Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Canada's 2009-10 winter warmest on record

Canada’s winter was the warmest since they started keeping records 62 years ago. Seven degrees (farenheit) above normal: http://bit.ly/cGAUkH

This data point for merely a few months on a small part of the planet’s surface is of no statistical significance when it comes to using (or misusing) it for the purposes of talking about climate change.

Still, it’s interesting. And so is this graphic showing the temperature departures from normal across the globe.

Here in the continental U.S. we were a little chilly. We know this because of the little blue dots over our nation. We also know because because Glenn Beck and Senator Inhofe and Rush Limbaugh went apoplectic and  frothed at the mouth every time it snowed in Washington or iced up in Atlanta.

But our Canuck neighbors weren't cool. They were exceptionally warm this winter. And, clearly, so was the majority of the planet.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Rite of Spring: The lawn care hoax convinces us to expose our children and pets to dangerous chemical poisons

 Soon the lawn care trucks will begin hosing down suburban lawns – maybe yours? -- with toxic chemicals that they’ve convinced us are necessary for healthy grass.

It’s a dangerous and sophisticated marketing con job that we’ve all bought into. Wholesale application of lawn chemicals is not only unnecessary and a waste of money, it is dangerous for children and pets.

The group Beyond Pesticides says that of 30 commonly used lawn pesticides 19 have studies pointing toward carcinogens, 13 are linked with birth defects, 21 with reproductive effects, 15 with neurotoxicity, 26 with liver or kidney damage, 27 are sensitizers and/or irritants, and 11 have the potential to disrupt the endocrine (hormonal) system: http://bit.ly/6gbnoU

Children’s developing brains, nervous systems and reproductive organs are the most sensitive to long-term damage from environmental toxins. If you were intentionally applying the same chemicals to your child’s bedding, a call to the child welfare agency would be in order.

Lawn chemicals poison your pets, too. A study by Purdue University researchers showed herbicide-treated lawns increased the risk of bladder cancer in Scottish Terriers by four to seven times. That adds to other research showing the danger to dogs: http://bit.ly/9FtrHu
But companies like TruGreen continue peddling their toxics to a largely indifferent public. TruGreen was recently was dropped as an Earth Day sponsor in the wake of an outpouring of anger from environmentalists and organic gardeners. A half-million dollars worth of fines for safety violations didn’t help: http://bit.ly/dBvVHx

There are plenty of alternatives to artificially and chemically dependent turf grasses for your landscaping. And even if you insist on the turf grass, you can find companies who will keep it healthy without spraying dangerous chemicals on it.

You can establish a clover lawn, which creates its own fertilizer as a nitrogen fixer: http://bit.ly/CisC5

You could replace grass with hardier native plants: http://www.mnppa.org Such plants don’t need chemicals to thrive because nature has already designed them to thrive in Michigan’s climate and soil.

Or you could simply hire a lawn care company that will agree to manage your lawn with nontoxic products. This company outside Detroit http://bit.ly/an7Xuf turned up in a quick Google search. Don't know anything about them, but I like how they talk. If I do need lawn help, I may give them a call.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

GR Press writer: Bikers, hikers get shaft as combustion engine crew stacks Gov's advisory board

Do those of us who prefer nonmotorized means of enjoying our parks, woods and meadows get shafted when it comes to policy deliberations about how trails are managed? Howard Meyerson from the Grand Rapids Press thinks so: http://bit.ly/9qY6ir

He blames Gov. Jennifer Granholm for stacking the trails advisory committee with advocates of snowmobiling and ORVs to the exclusion of folks representing hikers, mountain bikers, cross-country skiers, backpackers, paddlers (water trails) equestrians and touring cyclists who use the state’s rail-to-trail system.

Good groups like the Michigan Trails and Greenways Alliance, with whom I collaborate on occasion, are left out of the discussions, Meyerson says.

