to get back under that threshold is through the “widespread deployment of bioenergy with carbon dioxide capture and storage (BECCS) and afforestation in the second half of the century.” Given these realities, it seems logical to at least start researching geoengineering, right? It’s better to have that arrow in the quiver and never need it than need it and not have it.

The risks & rewards of geoengineering

The problem with geoengineering is that even researching it carries clear risks. In July 2013, the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Environmental Change and Security Program published a report titled “Backdraft: The Conflict Potential of Climate Change Adaptation and Mitigation.” The report includes a chapter on geoengineering (“climate engineering” in their parlance) by Achim Maas and Irina Comardicea of aldephi, a German think tank.

In their piece, Maas and Comardicea lay out the potential benefits and drawbacks of climate engineering. On the one hand, climate engineering would not need to upend our existing fossil fuel-based global energy system and may be a more appealing option for certain actors. This approach would also allow developing states space to continue to exploiting their fossil fuel reserves as a way to lift their citizens out of extreme poverty, helping to level the potential trade-offs between tackling climate change and global poverty.

On the other hand, tinkering with our climate system could generate some severe unintended consequences. First, it fails to tackle the root cause of climate change, so it is far from an actual solution. Second, it does nothing to curb the impacts of climate change outside of global warming, most notably ocean acidification. Third, the potential side effects of climate engineering could be widespread, and we cannot predict them for sure. We may end up altering the color of the sky or the chemistry the oceans. Fourth, once we start playing God with our atmosphere, we can never stop. According to a study in the Journal of Geophysical Research, if we engaged in solar radiation management (SRM) for 50 years, then stopped, we could end up getting all of the delayed warming from that period in just 5 to 10 years. That type of warming would be unprecedented, and we could have no way to adapt.

The trouble with research

But none of the above specifically explains why researching climate engineering is, in and out itself, fraught with risks. Maas and Comardicea delve into this issue at length. Because of the scope and the scale of climate engineering, we cannot accurately replicate it in a lab, and there is no way the international community would sign off on a global chemistry experiment without knowing the real world implications. And that necessitates experimenting outside of the lab.

Say we decided to inject sulfates into the atmosphere on a “small scale” in order to see if we could reduce the amount of solar radiation reaching the Earth’s surface. The risks of even a theoretically controlled experiment could be significant. Thanks to a study that also came out last week, we know that the increase in aerosol emissions in Europe and North America during the Industrial Revolution altered precipitation patterns in the northern tropics, contributing to a “substantial drying trend” after 1850.

The impacts of climate change and, by extension, climate engineering, are so distant in time and space that we would have no way of knowing exacting where, when, and how the potential consequences of this kind of experiment would play out. What if a prolonged drought occurred in the Caribbean or the monsoon shifted dramatically in South Asia? We would be unable to pinpoint the cause of such a change – whether natural or manmade – for several months or years.

And, during this period, all sorts of social and political consequences could occur. We already know, for instance, that aerosol pollution from India has intensified tropical cyclones in the Arabian Sea, including a category 4 cyclone that hit Pakistan in June 2010. Pakistan is already acutely aware of the impacts of drifting air pollution from India. What if the country experienced another disaster on the scale of the 2010 Indus River floods and decided that Indian interference in the atmosphere was to blame?

As Maas and Comardicea argue,

Even if there may be no direct connection between a state’s regional climate engineering scheme and the crop failure of another state, it may provide a convenient scapegoat and lead to increased tensions…The possibility of unilaterally implemented climate engineering, either via world powers or smaller coalitions of states, may thus lead to a “climate control race.” In the same way that states raced to develop arsenals of nuclear weapons during the Cold War, states may compete to develop and control climate engineering technology.

There is already a track record to suggest that states can use weather as a tool of war. The US employed cloud seeding techniques from 1967-1972 as part of “Operation Popeye” to try and interrupt movement along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Such actions directly led to the 1978 Environmental Modification Convention (ENMOD), which barred the using environmental modification to cause harm. But even ENMOD has not halted efforts to control the weather. China, for instance, has widely employed cloud seeding, most famously to clear the skies over Beijing in the run up to the 2008 Olympics.

