environmental health

How Society Pays When Women's Work Is Unpaid

Claire Cain Miller in the NYT:

In countries around the world, the ways in which men and women spend their time are unbalanced. Men spend more time working for money. Women do the bulk of the unpaid work — cooking, cleaning and child care.

This unpaid work is essential for households and societies to function. But it is also valued less than paid work, and when it is women’s responsibility, it prevents them from doing other things.

“This is one of those root inequalities that exist all over in society and we just don’t talk about it very much,” Melinda Gates, co-founder of the Gates Foundation, said in an interview. She said she was inspired by her own observations when traveling to other countries as well as by time-use data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. “If we don’t bring it forward, we basically won’t unlock the potential of women.”

We’re starting to explore ways to quantify (objectively) the time spent gathering fuel in rural India. There are some opportunities to put a wage potential to the time savings, too. India has a National Rural Employment Guarantee that provides a daily wage for up to 100 days per year.

Interesting to see this issue in the NYT, but a lot of the details of the difficult work of women was left out — fuel gathering, water collection, cooking, laundry, animal husbandry, fieldwork, dealing with husbands and mother-in-laws. Note: these are mentioned in Bill and Melinda’s blog post.

The Return of London's Fog

London’s fogs may be about to make a comeback. Christine Corton, in the NYT:

In January, researchers at King’s College London announced that pollution levels on Oxford Street, in central London, had exceeded limits set for the entire year in just the first four days of 2015. Similarly alarming numbers have been recorded for other streets in the city — and yet the mayor, Boris Johnson, has delayed implementation of stricter air-quality measures until 2020.

What’s happening in London is being played out in cities worldwide, as efforts to curtail the onslaught of air pollution are stymied by short-term vested interests, with potentially disastrous results.

I just experienced a particular, particulate version of this hell first-hand in Delhi. For the last few days of my trip, a dense, thick haze - clearly not an innocuous fog - permeated the city and surrounding environs. On one trip back to our flat, all of my fellow taxi passengers complained of burning eyes and sore throats.

The closest PM monitor during that drive back — actually quite far from us — read over 250 µg/m3. That’s around 10x higher than a ‘bad’ day in the US. Moreover, we guessed that the levels we were experiencing were closer to 350 µg/m3. As a point of reference, the maximum mean hourly PM2.5 concentration in London since 2008 was approximately 30 µg/m3.

Corton points to a behavioral component to the historic London Fog episodes — a parallel I find particularly interesting:

There was a cultural component, too. The British were wedded to their open fires. Closed stoves, popular throughout much of Europe, especially in Germany, were shunned by Londoners. During World War I, Britons were exhorted, in the words of the famous song, to “keep the home fires burning.” Politicians were simply not willing to risk unpopularity by forcing Londoners to stop using coal and go over to gas or electric heating instead. In Britain today, in an echo of these earlier concerns, the government is cutting subsidies for onshore wind and solar farms, anxious not to offend voters in rural areas where such facilities would be built.

It took a disaster to force London to change direction. In 1952, a “great killer fog” lasted five days and killed an estimated 4,000 people. In a Britain trying to turn a corner after the death and destruction of the Blitz, this was unacceptable. A Clean Air Act was passed in 1956, forcing Londoners to burn smokeless fuel or switch to gas or electricity, power sources that had become much cheaper as these industries expanded.

Let’s hope that policy levers and momentum — not a disaster — can help transition away from solid fuels in India and beyond.

A Primer on Household Air Pollution and Health

A Primer on Household Air Pollution and Health in Environmental and Occupational Case Studies, UC Berkeley School of Public Health, Instructors: Sadie Costello and Ellen Eisen. 7 October 2015.

A Low-Cost, Carbon Dioxide Monitoring System for Estimating Household Air Exchange Rates

Pillarisetti A, Lam NL, Pokhrel A, Hill LA, Allen T, Kunwar B, Pandey B, Thapa S, Sijali TR, Smith KR, Bates MN. A Low-Cost, Carbon Dioxide Monitoring System for Estimating Household Air Exchange Rates. International Society of Exposure Science. Henderson, Nevada: October 2015.

