As the World Turned: Environmental News During the Holidays

by Bill Chameides | January 5th, 2009
posted by Erica Rowell (Editor)

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A lot happened while many of us were on vacation, including an important anniverary of a space mission. Now we’re onto 2009. (Photo: NASA)

Welcome back. Here’s a quick review of what happened while we were celebrating the holiday season with family and friends.

Did anyone say ‘CLEAN’ Coal?

Probably the season’s biggest story was the huge spill of coal ash from the coal-fired Kingston Fossil power plant in Tennessee.

Coal presents a predicament. We have huge reserves of the stuff, enough to keep us rolling in cheap energy for a long time. But of all the fossil fuels, it’s the dirtiest.

“Clean coal” technology is supposed to take care of the dirt by first capturing carbon dioxide (CO2) and then storing it in a salt mine or similar geologic formation in the Earth’s crust. But this process only takes care of one of coal’s problems.

There’s also mountain top removal. And solid waste. When coal is burned, it leaves behind ash that is loaded with toxic chemicals like arsenic, lead, and mercury. Many plants, including Kingston, have no way to dispose of the stuff safely so they dump it into a huge “waste retention pond.” Not, in my opinion, a great solution —  eventually that waste has to go somewhere. Roane County discovered that that somewhere can be your own backyard. I guess the proper term would be “not-quite-by-a-long-shot clean coal” technology.

A ‘Clean Air’ Rule Re-Gifted for the Holidays

Another big story was the resurrection of the Clean Air Interstate Rule (CAIR).

The Bush administration’s record on the environment has not been impressive — to put it kindly. One of the very few exceptions was CAIR, which set ambitious targets for reducing sulfur oxide and nitrogen oxide emissions from power plants in the East and Midwest.

However, last July the DC Court of Appeals struck down CAIR –- much to the dismay of all concerned, plaintiffs and defendants alike. But on December 23, the same court presented us with a rare holiday present: vacating its own rule, it allowed the emission targets to stand but left it to the Obama administration to devise an implementation that does not “overstep” the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority.

Did the Wall Street Journal Admit Its Ignorance on Global Warming?

When it comes to global warming, I find the editorial and op-ed pages of the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) truly exceptional –- exceptional for their extreme, one-sided, and unscientific treatment of the issue. But on December 18, 2008, the WSJ, writing on the Madoff scandal, opined that people ”acquired their faith in Mr. Madoff more or less the way people acquire their faith in global warming … from people equally as ignorant as they.”

At first I took this as a slap at the scientific community, but then I realized they must be talking about themselves when they referred to “ignorant people.” That is, people got suckered by Madoff in much the way people have been taken in about global warming by the WSJ editorial board –- who are obviously ignorant of the issue. It is reassuring that the WSJ folks are finally coming around on global warming.

Where Is China Headed?

Along with its economy, China’s greenhouse gas emissions have been ballooning — so much so that it tops many a list of the world’s biggest global warming polluters. But the global recession has not spared China.

China’s electricity usage had decreased by almost nine percent in November, no doubt signaling a fall in its greenhouse gas emissions. Now reports show that China’s rate of economic growth has hit a tailspin and could fall from the double digits of the past two decades to as low as 4 or 5 percent per year in 2009. I have often heard that to maintain political control, the Chinese government must maintain an economic growth rate of at least eight percent per year. It would seem that we are entering uncharted waters.

Whither the Octopuses?

Here’s another thing to worry about from increasing CO2 concentrations: giant squid. It seems that the warmer and more acidic the oceans become, as a result of increased CO2 levels, the harder it is for giant squid to survive. Now, the prospect of disappearing octopuses (octopusi?) does not sound very troublesome on the surface, but every link in the food web chain is just that –- a link. Lose too many links and there goes the chain.

Forty Years Later

December 24th was the fortieth anniversary of the Apollo 8 mission, the space trip that put humans in orbit about the moon. In our twenty-first century mindset that might not seem much of a milestone for a society struggling with wars and terrorism, rampant poverty, global warming, and now a worldwide economic meltdown. In fact the mission was a watershed moment for us. Among the items the astronauts brought back was a picture of the Earth rising above the barren moonscape — reminding us all of the grandeur and fragility of our home planet, and the common stake we all have in stewarding it; and inspiring many like myself to work for the environment.

With that image in mind, bring on the new year.

filed under: animals, coal, faculty, global warming, oceans
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