Governance before research

With all of these potential consequences in mind, what do Maas and Comardicea recommend to stave off the worst effects of climate engineering? In a word, governance:

To reduce the conflict potential of climate engineering, a transparent international dialogue on the research and applications of climate engineering technologies is crucial prior to any field research (emphasis added). Ongoing talks and deliberations should involve a wide variety of stakeholders, and critically evaluate the potential technological benefits and pitfalls, as well as the regulatory development of the range of climate engineering techniques…

In conclusion, the NRC is wrong here. We need governance, first and foremost, before undertaking research and absolutely before trying out any of these crazy ass schemes in the real world. The risks are too great to play it by the seat of our pants. I’m not here to say that we should never employ geoengineering at any point, for any reason. I think it’s a terrible idea with a dramatic downside, but there may come a time when we have no choice. Then, and only then – as a very last resort – should we be ready to employ it. But we are a long way from that point, and we are still a long way from reaching the day at which we can even begin to researching to prepare for this day. Let’s get through Paris first without saddling this conference with yet another intractable problem.

Watch: Find out why rivers change their courses in 3 minutes

cuyahoga river 1917 straighten
cuyahoga river 1917 straighten

A 1917 plan from the federal government to straighten the crooked Cuyahoga River (courtesy of Cleveland State University).

Rivers. They’re pretty amazing things. They provide humans with water for drinking, irrigation, and sanitation. They give us fish and other aquatic animals for food. They can be harnessed to power grind our grain, run our looms, and even power our cities. Their seasonal floods can bring rich silt to our fields or destruction and devastation to our lives. Sometimes, with just a little bit of help, they can even catch on fire. It’s no mistake that the first major human civilizations – Egypt, Mohenjo-Daro, Sumeria – developed along the banks of the world’s great rivers.

But rivers are much more than servants of (wo)man. They are dynamic ecosystems rich with biodiversity that shape and are shaped by the world around them. Any entity that can literally carve the Grand Canyon is pretty damn powerful.

And so rivers change. They top their banks, meander downstream, shift their paths. Sometimes, rivers even stop, turn around, and travel in the opposite direction. Rivers are not the static, shaped bodies that we encounter, but living, breathing systems.

It’s exactly this dynamism that humans don’t seem to like. We don’t like things that are beyond our control. We like to make things knowable, predictable, manageable. So we applied the logic of urban planning to one of the most complex systems in the world. We filled in urban rivers and sent them through channels and culverts. We built artificial banks out of concrete and steel to keep rivers contained. We constructed elaborate systems of dykes, dams, canals, and sluice gates so that we could regulate the seasonal pulses of the Mississippi and the Nile. We even dreamed up cockamamie schemes to make crooked rivers straight. These efforts to regulate rivers have created their own severe side effects – riverbank erosion, declining biodiversity, reduced silt delivery, sedimentation, and altered flood risks. We’re only beginning to face up to these unintended consequences.

So we know that, left to their own devices, rivers will constantly change. But have you ever wondered how and why? Well, wonder no more, thanks to this new video from Minute Earth. If you have three minutes to spare, you can learn a lot about fluid dynamics, fractals, and how muskrats decorate their dens.

(h/t Mental Floss UK)

Burn on, big river

1952 Cuyahoga River fire
1952 cuyahoga river fire

The 1952 Cuyahoga River fire, a much more serious event, has historically been confused for the 1969 fire after Time Magazine used this image to bring attention to the nation’s environmental issues. In reality, the 1969 fire was a relative nonevent, and no one even had a chance to take a picture of it (courtesy of Teaching Cleveland).

Forty five years ago today, the Cuyahoga River caught fire (for the 13th time). While this was nowhere near the largest or most substantial of those dozen fires, it did prove to be the most significant historically. The attention the fire gained combined with other significant environmental disasters – including the 1969 San Bernandino oil spill – to help catalyze action. The 1969 fire contributed directly to the passing of landmark environmental legislation, including the 1972 Clean Water Act and the 1974 Safe Drinking Water Act. Today, the Cuyahoga River has largely recovered from the dark days before 1969. While it may not be pristine, it’s also not an open dump for every sort of toxic and organic effluent you can imagine. They used to say that you could tell what color paint Sherwin-Williams was producing by looking at the river. Now, the fish are back, the Scranton Flats Towpath is about to open, and members of the Cleveland Rowing Foundation can be seen passing up and down the bends of the crooked river on a daily basis. In some ways, we should all be thankful for that 1969 fire. It came at the right time to produce real, positive change. But, fortunately, these days, the Big River burns on only in our memories.

What is the real cost of freezing Ohio’s clean energy standards?

oec clean energy infographic
students protesting against sb 310

Students protesting against SB 310 in front of the Ohio Statehouse on Wednesday, May 14 (courtesy of Ohio Beyond Coal).