Predicting Personal PM2.5 Exposures from Kitchen Concentrations and Survey Data in Homes Cooking with Biomass Fuels: A Pilot in Lao, PDR

Hill LA, Garland CR, Delapena S, Pennise D, Boatman MR, Phimmasone A, Kotting P, Vongnakhone K, Pillarisetti A, Smith KR. Predicting Personal PM2.5 Exposures from Kitchen Concentrations and Survey Data in Homes Cooking with Biomass Fuels: A Pilot in Lao, PDR. International Society of Exposure Science. Henderson, Nevada: October 2015.

Measuring Vertical PM2.5 Concentrations in Rural India: The Design, Development, and Evaluation of the Aerial Particle and Temperature Sensor (aPATS)

Pillarisetti A, Allen T, Allen-Piccolo G, Vaswani M, Arora NK, Smith KR. Measuring Vertical PM2.5 Concentrations in Rural India: The Design, Development, and Evaluation of the Aerial Particle and Temperature Sensor (aPATS). International Society of Exposure Science. Henderson, Nevada: October 2015.

Laboratory and Field Based Performance of an Integrated Air Quality and Stove Use Monitoring System

Pillarisetti A, Johnson MA, Garland CR, Allen T, Gill M, Delapena S, Charron D, Pennise D. Laboratory and Field Based Performance of an Integrated Air Quality and Stove Use Monitoring System. International Society of Exposure Science. Henderson, Nevada: October 2015.

Conditional cash transfers for energy poverty... and murder reduction

Conditional cash transfers — paying people to change behavior, usually to spur positive ‘social’ outcomes — continue to be in the news. Much of the focus is on their use as poverty reduction tools (Bolsa Familia in Brazil, JSY in India) through encouraging behaviors like antenatal care visits and sending children to school.

Two recent article — one in the NYT, one in Mother Jones — highlighted the use of CCTs and other targeted cash transfer tools for dramatically different outcomes.

In the NYT, poverty and energy issues were at the fore:

The Indian government subsidizes households’ purchases of cooking gas; these subsidies amounted to about $8 billion last year. Until recently, subsidies were provided by selling cylinders to beneficiaries at below-market prices. Now, prices have been deregulated, and the subsidy is delivered by depositing cash directly into beneficiaries’ bank accounts, which are linked to cellphones, so that only eligible beneficiaries — not “ghost” intermediaries — receive transfers.

Under the previous arrangement, the large gap between subsidized and unsubsidized prices created a thriving black market, where distributors diverted subsidized gas away from households to businesses for a premium. In new research with Prabhat Barnwal, an economist at Columbia University, we find that cash transfers reduced these “leakages,” resulting in estimated fiscal savings of about $2 billion.

There’s even more “smart” targeting coming soon. My advisor and colleagues in India have been working to “[describe] how the LPG subsidy could be even more completely targeted to the poor without any actual ‘taking away’ of the subsidy from the rich and middle class, which would likely trigger heavy political push back. As a result, several hundred million additional poor Indians could have affordable access in the next decade without increasing subsidy costs to the government (indeed probably reducing them) or LPG imports — both not likely to be popular.”

In Mother Jones, CCTs were being used to reduce murders:

Richmond hired consultants to come up with ideas, and in turn, the consultants approached [Devone] Boggan. It was obvious that heavy-handed tactics like police sweeps weren’t the solution. More than anything, Boggan, who’d been working to keep teen offenders out of prison, was struck by the pettiness of it all. The things that could get someone shot in Richmond were as trivial as stepping out to buy a bag of chips at the wrong time or in the wrong place. Boggan wondered: What if we identified the most likely perpetrators and paid them to stay out of trouble?

It seems to be working.

It was a crazy idea. But since ONS was established, the city’s murder rate has plunged steadily. In 2013, it dropped to 15 homicides per 100,000 residents—a 33 year low. In 2014, it dropped again. Boggan and his staff maintained that their program was responsible for a lot of that drop-off by keeping the highest-risk young men alive—and out of prison. Now they have a study to back them up.