But there are still a couple of unfilled seats on the committee, so Meyerson’s column comes at a good time.
If you want to tell the governor to include more “quiet” outdoor activities on the trails committee, call or write her here: http://bit.ly/zRMzQ

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Best Buy tells the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to stuff it! You don't represent us on climate change

With the year-long health care debate coming to a close, hopes are high that Congress will address the issue of  energy independence. And the Best Buy chain of superstores agrees!

Best Buy told the U.S. Chamber of Commerce last week that it most assuredly does not have their support when it comes to the Chamber's obstructionist approach to limiting climate changing pollution: http://bit.ly/9ybsaj

Best Buy is "...supportive of comprehensive climate change legislation and working to move toward a low carbon economy. With regard to the Chamber’s climate initiatives, the Chamber has not spoken for Best Buy on these issues."

Bravo. The company also ranked 61st on a Green Ranking list of America's 500 largest corporations done by Newsweek Magazine: http://greenrankings.newsweek.com/

Best Buy's impersonal, warehousy feel creeps me out. But my perception of the place just got a little warmer and fuzzier.

Urban farming takes root on Detroit's vacant lands, but will bigger necessarily be better?

On an urban farm in Detroit’s Corktown district my daughter, Ashley Lake is growing mushrooms. She intends to sell them to local restaurants, perhaps at Eastern Market, and to anyone else who wants fresh, unprocessed, tasty produce that has never seen a cross-country trip on a semi-truck.

The man lives next door to Ashley, Greg Willerer, told me he made $20,000 last year growing produce on the small parcel of land adjacent to his house. That’s in addition to his other jobs as an educator and for a community nonprofit. The photo above is Greg, from a profile of him in Time Magazine: http://bit.ly/9snZOm

This article from the Detroit Free Press http://bit.ly/dvMUpT illustrates how such small-scale ventures are gaining a foothold on Detroit’s vacant lands. It also predicts that farming is going to ramp up big-time in the city.

Small farms interspersed throughout communities are hard to argue with. They provide fresh, nutritious local food for communities that sorely need it. Many Detroiters live miles from the nearest grocery store.
They also are a terrific use for vacant land and a builder of community spirit and cohesion.

But proposals for farms on thousands of Detroit acres raise the ante and change the dynamics of the “community farm” model. They raise some troubling questions:

--      Will large scale farms be ‘factory farms’ that use massive amounts of pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers that poison the water and make the soil sterile?
--      Will bigger farms truly serve the needs of Detroiters like today’s community farms? Or will their economy of scale make it more profitable to truck fruits and vegetables to other regions instead?
--      Will massive farms be mostly mechanized, thus reducing jobs for local people and increasing air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions?
--      Are huge farms the best repurposing of vacant land that already has the infrastructure, road access and other tools that are designed for residential, commercial or light industrial enterprises?
--      One of the empowering aspects of today’s burgeoning urban farm model is that it educates residents. Community volunteers who work on farms in exchange for a share of its bounty learn about biology, nutrition, construction, and team building. Will bigger farms have those benefits for workers?

Urban farming must be part of any discussion about creating a new, smaller, more economically dynamic Detroit. If those farms are going to be a significant force for employment, education and health in the city, then they will need to be developed on a larger scale than they are today.

Can they do so and still retain the elements of community and environmental sustainability that Greg’s farm does? That’s the difficult challenge that lies ahead.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Coming clean about detergent: You use too much!

Every once in a while someone gives voice to what you’ve been thinking for years, yet never thought to say out loud.

Like this New York Times column suggesting that the recommended amount of laundry detergent is way, WAY too much. Says we should be using one-quarter to one-eighth the amount shown on the little ‘fill’ lines inside the cap: http://nyti.ms/dp6Bqp

The detergent companies have lots of incentive to make us use more detergent, but no reason to encourage us to be frugal with their product. Same with dishwasher soap.

Now the experts chime. They say it’s not just wasteful (and more polluting) but it’s bad for the machines, too. Beautiful. One more reason to use a little bit less stuff.