I have asthma. According to the CDC, I am one of 831,787 Ohioans and 25.9 million Americans living with this condition (PDF). That means that 1 out of every 12 Americans is living with asthma, up from 1 out of 14 in 2001.

While people who may not have firsthand experience with this illness may not understand, asthma is far more than just an inconvenience. I’ve heard and seen children with asthma describe feeling like fish out of water when they are suffering an attack. It’s terrifying to not be able to get the air you need. While I don’t think I was ever really in any acute danger, the fact remains that 185 children and 3,262 adults died of asthma in 2007.

As much as I hate to admit it, asthma came to define much of my childhood. From the day that I was diagnosed at either 5 or 6 (I can’t remember the exact date), my severe asthma was omnipresent. Many of my memories from this period involve such episodes, including the role that my mom played in helping me deal with these attacks. Growing up, my mom routinely worked 60-hour weeks and stayed until 3:00 a.m. or later every Tuesday night to edit her newspapers. Despite this, she was always there to listen to my lungs to see if I was wheezing; to pick me up from school or practice if I had an attack; to ferry me to and from the the ER when I needed treatment; and to sit next to me in the hospital for the long hours while I underwent tests, got chest x-rays, and did my nebulizer treatments.

I vividly remember my first major asthma attack. It was the spring of 1993, and I started having breathing trouble towards the end of the school day. The attack only got worse throughout the afternoon, and when my mom got home from work around 6:00 p.m., she immediately drove me to the ER at Fairview Hospital. We sat in that ER for hours before a doctor could see me and for several hours more before they were able to admit me for care. My mom stayed with me right until they took me up to my room for admittance at 3:30 a.m. I ended up spending three days in the hospital for treatment and observation (thankfully, it was the only time that I actually got admitted for asthma). This is just one of the thousand acts of kindness from her that I can never fully repay.

Fortunately, as I got older, I began to grow out of this severe asthma. Today, I am able to live a normal life without worrying about when my next attack will come. But, at the same time, I know that the threat remains, and I have my emergency inhaler on hand, just in case. I was reminded of this quite vividly back in the fall of 2005 when I went in for routine surgery. The procedure required me to go under general anesthesia, so the doctors intubated me. But, after the surgery, when they tried to remove the tube, I suffered a severe bronchial spasm that cut off my breathing. My blood-oxygen saturation levels plummeted into the mid to upper 60s (normal levels are 95-100%), and I ended up spending the next 24 hours in the ICU, an experience I recommend avoiding, if at all possible.

I have no idea how much my asthma diagnosis ended up costing my parents in medical bills and lost time at work, but I imagine the amount was substantial. I did see the medical bills that came in during my stay at the ICU and, even with insurance, they were staggering. For the millions of Americans who suffer with asthma everyday, many of whom do not have insurance, this diagnosis is a real burden. On average, asthmatics spend $3,300 in medical costs each year. According to CDC numbers, asthma costs total $56 billion in direct medical costs, lost school and work days, and premature deaths. Everyday in this country, 36,000 children miss school and 27,000 adults miss work due to this condition.

My past (and present) as someone living with asthma has made me an advocate for clean air. We know that air pollution is both a root cause of the condition and a proximate trigger of asthma attacks. And that’s what pisses me off so much at SB 310. By crippling Ohio’s clean energy industry and protecting the fossil fuel industry, it will directly contribute to more asthma attacks and more chronic pulmonary diseases. This bill will carry a high cost in blood and treasure for our state.

It’s great to focus on how this bill will destroy jobs and harm a thriving clean energy industry in the state (which I’ve done), but SB 310 proponents just counter with their BS “war on coal” retort, a completely disingenuous argument that is, nonetheless, powerful in this state. But it’s another thing entirely for proponents of this bill to hear about the ways that it will directly affect the health of thousands of Ohioans and just not even give a shit.

Yesterday. the Ohio Environmental Council released this infographic showing the benefits of the state’s clean energy standards during 2013:

oec clean energy infographic

Source: Ohio Environmental Council

Using these numbers and EPA incidence factors, we can roughly calculate the economic and health benefits of the clean energy standards in 2013 alone. According to 2011 EPA standards, every ton of NOx, SO2, and PM2.5 has has the following benefits:

incidence factors for power plant emissions

Source: US Environmental Protection Agency

Accordingly, using these numbers, the reductions in NOx and SO2 emissions saved 3.5 lives, 267 lost work days, 59 asthma attacks, and 2.5 non-fatal heart attacks last year alone. And, based on Lepuele et al.’s economic benefit estimates, these standards had a health-related economic benefit of $208,620,000 in 2013.

