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EcoFacts: Hot Air

Weekly column by Barbara Hirsch

It would go without saying that our experience of the climate is filtered by where we live – the bubble effect. It’s been crazy here in Santa Barbara, much warmer than usual, to go with those ocean temperatures. What about where you live?

It’s not only El Niño we’re talking about, which normally effects Pacific region water and air temperatures, but rainfall everywhere. Here is a map of temperature anomalies for this past summer, globally. You can go to this site and look at maps for other years, such as a previous extreme El Niño,1982-3. Keep in mind that 1 degree Celsius is 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit.
As far as averages go, from weatherspark on Santa Barbara – “the month of September is characterized by essentially constant daily high temperatures, with daily highs around 74°F throughout the month, exceeding 81°F or dropping below 67°F only one day in ten.” We had NO days as cool as 74°F 16 days warmer than 81°F here, in SB.
Four western states had their warmest temps. on record, January to August. South America had the warmest average temperature in the last hundred years. Most of the planet experienced warmer temperatures. Arctic sea ice is the fourth lowest on record.
2014 offered the warmest year – air and water both – since 1880 when record keeping began.
Climate change is probably also making El Niños more extreme, and possibly more frequent, which will have dramatic effects on sustainable development around the world.

Tropical Waters in Santa Barbara

Column by Barbara Hirsch

Year round averages for coastal water temperatures here in Santa Barbara range from 56 to 65 degrees F, with the highest being in August. The average for September is 64. In the last week we’ve had temperatures ranging from 69 to 73.5, and fairly consistently in the 70s during the day, little different from August. Sept. 24th in 2005 was 59-63,  in 2014 that day was 65-71.

These and other Pacific temperature anomalies predict the strong El Niño that we’re all hoping will help to bring an end to the years long drought. But as we’ve heard, sea temperatures are rising in general. Current temps are higher than ever, since the 1880s.

global-warmingGlobal warming warms the oceans too, they absorb CO2 and the solar heat, and then weather patterns change as a result.

Tropical conditions have chased away cooler water creatures, like krill, sardines and anchovies which are food for many local marine creatures, including sea lions. Hence the great number of young sea lions dying in the last year on our coast.

Other species are showing up. A year ago a fisherman in the S.F. Bay Area caught an endangered green sea turtle that would normally live in tropical waters. Local fisherman have been catching tropical tunas – yellow and bluefin, and other species. And then there are those hammerhead sharks that have been frightening people.

But the waters sure have been great for swimming and truly sweet relief from these warm AIR temperatures!


EcoFacts: The Price of Oil

Weekly column by Barbara Hirsch

gas_pricesAlthough we can count on gas prices rising again, in some parts of the country right now you can get a gallon for two bucks, much cheaper than store bought drinking water, and close to a quarter of its price in some other places, like Norway. So it is probably no surprise that truck and SUV sales are up. The top 3 best selling cars last month were not cars – the Ford F series (71,332), Chevrolet Silverado and Ram pickups. Hybrid and electric sales are down (46,643 in August), they make up 3% of the market, it was 3.5% last year. People also drove more miles in the first half of the year than ever before.

From an ecological perspective the one good thing about this, is that expensive energy intensive methods (shale oil or fracking) for sucking more oil out of the ground become economically less viable. Arctic drilling too maybe? The Saudis are hoping so apparently, although clearly not for environmental reasons.

In the last year 60% of drilling rigs in the U.S. have been shut down, and tens of thousands of workers laid off.

Maybe this volatility will eventually make an alternative energy based economy more attractive, but $2 gas will be hard to beat.


Weekly Column by Barbara Hirsch

541871_478256228904375_2076320577_nNorway’s Pension Fund, the second largest in the world, just divested from a giant Korean conglomerate (Posco) because of an Indonesian company it owns that continues to clear tropical forests to plant palm oil plantations. The Union of Concerned Scientists now publishes a palm oil scorecard to put pressure on companies’ sourcing of the oil.