On Monday, researchers from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, a non-profit, published a process evaluation of ONS, studying its impact seven years in. The conclusion was positive: “While a number of factors including policy changes, policing efforts, an improving economic climate, and an overall decline in crime may have helped to facilitate this shift, many individuals interviewed for this evaluation cite the work of the ONS, which began in late 2007, as a strong contributing factor in a collaborative effort to decrease violence in Richmond.”

Susanna Hertrich's Risk Perception Art

Susanna Hertrich:

A reflection on common fears in societies where anxieties have become a lifestyle choice (2010 - ongoing).

Regarding the piece above:

Public dread and actual deaths caused by most common sources of energy. Based on a longterm study by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

via @darbyjack

India is building millions of toilets, but that's the easy part

Rama Lakshmi, in the Washington Post, on the push for many, many more toilets throughout India:

Modi has made toilet-building and sanitation a rallying cry since October. He has enlisted large companies to help. In the past year, his government has built more than 5.8 million toilets — up from 4.9 million the previous year. But reports show that many of them are unused or that they are being used to store grain, clothes or to tether goats, thwarting Modi’s sanitation revolution.

“Even as we accelerate toilet construction now, much more needs to be done to persuade people to use them,” said Chaudhary Birender Singh, India’s minister for rural development, sanitation and drinking water. “For long, we assumed that if the toilets are built, people will automatically use it. But we have to diligently monitor the use over a period of time and reward them with cash incentives to the village councils at every stage. Only then will it become a daily habit.”

This all sounds really familiar.

Ye Olde Smog Meringue

image from coclimate.com

Nicola Twilley, writing at ediblegeography.com:

After running around New York City in order to source our precursor ingredients (a huge thanks to Kent Kirshenbaum, chemistry professor at NYU and co-founder of the Experimental Cuising Collective), we spent Thursday afternoon and evening in the kitchens of Baz Bagel (excellent bagels, amazing ramp cream cheese, and truly lovely people) assembling the cart, mixing different chemical precursors, and then “baking” them under UV light to form a London peasouper, a 1950s Los Angeles photochemical smog, and a present-day air-quality event in Atlanta.

We chose these three places and times to showcase three of the classic “types” that atmospheric scientists use to characterize smogs: 1950s London was a sulfur- and particulate-heavy fog, whereas 1950s Los Angeles was a photochemical smog created by the reactions between sunlight, NOx, and partially combusted hydrocarbons. Present-day Beijing often experiences London-style atmospheric conditions, whereas Mexico City’s smog is in the Angeleno style.

Meanwhile, at its worst, Atlanta’s atmosphere is similar in composition to that of Los Angeles, but with the addition of biogenic emissions. An estimated ten percent of emissions in Atlanta are from a class of chemicals known as terpenes, from organic sources such as pine trees and decaying green matter. We had also hoped to create a Central Valley smog as well, but time got the better of us.

Each city’s different precursor emissions and weather conditions produce a different kind of smog, with distinct chemical characteristics—and a unique flavour.

Pictures of Lake Tahoe during the drought

August 2014:

Late May 2015:

We’re lucky enough to live near Lake Tahoe and all the surrounding glory — and fortunate enough to make it up there every now and then. Our most recent jaunt was a nice one with a great hike, good food, and all around fun times.

It was clear while roaming around town that the Lake Tahoe was very, very low. Docks had ladders and secondary structures to allow access to vessels. The walkable area extended much further than before. This was all amplified when we stood at the edge of the lake — now a few dozen meters further out than in August of 2014 — at one of our favorite public access points.

Extending the Stove Use Monitoring System?

Pillarisetti A. Extending the Stove Use Monitoring System: Updated hardware & software. Beyond Distribution: Ensuring and Evaluating the Adoption of Clean Cooking and Its Benefits. Lima, Peru: May 5, 2015.

Field Notes - Measuring Village Air Pollution in Bajada Pahari

Twenty minutes from INCLEN’s SOMAARTH field headquarters lays Bajada Pahari1, a sleepy, picturesque village of ~120 households. The road to Bajada Pahari twists through bustling little villages, becoming more and more narrow until what remains is suited more for bullock carts, tractors, goats, and shepherds than personal vehicles. As the settlements dwindle, large open croplands — of tall sugarcane, bright yellow mustard, and various green sabjiyom2 — dominate the field of view. Enormous metal structures for high voltage powerlines stand erect yet untethered: no cables connect them. Below, and all around, the landscape is dotted with small, oblong discs of gobara3 used for fertilizer and as fuel.