But these numbers don’t even take into account the social benefit of the greenhouse gas emissions avoided by the standards. The US government currently uses $37 per ton as its social cost of carbon emissions. Accordingly, given that these standards saved 1,061,300 tons of GHGs in 2013, they created an economic benefit of $39,268,100. In total, using these conservative estimates, Ohio’s clean energy standards generated an additional economic benefit of $247,888,100 in 2013 alone.

These savings are not included in other analyses, but they are real, and they affect the lives of ordinary Ohioans everyday. The facts are clear – a vote for SB 310 is a vote for more asthma attacks, more heart attacks, more work and school days missed, more trips to the ER, more premature deaths, and more of the carbon pollution that is driving climate change. These are the the stakes.

If SB 310 proponents really wanted to show the real cost of these standards on Ohioan’s electric bills, as they claim, they should include a provision in the bill that requires the inclusion of these numbers. Somehow I doubt that would go over too well.

Shocking images of air pollution from Cleveland’s past

cleveland skyline pollution 7-20-1973

This gallery contains 14 photos.

Yesterday, the American Lung Association released its annual “State of the Air” report. The report contained some depressing information on the quality of air in this country. In the wealthiest country in the history of the human race, 47% of people – 147.6 million individuals – live in areas that fail to meet standards for ozone or particulate matter pollution.

Cleveland ranks among the 25 dirtiest cities for both ozone pollution and year-round particulate matter pollution. The report makes it clear – we have a lot of work to do in order to guarantee Americans their right to a healthy environment. That’s what makes victories like the Supreme Court’s ruling to uphold the EPA’s Cross-State Air Pollution Rule so incredibly significant.

But the report also shows how far we have come as a country since the bad old days before the Clean Air … Continue reading

Conservative Ohio group uses push poll to attack clean energy, fails miserably

blue creek wind farm
blue creek wind farm

The Blue Creek Wind Farm in western Ohio (courtesy of Business Wire).

Over at Columbus Business First, energy reporter Tom Knox posted a piece yesterday afternoon titled “Business group poll says Ohio voters want energy efficiency mandates changed.” According to the post, a coalition of Ohio business groups conducted a poll of 800 registered Ohio voters, in which 72% of respondents indicated they wanted the state to revise the energy efficiency and renewable energy standards set by SB 221.

This poll seems extremely bewildering, particularly considering the fact that Ohioans have repeatedly expressed overwhelming support for the clean energy standards on multiple occasions. Just two weeks ago, an identical 72% of Ohioans stated just the opposite, indicating they support the standards in their current form and would oppose revising them.

Moreover, recent nationwide polls find similar results. In a Gallup poll, Americans preferred renewable energy to fossil fuels by a 2-to-1 margin, wanted the government to invest in ramping up renewable energy production 67% to 32%, and supported implementing mandatory caps on greenhouse gas emissions 63% to 35%. Another poll from the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication validates this latter result, finding that Americans support forthcoming EPA regulations on greenhouse gas emissions from coal plants by a nearly identical 64% to 35% mark.

So what’s going on here? Perhaps this is just another example of Americans not truly understanding policies or being inclined to support something when it’s phrased one way but not another? We know, for instance, that even as most Americans generally oppose Obamacare, they continually support the actual provisions of the Affordable Care Act.

Then I actually looked into the details of the poll. It was conducted by a coalition of business and fossil fuel interests, including the Ohio Chamber of Commerce, the Greater Cleveland Partnership, and Industrial Energy Users-Ohio. All of these groups have close ties to the fossil fuel industry, particularly FirstEnergy. The group, which is so fly by night that it doesn’t even have a website or bring up anything on Google, has chosen the particularly Orwellian name “Ohioans for Sustainable Jobs.” Apparently fossil fuel industry jobs are sustainable, but Ohio’s 25,000 clean energy jobs are not.

According to Knox’s post, here is the actual text of the question that garnered the headline result, a blatantly transparent example of push polling:

Six years ago, when the Ohio legislature passed the law mandating reductions in electricity consumed, certain assumptions were used to justify the law, many of which were wrong. For example, legislators assumed electricity would be in short supply and new electric generation would be expensive. But today, there’s ample low-cost electricity and will be for years to come. Knowing this … should the Ohio state legislature, taking into account the new information, go back and change the law?

If a college freshman tried to use that question in Statistics 101, s/he’s probably fail the class. The poll was also conducted by The Tarrance Group, a high-price DC polling firm, which brags it “is one of the most widely respected and successful Republican strategic research and polling firms in the nation.”