Palm oil is profitable.  Wildlife, primary forests and their ecosystems, carbon sinks, not so much. The palms are grown near the equator, especially in Indonesia and Malaysia. The oil is in innumerable processed foods and personal care products – soaps, shampoos, makeup, toothpaste, bread, snacks, cookies, ice cream, even chocolate (Hershey’s has been working to trace the origins of all of its palm oil, and so far they’ve tracked their sources to 1200 mills!)  Those of us who regularly look at ingredients lists will certainly recognize these names and derivatives:
   INGREDIENTS: Vegetable Oil, Vegetable Fat, Palm Kernel, Palm Kernel Oil, Palm Fruit Oil, Palmate, Palmitate, Palmolein, Glyceryl, Stearate, Stearic Acid, Elaeis Guineensis, Palmitic Acid, Palm Stearine, Palmitoyl Oxostearamide, Palmitoyl Tetrapeptide-3, Sodium Laureth Sulfate, Sodium Lauryl Sulfate, Sodium Kernelate, Sodium Palm Kernelate, Sodium Lauryl Lactylate/Sulphate, Hydrated Palm Glycerides, Cetyl Palmitate, Octyl Palmitate, Palmityl Alcohol (from WWF)
Responsibly sourced palm oil has the cool acronym RSPO (Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil). Currently 20% of the world’s palm oil is thus certified. But it costs more.
The biggest importer of palm oil is India where it is used for frying foods. They use 15% of the world’s supply. The top four consumers of the stuff are India, Indonesia, European Union and China.  West Africa’s plantations are next, to help supply needs for this oil expected to triple by 2050. 

EcoFacts: Forests for the Trees

Weekly column by Barbara Hirsch

All land species require them in some way or other, and millions of plants and animals are going extinct as we clear away their homes.  A world without trees would not be a human friendly place.  An extensive report befitting the scope of the subject was just published in Nature, giving the best findings yet on the global tree population, calculated by a combination of satellite and ground based field work.
treeThe current count of trees is over 3 trillion, far more than previous estimates. However, the planet has lost close to half the number of trees that existed before deforestation began in relatively recent history.
Less than half of forests are tropical and subtropical. But more than half of the loss has been among them.
How many trees per person? Russia and Canada’s boreal forests contain several thousand trees per person in their countries; Brazil has 1494; U.S. has 716;  China has 102;  India, a mere 28!! 
Around 15 billion trees are lost annually, more than two trees for every person on the planet. In acres, the number is 45 million, an area twice the size of Portugal was lost last year.
The countries with the fastest acceleration of tree loss are in the southern hemisphere. Besides timber, the global demand for beef, soy, rubber and palm oil are driving forces.
On a more local note, at least 12.5 million trees have been killed by the drought in California’s National forests alone. The drought a few years ago in Texas killed 300 million.
In 2006 UNEP – the U.N. Environment Programme – launched a massive tree planting program, the Billion Tree Campaign, that has since resulted in over 12.5 billion trees being planted.


EcoFacts: Trash Talk

Weekly column by Barbara Hirsch

RecyclePoster_City_2015Considerably more than half of all of our trash ends up in ever filling landfills. Besides the sheer transport of hundreds of thousands of tons per day to those landfills, they are the third largest emitter of methane, a potent greenhouse gas.

Certainly recycling is good, but far from good enough. So called “single stream”, recycling – all in one bin –  was to make it easier for consumers. The result is tremendous cost to municipalities and uneven results, including pollution.

Of our recyclables, more than half of them get shipped to China, mostly plastic and paper. (The only U.S. product we ship more of to them is soybeans.). A few years ago in an effort to clean up their environment, China began to reject much of the recycling (the Green Fence) coming into their ports. The great amount of contaminants was being burned and polluting. It is now diverted to other countries for further removal of contaminants, and associated pollution.

From a recent piece in the Guardian “by pushing to increase recycling rates with bigger and bigger bins – while demanding almost no sorting by consumers – the recycling stream has become increasingly polluted and less valuable, imperiling the economics of the whole system.”

For another side of the story, here is a rosy story of recycling, though definitely worth a viewing, from Santa Barbara.

EcoFacts: The State of Recycling, Part II‏

Weekly column by Barbara Hirsch

recycling_symbolSafe to say that recycling takes a back seat in public consciousness.  So many issues are of greater importance, but overall, resources must be an issue of primary concern – how we humans use the planet, not only how we live with each other!  Towards Resource Wisdom is a phrase that moves me.

We can only handle increasing needs of an increasing population if more materials are recovered than currently are, and if we are much more efficient in our use of them. Every product we use requires energy and water besides the other resources needed. For example, recycling one aluminum can  saves enough energy to power a 100 watt lightbulb for 4 hours, uses far less water and emits much less pollution, than making one from mined bauxite. Plastic is another version of oil, and most of it is not recycled.

A glimpse at the state of recycling:In the U.S. in 2013 about a third of all MSW (municipal solid waste) was recovered/recycled.

34% of glass bottles, 14% of all plastic packaging, including 30% of plastic bottles,  55% of beer and soda cans, 67% of papers of all kinds. Of the waste that is generated, 44% of it is packaging!

