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Environmental Heresies – Wired Magazines Contrarian take

Sunday, November 2nd, 2008

I was flipping through my stack of magazines that I am trying to catch up on and ran across the June issue of Wired magazine that has this attention-grabbing headline on the cover, “Attention Environmentalists: Keep your SUV. Forget organics. Go nuclear. Screw the spotted owl.” The article stipulates that “If you’re serious about global warming, only one things matters: Cutting carbon. That means facing some inconvenient truths.” The article goes on to list “10 Green Heresies.” To summarize:

1. Live in cities
The magazine goes on to state that urban living is kinder to the planet. The desire for more elbowroom has caused sprawl to get out of control. Currently there are over 3.5 million commuters in the United States who spend more than 3 hours a day in transit spewing carbon dioxide. The average Manhattanite’s carbon footprint is 30 percent smaller than the average American. This is not surprising since 65 percent of the population walks, bikes, or rides mass transit to work. Large apartment buildings are the most efficient dwellings to heat and cool. So move to the cities.

2. A/C is ok
The magazine compares living in Phoenix to New England. When it is 0 degrees outside (in New England), you must raise the indoor thermometer to 70 degrees. In 110-degree weather, you need to change the temperature by only 40 degrees to achieve the same temperature. Also, it takes less energy to cool a given space by 1 degree than to heat it by the same amount. A New England home would release 13,000 pounds of carbon annually for heating, compared to 900 pounds of carbon produced by a Phoenix home for cooling.

3. Organics are not the answer
Organic dairy comes from cows that are not pumped up with hormones. The result is that they produce 8 percent less milk than conventionally raised cows. Add to that the fact that a single organically raised cow puts out 16 percent more greenhouse gases than its counterpart. So more cows and more carbon per cow for the organic over the conventional variety of cows.
For burgers, organic beef steers take longer to achieve slaughter weight, which gives them more time to emit polluting methane. Grass-fed cattle burp up 2X the methane as the corn fed cattle. For produce, organic varieties require more land per unit of food. The organic food is also produced by industrial-scale farms and then shipped thousands of miles to their final location. This food is shipped in carbon dioxide belching refrigerated trucks. Wired’s suggestion is to eat food that is locally grown and in season.

4. Farm the forest
In warm weather, trees release volatile chemicals that act as catalysts for smog. Over the lifetime of a tree, it shifts from being a vacuum cleaner for atmospheric carbon to an emitter. For the first 55 years the tree absorbs 1500 pounds of carbon. After that, this number decreases and if left untouched, the tree will ultimately release all that carbon back into the atmosphere. Last year, a report released by the Canadian government, found that the Canadian forests actually give up more carbon from decomposing wood then they lock down in new growth. When it comes to fighting climate change, it’s more effective to treat forests like crops than like majestic monuments to nature. Wired’s suggestion? Create tree farms that act like factories for sucking carbon out of the air. Continually cut down the oldest trees and plant new ones. And as soon as the carbon sequestration of the tree begins to flag, cut down the tree and use the wood to produce durable goods like furniture and houses. This will take huge amounts of carbon out of the atmosphere.

5. China is the solution
Jeff Immelt, CEO of General Electric stated, “China has as much or more at stake than anyone. Solar energy, carbon sequestration – we’re going to be blown away by China’s progress in the next couple of decades.” China is the world’s number exporter of solar cells, soon will be in rechargeable lithium-ion batteries, and windmills. With the Chinese manufacturing muscle behind these green technologies, they will become cheaper and more available. By 2010, China will produce enough gear to generate 10 gigawatts of power annually – more than half the capacity that the whole world installed in 2007.

6. Accept genetic engineering
Keeping 6 billion people fed accounts for 14 percent of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. Genetically engineered crops create higher yields with less greenhouse emissions. Newly engineered biofuel alternatives to replace our fossil fuels. BP and Synthetic Genomics are working on microorganisms that produce cleaner alternatives to gasoline. Amyris Biotechnologies is working on bugs that make jet fuel. So get off of genetic engineering’s back.

7. Carbon trading does not work
Carbon trading is the payment to others to reduce their carbon emissions. Sounds great on paper, but in reality it is hand-waving at best and outright scams at worst. Even if carbon trading fully worked as advertised, the Kyoto Protocol’s carbon trading will slow rising emissions by a whooping 6.5 days by 2012.

8. Embrace nuclear power
Without the troublesome radioactive waste or proliferating weapons, nuclear power is the most climate-friendly industrial-scale energy source. Every serious effort at carbon accounting reaches the same conclusion: Nukes win. A UK white paper last year factored in everything from uranium mining to plant decommissioning and determined that nuclear power emits 2 to 6 percent of carbon per kilowatt-hour as natural gas, the cleanest of the fossil fuels. Personally I think that nuclear power has been unfairly ostracized. The safety record of nuclear power is unmatched. With over 12,700 reactor-years of civil operation there have only been two major accidents. Three Mile Island (USA 1979) where the reactor was severely damaged but radiation was contained and there were no adverse health or environmental consequences and Chernobyl (Ukraine 1986) where the destruction of the reactor by steam explosion and fire killed 31 people and had significant health and environmental consequences. If you take the immediate fatalities from 1970-1992 nuclear power only had 31 fatalities, compared to 6400 for Coal, 1200 for Natural gas, and 4000 for Hydroelectric. This shows that nuclear power is a distinctly safer way to generate electricity.

9. Used cars – not hybrids
Making a Toyota Prius contributes more carbon to the atmosphere than making a Hummer, due to the environmental cost of the 30 pounds of nickel in the hybrid’s battery. The magazine’s recommendation is to purchase a used car that has already had its carbon debt paid off by its first owner. By buying a used Toyota Tercel, the Prius would have to drive 100,000 miles just to catch up.

10. Prepare for the worst
According to Wired, change is inevitable. If the US, Europe, and Japan turned off every power plant and mothballed every car today, atmospheric carbon dioxide would still climb from 380 parts per million to 450 ppm by 2070, thanks to contributions from China and India. There is a green taboo that climate change is a specter to be fought, not accommodated. Our ability to cope with global warming is far greater than our chances of stopping it entirely. The quote of the article is this one: “In his 1992 best seller, Earth in the Balance, Al Gore derided adaptation as “a kind of laziness, an arrogant faith in our ability to react in time to save our own skin.” Better to take Stewart Brand’s advice from the opening page of the original Whole Earth Catalog: “We are as gods and might as well get good at it.” We’re in charge here. Let’s get to work.”

Whether you agree or disagree with Wired’s assertions, I value Wired’s contrarian view on this topic. It is rare to see any criticism of the current environmental movement. Which, if you think about it is very scary. What are your thoughts?

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