FirstEnergy and its friends can continue to shell out thousands of dollars to buy the poll results they want, but it won’t change the fact that the people of this state have, do, and will continue to support clean energy But all that coal money can, and has, bought much of Ohio’s legislature. The utility companies gave more than $1.3 million to legislators (PDF) from 2008-2013, and they expect something for their investment.

We need to keep the heat on our elected representatives in Columbus as they finish debate on SB 310. Otherwise, we risk letting their fossil fuel benefactors keep turning the heat up on our planet.

Update (4/30/2014 9:16am): Tom Knox provided me with the full press release and set of survey results. Taken in full, the poll seems a bit more credible than the one question would have it seem out of context. That said, there are still several methodological issues with it.

In the first question, where 56% of Ohioans seem to come out against SB 221, the question does not actually ask whether respondents oppose the law on its merits; it simply asks if they agree that “the government should mandate reductions in
electricity use by Ohio’s residential and businesses users.” That is exactly the type of wording that garners opposition to policies in the abstract, such as Obamacare.

Secondly, the poll continually asserts that Ohioans will pay more on their electricity bills – $45 this year – to meet the energy efficiency mandates. Nowhere does it mention the fact that customers can opt into rebate programs financed by these surcharges, nor does it mention the fact that energy efficiency programs have saved Ohio ratepayers more than $2 for every $1 invested, according to the electric utilities themselves. Moreover, Ohioans have already indicated (PDF), in multiple polls, that they are willing to pay more for energy efficiency and renewable energy. Fortunately, they don’t have to.

Thirdly, the poll asks two questions about whether or not ratepayers should have the option to opt out of paying the costs of the clean energy mandates. This is exactly the type of question that sounds wonderful in theory, but the Devil is in the details. Allowing ratepayers to opt out of paying into these programs would render them completely ineffective; it would be a de facto repeal in all but the name.

Enabling customers to take advantage of utility rebate programs without paying into them would allow them to become free riders, who would enjoy the benefits of energy efficiency (e.g. lower wholesale electricity costs) without having to bear any of the costs. It’s interesting how conservatives suddenly support subsidies and “picking winners and losers” when the winners are their industry friends. A voluntary opt-out provision would simply drive up the costs of compliance to the point where the programs were completely suspended. We know that the members of “Ohioans for Sustainable Jobs” would like to see SB 221 repealed in its entirety. But because that would never fly – see SB 58 – they want to hide behind semantics and do it under the cover of night instead.

I will continue to say this over and over and over and over again: Existing Ohio law requires all energy efficiency programs to save ratepayers more than they cost. If they do not pass this total resource cost test – which they have, by the way – the Public Utilities Commission is legally obligated to reject them.

The entire foundation of this poll is based on the phony premise that energy efficiency programs cost Ohioans more than they save. That’s completely unfounded, and, as a result, this poll is nothing more than a house of cards. The Supreme Court may claim that money equals speech, but it doesn’t enable you to buy your own facts.

The Opportunity Corridor is an environmental justice disaster

opportunity corridor map

Map of the proposed Opportunity Corridor path (courtesy of the Ohio Department of Transportation).

There is no question that environmental justice (EJ) is and has long been one of the key civil rights issues facing this country. While we may not think about the issue, perhaps because the environment is seen as some amorphous, natural entity, environmental quality varies significantly based on location and socioeconomic status.

Decades of research shows that poor communities of color are far more susceptible to the deleterious effects of air, water, and soil pollution (PDF) than other groups. Though the issue continues to loom large, the country has made progress over the last two decades.The EPA has an Environmental Justice division, an offshoot of Executive Order 12898, which President Clinton signed 20 years ago this February. All 50 states and the District of Columbia now have some sort of EJ legislation or policy on the books.

But despite these successes, much remains to be done. A new study from researchers at the University of Minnesota in PLOS One shows clearly that racial disparities in air quality remain a serious issue (PDF) for public and environmental health in the US.

The authors compared Census data to national information on exposure to nitrogen dioxide, NO2, one of six criteria air pollutants as set by the EPA. Based on the analysis, average NO2 concentrations were 14.5 parts per billion (ppb) for nonwhites, compared to just 9.9ppb for whites. Accordingly, nonwhites were exposed to 38% higher levels of NO2. Exposure also broke down along income levels.

no2 disparities by county

County level differences in population-weighted mean NO2 concentrations between low-income nonwhites and high-income whites (courtesy of PLOS One).