In California, AB 341 will require us to recover 75% of all MSW five years from now, we are currently at half. This will mean getting us down to less than 2.7 lbs of garbage per person per day.  Source reduction will be a key method of achieving this. The more we have, the more we toss!  And for business, extended producer responsibility makes both economic and environmental sense.

Cheers to that other 3 Rs – Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, which supposedly came from our Earth Day 45 years ago!

EcoFacts: The State of Recycling, Part I

Weekly column by Barbara Hirsch

recycling_symbolYou may have noticed curbside and public recycling bins with lots of unrecyclables in them, and conversely garbage bins with lots of recyclables.

What can be recycled differs everywhere, but here is a simple guide for Californians and others unsure.
There are thousands of workers who work to separate our recycling streams, let’s give them a hand and increase the value of reusable materials by not contaminating them.

The following can not be recycled, they are landfill. These contaminate materials that can be recovered. Hence, it is a NO to:
used tissue and paper towels,   paper drinking cups,   plastic eating utensils,   bits of plastic wrapping,   food, liquids,   paper plates,   takeout food containers,  plastic container caps,  styrofoam,  dishes,  drinking glasses, mirrors, lightbulbs,  chip bags,  candy wrappers,  shredded paper,  register and atm receipts,  compostable plastics,  household and automotive containers of liquids, powders, e.g. insecticides, cleaners.
These items generally CAN be recycled:
Beverage containers including plastic cups (should be empty.)
Tetra pak – those rectangular waxy things that hold drinks and soups, and milk cartons
Aluminum and steel cans, solid metals
Office paper and envelopes, newspaper, cardboard
E-waste – all electronics, by drop off or special pickup
Batteries, easier if you place them in a bag.
Plastic bags – bagged together, not individual, due to sorting machines
large plastic items, as valued materials can easily be separated
Textiles should be dropped off at a thrift store or bin.

EcoFacts: Less Cool

Weekly column by Barbara Hirsch

Perhaps you’ve heard the news this past week, (so well timed for ecofacts) which must be just thrumming through officeland. In short, for the last FIFTY or so years, building air conditioners have been generally set for the comfort of the average sized (then 155 lbs) 40 year old man, and he happens to have considerably higher metabolic rates than women. Men are warmer, women are cooler, because muscles burn more energy than fat, accounting for this difference.

health-graphics-20_1052695aOf course it was men who mainly populated those office buildings then and were in control of their environment. Businessmen also wore wool suits and ties, while women wore dresses, although often with sweaters and those iconic nylons that thankfully kept their legs warm.

Yes, extreme heat is anti-productive, but so is chill (the cold kind). When a heavily air conditioned insurance office was brought up to 77 degrees, typos went down and productivity went up.  And, if the thermostat is changed from 72 to 77 degrees, electricity bills can go down 11% – that’s a lot of bucks.

I mentioned the recent plea in New York City to raise thermostats to 78 degrees to avoid blackouts. Well for a decade, Japan’s government has encouraged the country (Cool Biz) to have summer office settings at 25 degrees celsius ( 82.4 F ! ) for energy and CO2 emission savings. It helps that their obesity rate is much lower than ours.

Older people also have slower metabolic rates and get chilly more easily. And, air conditioning heats outside air in cities. 

So not only must we fundamentally change the ways we use energy, but women and men over 40 make a majority –  it’s time for an AC attitude change!

Also probably time for another subject.

EcoFacts: Cool II

Weekly column by Barbara Hirsch

In the 1920s movie theaters began to lure people in during the summer with images of icicles. In the 30s, trains, department stores and some offices got cooler, increasing business and productivity. Much later, large computer systems could not exist without cooling technology.  Growth of the south in the U.S. and other southern climes has happened because of air conditioning.

As always there’s a flip side to the benefits of air conditioning. There have been health issues and research is showing it may even be contributing to obesity. But the bigger hugeness is simply energy use. Temperatures rise, the chances of power outages increase, and then there is no relief whatsoever. And most of us have experienced buildings that are simply too chilly, over air conditioned. NY’s mayor just implored people to help avoid blackouts in the summer heat by setting their thermostats to 78 degrees.
ImageProxyMid day heat is peak energy use time, when the grid is most stressed. What if the work to cool us could happen at night?  Recently a very cool company relocated to Santa Barbara – Ice Energy systems. Energy is stored in ice. If it is made at night and used for cooling during the day…. pretty simple, eh? And so effective that Edison has teamed up with them.

Sadly, this ice could not be used in the summer.