Thursday, March 18, 2010

Michigan's "Meatgate": You can't handle the truth!

When sudden crisis threatens Michiganders, it’s critical to have a profession team of elected officials ready to respond like an efficient and deadly force of Navy SEALS.

Such was my gratitude yesterday when Lansing politicians dropped routine matters like school funding and budget balancing to react to Gov. Jennifer Granholm’s declaration that Saturday be “Michigan Meatout Day”: http://bit.ly/9zwk8L

State Senators went berserk and spent an hour debating the threat. Sen. Ron Jelinek said it was like telling Michiganders “not to buy Fords or Chevys.” Sen. Liz Brater stuck up for The Gov, and for “fruits, grains and vegetables” grown in Michigan.

The Michigan Farm Bureau was apoplectic. The Michigan United Conservation Clubs hastily created a “Meat Eaters Day” Facebook group that had almost 900 members before the end of the day: http://bit.ly/daGLp7 (“I’m a meatasaurus!” declared one Facebook friend)

The vegetarian group that created Meatout Day plaintively protested that “meat has no phytochemicals.”

Gubernatorial candidates gleefully piled on. The story went national. When CattleNetwork.com weighed in, people knew it was a big story.

My first reaction to Meatgate was indifference. As the furor grew I began to doubt. Perhaps I was just naïve? Blind to the threat of Meatout?

Then, the words of Col. Nathan Jessup in the movie “A Few Good Men” began echoing in my head: “You don't want the truth because deep down in places you don't talk about at parties you want me on that wall, you need me on that wall. We use words like honor, code, loyalty. We use then as the backbone of a life trying to defend something. You use them as a punchline. I have neither the time nor the inclination to explain myself to a man who rises and sleeps under the blanket of the very freedom I provide and then questions the manner in which I provide it. I would rather you just said "thank you," and went on your way. Otherwise, I suggest that you pick up a weapon and stand a post.”

I stand humbled. All I can say is, Thank You Lansing.


Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Breaking News: MEC asks EPA to investigate Michigan's air quality program

The Michigan Environmental Council (MEC) today asked the Environmental Protection Agency to investigate Michigan's air quality program: http://bit.ly/clNHgz

MEC believes that chronic underfunding of the program has led to violations of the Clean Air Act. They include an inadequate inspection schedule for major pollution sources and complaints about dangerous air pollution that go unanswered.

Funding sources that might alleviate the problem include general fund allocations from the legislature, or increased permit fees on polluters.

Finding common ground with anti-government right wingers: iPhones are cool!

As advertised (see the post immediately below this one), there were no scientists on the Mackinac Center for Public Policy’s ‘expert’ panel at Oakland University yesterday discussing the most complex and pressing science issue of our time (climate change).

I will spare you the predictable diatribes against Al Gore, scientists, the media, liberals, environmentalists, etc.

But the most telling moment was when one panelist, the Reason Foundation’s Shikha Dalmia, to her credit, said she would not discuss climate science, because: “Unless you are a trained climate scientist you have no business talking about it as far as I’m concerned.”

The irony was lost entirely on the other panelists, who proceeded to expound on climate science at excruciating and grossly inaccurate length.

Afterward, Detroit News cartoonist and 'expert' panelist Henry Payne and I had a spirited discussion about renewable energy, the environmental community, the cost of peak-load electricity generation and iPhone apps.

We agreed. iPhones are cool.


Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Anti-regulation activists come to Michigan dressed as science experts! (But did they stay at a Holiday Inn Express?)

Today, a panel of anti-government anti-regulation activists will convene on two Michigan college campuses, Oakland University and Central Michigan University: http://bit.ly/cSXA2O

They will spread this message: Thousands of climate scientists worldwide are either incompetent or have abandoned their ethical, moral and professional obligations as part of an insidious plot to fake the issue of climate change.

They could be right....and Arkansas-Pine Bluff could win the NCAA basketball tournament this year.