The authors note that these disparities, particularly the major gap along racial lines, likely leads to major public health impacts. They estimate that, if nonwhites had the same rate of NO2 exposure as whites, it would lead an annual decrease of roughly 7,000 ischemic heart disease deaths. To put that in perspective, 3.2 million adults would have to give up smoking to get this same outcome.

Air pollution and race in Northeast Ohio

As you might expect, there is a significant racial disparity in NO2 exposure within the Cleveland metro area. Based on the authors’ data, nonwhites in Cleveland are exposed to 2.3ppb more NO2 than whites on an annual basis. This constitutes the 17th largest gross disparity in the country. Much of the work on urban air pollution focuses on pollutants from stationary sources, particularly coal-fired power plants. But, if you actually break down the data in low-income, minority communities, pollution from transportation emerges as a major issue. In a 2009 report from the Pacific Institute (PDF), residents of Richmond, a low-income community in Northern California, identified freight transport as one of the leading environmental threats to their well-being.

Unlike other pollutants like CO2, SO2, or mercury, the EPA says that 57% of NO2 pollution derives from mobile sources (i.e. automobiles). That number is even higher for Ohio (65%) and Cuyahoga County (77%). NO2 has been linked to asthma, decreased lung function, low birth weight, and elevated risks of both cardiovascular and respiratory mortality.

Unfortunately, NO2 pollution represents a legacy of our country’s highly flawed history of transportation policy, which cut low-income and minority neighborhoods in half and facilitated White flight into the outlying suburbs. Due to such misguided investments, the CDC estimates that 11.3 million Americans live within 150 meters of a major freeway; 47% of these individuals are persons of color.

aerial photo of innerbelt bridge construction cleveland

Construction of the Innerbelt Bridge in Cleveland sliced right through existing residential neighborhoods, as shown in this picture from 1961 (courtesy of  the Cleveland State University archives).

How does the Opportunity Corridor fit into this?

It is in this toxic environment that ODOT and its allies are planning to drop the Opportunity Corridor, a 3-mile, $330 million highway in the middle of overwhelmingly low-income communities of color. I’ve already discussed some of the social and environmental challenges facing the neighborhoods in the path of the project. These neighborhoods have asthma rates nearly double the national average (PDF), and infant mortality rates have been as high as 69 deaths per 1,000 live births. That number is above the rates for Bangladesh, Burma, Haiti, Pakistan, and Rwanda. Many of these critical health issues are closely linked to transportation.

Air quality in Northeast Ohio

While air pollution data are not available below the county level, examining Cuyahoga County’s numbers paints a clear picture. Cuyahoga County ranks among the dirtiest 10% of counties in the entire country for cancer and non-cancer health risks stemming from hazardous air pollutants (HAPs). It also ranks in the worst 10% of all counties in Ohio, a state where people of color are 1.5 times more likely to contract cancer from HAPs and 3.3 times more likely to live near facilities that emit criteria air pollutants.

As the maps below demonstrate, the neighborhoods where the Opportunity Corridor would run bear an immense share of this burden. Children living in these areas have face dangerously high levels of blood lead contamination; this is a toxic legacy of decrepit housing, for sure, but also of a decades-long campaign to keep tetraethyllead in gasoline, despite ample evidence of its harm. (Neil deGrasse Tyson discussed this issue in great detail on Cosmos last week.) Lead is known to reduce cognitive function and cause behavioral issues in children, including aggression and hyperactivity.

 

cuyahoga county blood lead levels

Source: Northeast Ohio Sustainable Communities Consortium

Transportation also represents an important source of fine particulate matter, particularly from heavy trucks/freight, which rely on diesel fuel. While mobile sources only account for 5.2% of PM 2.5 nationally, that portion increases to 12.3% in Ohio and 27.5% in Cuyahoga County; one can only assume it is even higher than this total within these neighborhoods.

We know that PM 2.5 is a leading cause of respiratory and cardiovascular mortality; it is also a dangerous carcinogen. A 2012 study found that reducing levels of particulate pollution in the US by 1 µg/m3 would prevent 34,000 premature deaths annually. In Cuyahoga County, which saw 12,809 deaths from PM 2.5 in 2009, such reductions would prevent 91 premature deaths, more than anywhere else in the state.

pm 2.5 mortality improvements

Source: CDC Environmental Public Health Tracking

Lastly, we know that NO2 is essential for the development of ground level ozone, another dangerous urban air pollutant. Cuyahoga County has consistently remained in nonattainment of EPA ozone standards; from 2006-2008, the County averaged 0.081ppm of ozone, one of the highest marks in the country. The American Lung Association gives the county and the city of Cleveland a solid F for ozone pollution.