Bajada Pahari is trapezoidal in shape, buttressed to its north by a small hill, upon which sits an old, abandoned watchtower4 and a small informal shrine to Shiva marked by narrow, red flags. Immediately behind the ridge, a green pool sparkles in the hazy winter daylight. Stray dogs roam a nearby shallow dig - perhaps an old quarry. Looking away from the village, pasturelands extend for as far as the eye can see. Barely visible brick kilns spew grayish black emissions. From the hilltop, the only audible sounds are chirping birds and rustling leaves, punctuated occasionally by a wailing child, a barking dog, a puttering engine.

We arrived in Bajada Pahari mid-morning and went first to the home of the Sarpanch, the head village elder5. At his residence, on the edge of town, a large gate opens first into a foyer full of mechanical farm tools — a tractor, a manual chopper — and a few simple cots and then leads into an outdoor space with trees, cows, chairs, and chulas. The Sarpanch arrived shortly thereafter, on a motorcycle bearing his title. After initial pleasantries and introductions, we discussed the village, which won an award for progress on sanitation and cleanliness, and our air pollution project.

Village air pollution is a hard concept to grok. For most, the pervasive images conjured by the word ‘rural’ are clean and pure, especially compared to places like Delhi, Mumbai, and Beijing. The sources of air pollutant emissions are no doubt different — quaint cookstoves, open fires, brick kilns, and small village industries look innocuous when compared to massive smokestacks and endless diesel vehicles visible in large Indian cities6. Tens to hundreds of these little village sources, simultaneously used over a small geography, probably adversely impacts air quality. Think of each one as a small contributor to a larger village smokestack.

The sarpanch is (unsurprisingly) thoughtful, measured, and interested. Mayur explains what we’d like to do, and why, succinctly and in simple language - a difficult feat he has perfected in his years with INCLEN. We talk about why we’re interested in understanding air pollution in a rural village (unmeasured, significant, and likely related to simple combustion of wood and dung) and why we think it’s important (trying to convince government to monitor and regulate the entire airshed, not just in urban areas). We show him some of our toys — including a miniature quadcopter, similar to the larger one we’ll use to measure some meteorological parameters and PM2.5. He laughs at the copter and approves of our plans. He decides we should discuss further with others on the village council.

We walk down the street, past a few cows lounging next to an abandoned biogas plant. At the intersection of two of the town’s biggest roads, a group of men and empty plastic chairs await us. Our discussion with them is similar to the previous one with the sarpanch. A few sarcastically questioned if we are asking them to stop cooking entirely. Others suggested their households, as proxies for the village, would be enthusiastic to move to LPG if the hassle of acquiring fuel wasn’t so great. They noted that there were no home deliveries and that it was difficult to coordinate pickup and dropoff of the cumbersome cylinders. One man, in particular, railed against the notion that food cooked on LPG was any different than that cooked over an open fire; he opined that it wasn’t the fuel that made the food, but the cook. His example was of village boys, who move to a city and eat food cooked on LPG by a stranger; they blame the poor taste on the fuel. He blamed the cook — or, more accurately, the fact that this food wasn’t the food they grew up eating, that they were accustomed to. A pretty neat (and new) insight. Not atypically, we spoke with only men about tasks they weren’t directly involved with.

We learned a little about electricity in the village, as well. It is reliable and consistent — rare for these areas. It arrived first in 1978. Many households have multiple electric appliances, including a washing machine, metal rods used to heat water, fans, and small electric stoves known as ‘heaters’. Our final task in the village involved locating a site to place an ambient air pollution and meteorological monitor, along with associated solar panels. We found a nice rooftop location, in the center of town, adjacent to a beautiful, decaying old farmhouse.