Here’s a more plausible explanation:

The panelists each work for organizations dedicated to eliminating government regulation. Two of the three are paid by big foundations and companies to fight government oversight. Climate change solutions almost certainly will require government oversight. Therefore, these organizations are desperately denying the science that threatens their mission: Minimizing regulation and protecting clients.

So maybe thousands of climate scientists are stupid or crooked.

Or maybe the panelists’ hatred of government regulation and/or loyalty to their funders is so great that they will do anything in order to block it.

The latter explanation is business as usual for the folks who continue to defend tobacco companies and oppose government regulations that prevent the Great Lakes from being siphoned into Asia-bound tankers for sale to the highest bidder.

It is telling that the so-called ‘expert panel’ today tackles the most pressing and complex scientific matter of our time, yet there are no scientists on the panel! Instead we get a newspaper cartoonist – Henry Payne of the Detroit News -- and two paid flacks for anti-government foundations: Paul Chesser of the Heartland Institute and Shikha Dalmia of the Reason Foundation.

The anti-science crusade has been successful, as it was against tobacco regulation a generation ago. Recent polls show a decline in the number of Americans who believe the science of climate change: http://bit.ly/cfnt8g

But even with the recent dustup over e-mails stolen from climate scientists, no major US scientific organization has changed its stance on climate. In fact, a list of 250 (and growing) U.S. scientists (mostly climatologists) have signed this open letter: http://bit.ly/b5JnK8

I’ve already filled out my NCAA bracket. People who analyze basketball for a living predict an early exit for Arkansas-Pine Bluff. I’ll root for them because I love to see the underdogs make fools of the experts. But that’s not where I’m putting my money. How about you?


Thursday, March 11, 2010

Are you more politically savvy than a 5th-grader? Or, Katie for Governor, 2030

Katie, my 11-year-old niece, wanted to have a garage sale to raise money for the Michigan Humane Society. Turns out the city of Bloomfield Hills has an ordinance prohibiting garage sales. Who knew?

For most kids, heck, for most adults, that’d be the end of the story.

But Katie pressed on. She asked why.

Last month she presented the Bloomfield Hills City Commission with a letter requesting the ban be rescinded. She spoke at the Commission meeting.

This week the city’s lawyer presented a plan to amend the ordinance and allow garage sales in the city. The commission took it under advisement and may vote on an ordinance change next month.

Already, Katie has exercised her rights in a democracy more effectively than half the adults in our state who don’t bother to vote, much less lobby their elected officials.

Her story was picked up this week by reporter Bill Laitner in the Detroit Free Press and by Detroit television stations WDIV and WXYZ.

I hope she gets her garage sale. At minimum, she’s elevated the level of discourse in Bloomfield Hills (and cost the city a couple of billable hours to a high priced legal firm!).

Donations for the Katie Baxter for Governor, 2030 campaign can be mailed directly to me.


Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Michigan legislators are struggling to fund the spectacularly successful Pure Michigan advertising campaign at half the level of last year: http://bit.ly/bLVzi2

State Sen. Nancy Cassis, R-Novi, chair of the Senate Finance Committee, is leading the charge to slash the program’s funding.

Because, of course, we don’t want the tourism dollars spent by the 2 million out of state visitors the program is credited with bringing here.

Nor do we need the national image boost that the ads have provided – it slows down our ongoing effort to be seen as a dysfunctional, rust belt backwater. How can we perpetuate that image with ex-pats in California and the East Coast when they’re seeing this kind of stuff? http://bit.ly/ojYe9.

Sen. Cassis’ reluctance may stem from a vocal constituency that tells her any government spending is bad government spending. Anyone who wants to suggest otherwise in relation to Pure Michigan funding should call her office at 517-373-1758 and respectfully let her staff know.


Monday, March 8, 2010

Consumers Energy swamped with appliance rebate applicants; jerkwater Bubbas seethe

Consumers Energy figured it would get 2,000 applications for appliance rebates as part of its energy efficiency program. It received 12,000.