All told, the burden of disease in these areas is substantial. Some areas along the proposed highway lose more than 500 years of potential life per 1,000 residents, easily the highest toll in the region. Given the potential of the Opportunity Corridor to exacerbate air pollution in the area, it’s hard to see how the project could avoid being a serious environmental justice issue that calls for appropriate planning and mitigation. Surely, ODOT is on top of this issue?

years of potential life lost northeast ohio

Source: Northeast Ohio Sustainable Communities Consortium

Environmental justice in ODOT’s planning

Not quite. Inexplicably (though not really, when you think about it), ODOT’s draft environmental impact statement (DEIS) gave short shrift to air pollution (PDF). In the DEIS, ODOT states that the project “does not present concern for air quality,” as it is unlikely to significantly increase carbon monoxide or PM 2.5 emissions. The agency does note that mobile source air toxins (MSATs) will likely increase in certain parts of the project area, but it then dismisses this concern within the same breath. And ODOT completely punts on ozone, stating that the issue is NOACA’s responsibility.

The report’s environmental justice is similarly insufficient. While it does acknowledge that “the project was found to have a disproportionately high and adverse effect to low-income and minority populations,” it claims to address the issue by implementing a “voluntary residential relocation program” (read: forcibly relocating 74 families and 44 businesses for a pittance), throwing some money at a rec center, and building a few noise walls.

But again, in typical ODOT Orwellian fashion, it also states that the project will simultaneously benefit these low-income communities of color by, among other things, improving “access to the Interstate system” and increasing “pedestrian and bicycle access, connectivity and safety.” Apparently enhancing freeway access in an area where most households don’t own automobiles is essential for local non-drivers and great for pedestrians.

EPA criticisms of the Opportunity Corridor

The report includes little, if anything, in the way of plans to mitigate potential increases in air pollution due to additional vehicular traffic or to tackle the severe underlying health issues residents face. Unsurprisingly, EPA Region 5 has criticized the DEIS, saying it contains insufficient information on environmental concerns. The letter pointedly reminds ODOT that the Opportunity Corridor runs through areas that are in nonattainment for ozone and PM 2.5, barely meet four other air pollution standards, and have a series of major environmental justice issues. Simply mentioning these issues in passing so the department can check off another box isn’t going to fly with a project of this import.

I know I’ve said before that Northeast Ohio’s transportation policies are stuck in the 1960s. The Opportunity Corridor is an unfortunate reminder of this fact and of that terrible era of “urban renewal.” Residents of the so-called “Forgotten Triangle” – God I hate that moniker – have a fractious history with the state government, one that has, understandably, left them suspicious of ODOT’s motives.

Public meetings about the project have become contentious, and locals have raised a number of valid criticisms of the project. Yet, the wheel of “progress” inevitably rolls forward once again.

If ODOT ever hopes to garner public buy-in for the Opportunity Corridor, it needs to do more than meet the minimum possible standards. Failing to even mention criteria air pollutants like NO2 and SO2 and claiming that a massive highway project will enhance pedestrian safety isn’t good enough any more. The agency and the project’s supporters can and must do more than the bare minimum. Otherwise, the Opportunity Corridor risks becoming yet another one of Northeast Ohio’s environmental justice disasters.

 

Why peace & international engagement may threaten Burma’s fragile ecosystems

cyclone nargis damage
cyclone nargis damage

Damage to the Irrawaddy Delta following Cyclone Nargis (courtesy of ECHO).

This article is cross-posted from New Security Beat.

Political and economic changes in Burma have been as rapid as they are surprising. In just three years, the country has gone from an isolated military dictatorship to a largely open country that is at least semi-democratic and has formally adopted a market economy. Both the European Union and the United States have eased economic sanctions, and dozens of foreign firms have moved in. Foreign direct investment increased by 160 percent in 2013 alone.

But the transition to an open and free state is far from finished and continued progress far from inevitable, as the country’s tattered ecosystems show.

Conflict and conservation

Nearly from the moment of its birth as a country, Burma has been beset by violence. Since 1948, the government has faced armed rebellions from no fewer than 30 ethnic minority groups. This constant warfare directly contributed to the military coup in 1962 and has helped drive corruption, structural violence, and economic stagnation.

Yet, counterintuitively, peace can sometimes end up being worse for the environment than war. According to Jeff McNeely, warfare among pre-industrial societies has historically led to the development of large buffer zones along borders; these buffer zones, in turn, developed into refuges for biodiversity. Modern warfare can likewise foster the development of such buffer zones, benefiting biodiversity and environmental conservation, though McNeely emphasizes that any such benefits are “incidental, inadvertent, or accidental.”

Cold War-era isolation has facilitated the development of modern refuges along the border between the Koreas and in the area surrounding the former Iron Curtain. But such havens may come under threat once the fog of war lifts. Judy Oglethorpe et al. note the environment is particularly at risk in the period immediately following conflict. Private actors move in to quickly exploit newly available resources, and post-conflict governments frequently prioritize revenues over long-term natural resource management.

One need look no further than the mid-1990s see this effect in Burma. Following the country’s second military coup in 1988, the junta began buying off the leaders of armed ethnic groups with resource revenues. In particular, the regime effectively used logging concessions to secure a number of ceasefire agreements.

However, according to Karen Ballentine and Heiko Nitzschke, “securing such ceasefires through a combination of economic inducement and military threat does not guarantee a sustainable or just peace, particularly where, as in Burma, the entrepreneurs of violence and corruption are rewarded at the expense of civilian well-being.” On the contrary, conflict economies in these areas simply morphed into “ceasefire economies,” and illegal logging flourished. After the junta reached a ceasefire with the Kachin Independence Army in 1994, for instance, the center of Burma’s illegal timber trade shifted to their former area of operations, along the northeast border with China.

Inequality and vulnerability

The risk of environmental damage from Burma’s modernization is not some looming threat; it is already unfolding. Current laws allow the government to seize land and distribute it to private actors without adequate compensation or informed consent. Such policies have contributed to a spike in large-scale land acquisitions or “land grabs,” with nearly 750 cases being reported in 2012-2013 alone.

Moreover, despite government attempts to curtail illegal timber exports, they have been on the rise. Burmese businesses exported more than 400,000 cubic meters of teak in 2013, double the government’s quota. The government continues to allow a handful of well-connected companies to dominate the timber industry, to the detriment of the country’s remaining forest cover – and more equitable development.

“Forestland conversion is predominately in resource-rich ethnic conflict areas – now the country’s final forest frontier – which is part of the government’s attempt at gaining greater state territorial control and access to natural resources,” wrote Forest Trends’ Kevin Woods in a report:

Many of these forestland conversion projects are promoted to local ethnic communities and elected officials as development projects to bring about peace and spur economic growth. In practice, however, these development projects have more to do with the well-connected Myanmar private company getting access to timber and land than central government and local state development goals.

Given these developments, Edward Webb et al. concluded in a January Global Environmental Change article that “recent policy developments seem poised to deeply and negatively affect remaining natural ecosystems across Myanmar.” They project that all remaining mangrove forests in the Irrawaddy Delta, one of Burma’s most densely populated regions, could disappear as early as 2019. Such an outcome would pose an existential threat to the more than 7.7 million people who live there, given the Delta’s extreme vulnerability to tropical cyclones.

After Cyclone Nargis killed more than 138,000 people in 2008, the UN Environment Program noted the loss of the mangroves and other environmental degradation played a key role in the devastation:

The cyclone’s impacts were exacerbated by earlier damage to the environment, including deforestation and degradation of mangroves, over-exploitation of natural resources such as fisheries, and soil erosion…The deterioration of the natural resource base, in effect, reduced people’s resilience against the impacts of Nargis.

Multilateral engagement could help

Peace and international engagement obviously do not doom a country to ecological catastrophe. But as it opens up, Burma is at a crossroads for environmental management the results of which will reverberate for security and development long into the future.

Engagement with environmental NGOs and international donor organizations may help. President Thein Sein has already expressed a desire to join both the European Union’s Forest Law Enforcement, Governance, and Trade Program and the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative. Additionally, the World Conservation Society is working with the government to double the extent of protected areas in the country from 5 percent to 10 percent. These are promising signs, but the scale of the illicit timber trade, the threat of land grabbing, and the vulnerability of the Irrawaddy Delta remain huge challenges.

Recent changes represent important, positive steps towards engagement from isolation and towards peace from war. But the country needs to be proactive if it hopes to foster sustainable peace and development. If it works carefully in concert with the international community, it may be able to secure both. However, if Burma fails to learn from the failed ceasefires of the 1990s, by opting to prioritize rapid economic growth over true sustainable development, it may be doomed to repeat the past.