The rebates are part of the efficiency standards mandated by a 2008 Michigan law. That law requires utilities to help customers use less electricity. That’s counterintuitive for an industry whose success has traditionally depended on selling as much energy as possible.

As a result of the program’s success Consumers may be entitled to a $5.7 million reward.

That rankles the jerkwater Bubbas commenting underneath the Jackson Citizen Patriot’s story: http://bit.ly/beYjNu. They seem to think the efficiency program is a socialist/liberal plot hatched with Consumers Energy to rob ratepayers.

But I would prefer to pay Consumers Energy a bonus for helping customers use less electricity. The alternative is paying them even more to build new coal plants or wind farms to produce more electricity. That’s electricity we do not need if efficiency programs keep doing their jobs.

Numerous and little-disputed studies show that saving energy through efficiency costs about one-third the amount that the energy would cost if it were supplied through new baseload power plants.

Those high rates are what we’ll get if we can’t set up a system where utility companies and their shareholders profit from helping reduce demand for their product.

As for the Bubbas, I have a solution to cut your energy costs to zero: Get off the grid and let the grown ups talk among themselves.


Sunday, March 7, 2010

Message to neighbors of Michigan's 4,000 orphan contaminated sites: Sorry, you're on your own

Our state used to be pretty good at keeping tabs on places where abandoned industrial contamination poisoned the water and soil. When nasty stuff moved toward residential wells, a solution was found before people got sick. If toxic stuff headed for an unpolluted stream or lake, a strategy was created to  avoid a disaster.

Not any longer.

As this excellent package of stories by the Detroit News’ Jim Lynch chronicles, there are more than 4,000 such sites and no money left to monitor the pollution, much less clean it up:

These are sites where the polluters are long gone – bankrupt, dead, or untraceable. Society can pitch in to address the problems. Or we can simply write off the land, water and neighbors affected by each of these sites as expendable.

As the stories illustrate, the damage isn’t just to the environment, but to public health, economic prosperity and property values.

Even in this dismal economic climate, you would think that managing this problem would be considered a core government service, but it’s not.

No, Michigan lawmakers have been busy slashing the general fund budget of the agency that oversees these problems 75 percent in the last eight years – and there are plenty of lawmakers who wanted to take more.

In a sidebar to the News’ main story, a fellow from the Michigan Manufacturers Association suggests that the problem is a result of red tape. Presumably, if we just get the bureaucrats out of the way, things will be fine. Never mind about funding the program.

Meanwhile, contaminated plumes of groundwater are moving toward - and already have - poisoned drinking water wells. Others have, or soon will, reach unpolluted streams, lakes and ponds.

You can probably find a site near you on the News’ interactive map of some selected sites: http://bit.ly/bj0sO5

This year, we’ve got candidates for governor and for state legislative offices running for election. It would be a fine time to ask them whether they consider toxic cleanup of such “orphan” sites an essential function of government, and if so how they intend to restore funding for it.


Thursday, March 4, 2010

Study: Iowa wind energy keeps electric rates low (remind me again why Michigan can't do this?)

Wind energy too expensive? Don't tell Iowans.

A new study shows that Iowa has much lower electricity rates than Michigan and the nation despite its aggressive buildout of wind power: http://bit.ly/bVrSvE

The writer confuses installed (potential) capacity with actual wind generation, but doesn't screw up the money line: "The study found that Iowans paid about 6 cents per kilowatt hour in 1998. That climbed to 7 cents per kilowatt hour by 2008. Over the same time period, national average electricity costs went from 7 cents per kilowatt hour to nearly 10 cents."

Studies show Iowa has the 10th best wind energy potential among states. Michigan is close behind with the 14th best wind potential. Yet Iowa has 25 times more installed wind capacity than Michigan! TWENTY FIVE TIMES MORE THAN MICHIGAN.

Michigan took a big step in 2008 with the passage of a renewable energy standard requiring 10 percent of utility electricity to be generated from renewable sources like wind by 2015. But as Iowa clearly shows, we can do better.

New proposals on the way to the Michigan Legislature would increase that 10 percent standard, and strengthen Michigan's transition to wind and other forms of nonpolluting energy.

Look for that legislation soon. 

Also look for the coal-addicted utility companies and their lobbyists to try and scare the hell out of anyone who will listen. They'll tell you your rates will skyrocket with wind power, leaving you a broken, penniless pauper. Iowans know better.



Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Litter on a stick: Trying to get some breathing room on rush toward weapons of mass distraction

Today’s New York Times highlights attempts in Michigan to place a temporary moratorium on digital electronic billboards: http://nyti.ms/dc4sdI.
The idea is to slow down the digital rush while data regarding their level of driver distraction and safety can be analyzed.

Michigan is second only to Florida in the number of billboards, otherwise known as “litter on a stick.” Although Michigan has a cap on the raw number of billboards, it hasn’t stopped the industry from converting them as fast as possible to ever-brighter, and ever-changing digital versions. You’ve probably seen them: “Televisions on a stick.”

Nor has the cap stopped enterprising lawmakers from trying to circumvent the cap with bad legislation, sometimes written specifically for individual campaign donors so that they can keep illegal signs.

Groups like Scenic Michigan www.scenicmichigan.org are fighting to keep the billboards at bay. I’m on the organization’s Board of Directors. Last year, we were successful in derailing a piece of bad legislation that would have potentially opened the door to hundreds of new billboards currently prohibited under the cap.

Billboards don’t make my purist's Top Ten list of environmental challenges facing Michigan. But I believe that the way we treat our view from the highway is indicative of how we treat our state’s natural treasures.

Frankly, they’re ugly. They diminish and cheapen the image and value of the communities and properties that surround them. And they’re unnecessary. Four states, Hawaii, Vermont, Alaska and Maine have billboard bans.

House Bill 5580 is currently in State Rep. Rebekah Warren’s Great Lakes and the Environment Committee. It doesn’t ban digital billboards. Nor does it reduce the number of billboards. It’s just lets us take a deep breath and consider whether lighting up the landscape with these things is safe, or even sane.

We already are challenged by multiple distractions on the road: cell phones, radios, gps systems, etc. But billboards, especially digital ones, are the ONLY distractions whose sole intention is to take our attention off the road.

You can quickly find your state representative here http://house.michigan.gov/find_a_rep.asp

Let ‘em know what you think.


Monday, March 1, 2010

Good riddance to the symbolic middle finger of the highways!

A friend gave me a ride in his Hummer a few years back. It was an uncomfortable ride. Bumpy, inconvenient console controls and not much in the way of creature comforts.  As a world-class combat photographer back on the streets of Detroit after months in Iraq,  he needed a big vehicle for all his gear. Plus, he had a certain image to keep up. Still, I expected more from the vehicle.

I met another guy from West Bloomfield who owned a Hummer as sort of a collector’s item. He made a compelling case that it was about the social connections he made in some Hummer collector’s club, driving the car on weekends and at meetups, garaging it for a more practical vehicle during the workweek.

They had their reasons for Hummer ownership.

Then there’s the woman met on Florida’s Sanibel Island in January. The maximum speed on the island is 35 mph. There is not a single hill. She needed a Hummer for reasons that are best paraphrased as “Because f--k you, that’s why!”  

The things have always grated on me in a way that oversize McMansions and other forms of conspicous consumption never have. I’ve always felt like Hummers were a symbolic middle finger to those who strive to make careful decisions about their role as stewards of the planet their children will inherit. There are other ways to stick up that middle finger (maybe my 35,000 miles/year driving for one?), but none quite so blatant and intentionally in-your-face as the Hummer.

So, along with the New York Times, I say good riddance to the Hummer:  http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/26/opinion/26fri4.html?ref=opinion