1 Alternate spellings include Bajda Pahadi, Bajda Pahari, Bajada Pahadi, and various other permutations. Depending on the spelling, the town’s name takes different meanings. My favorite is “lazy hill,” which sums it up succinctly. Bajada also has a Spanish meaning, which is curiously on point: “a broad alluvial slope extending from the base of a mountain range into a basin” or, more simply, “descent, slope.”

2 Vegetables

3 Dried bovine dung

4 The history of the tower is a little ambiguous; some of the village boys said it was an old British outpost, while others claimed it is a much older Mughal structure.

5 The sarpanch serves as a link between the local and regional governments and the community. There’s some push to pass along certain judicial and legislation-related powers to Sarpanches.

6 The situation is complicated by a national emphasis on cities as thriving centers of vitality, modernity, and growth. The concerns of rural villages don’t align with those of the metropolis - as such, their ranking in the national conscious and in the media is low. This despite ~80% of the population living in rural areas.

A case for "Making the Clean Available"

Kirk’s recent thoughts on how to address household air pollution crystallized in a piece published this week in Energy Policy.

It’s a very clear framing of a complex problem, split into to two related thoughts: (1) We can make the ‘available’ (biomass) clean, by improving combustion efficiency and driving down emissions and/or (2) we can make the clean (gas and electric cooking) available. Number (1) above requires proof that we can make a stove that performs well in the field, not just in the lab, and will be used by consumers. To be seen. The second approach, though, looks to pull policy levers to make proven clean technologies available. A parallel is drawn to other health interventions, like vaccines:

The health sector does not rely on NGOs and local community groups to develop vaccines and anti-retroviral drugs, but works to develop the best and most effective possible interventions using modern technology. Then, by negotiating price reductions, royalty flexibility, and pre- purchase agreements, it works to bring down the price. In parallel, it works to put into place the local supply chains to bring these effective interventions to poor populations, which has important roles for NGOs and community groups. It however does not promote different vaccines for the poor and the rich— health is for all.

LED lighting: an accelerated learning curve?

News from Samsung (exiting the LED market) and Philips (spinning off their LED division) would seem to indicate rapid learning in the LED space. From Reuters:

Analysts say Samsung Electronics’ retreat reflects the growing competition from Chinese manufacturers even as demand for LED lighting remains strong. LED lamps last 10 times longer than fluorescent bulbs and 100 times longer than traditional incandescent tungsten filament bulbs.

“It appears that Samsung decided to fold the business because price competition was so fierce and there was not a lot of room for growth going forward,” said Seoul-based IM Investment analyst Lee Min-hee.

Philips said in September that it will spin off its lighting business to expand its higher-margin healthcare and consumer divisions. Two month earlier, Germany’s Osram Licht AG , which also makes LED lights, announced a cost-cutting plan that included nearly 8,000 job cuts.

Jason Snell put it best:

So, bad news for Samsung and other businesses betting on big margins for bulbs, but good news for everyone else.

BBC's Your life on earth

Put in a few facts about yourself — birthdate, gender and heights — and get an assortment of facts about how the world has changed since your arrival.

Some of mine:

  • Population has increased by ~2.8 billion; life expectancy is 8 years longer than when I was born
  • BBC projects Oil and Coal will run out by the time I’m 80. They estimate gas supplies will continue beyond my life, but not my children’s.

If you were born 4 years ago:

  • Population has increased ~327 million — 10 million more than the US!
  • While you’re on average (in the US) 3.3 ft tall, a coastal redwood would have grown ~5ft.

Kind of fun. I’d be interested to know a bit more about their data projections. They do offer a little bit of information, at least, about where the data came from.

via kottke

Introducing HAPIT

I’ve lead recent efforts to create a web-based tool to estimate the impacts of household air pollution interventions (like stoves, gas dissemination, etc) using methods based on what’s known about household air pollution and its contribution to the Global Burden of Disease. The project began as an Excel-based spreadsheet before moving to the web leveraging Shiny, R, and a fair amount of javascript. From the site:

HAPIT estimates and compares health benefits attributable to stove and/or fuel programs that reduce exposure to household air pollution (HAP) resulting from solid fuel use in traditional stoves in developing countries. HAPIT allows users to customize two scenarios based on locally gathered information relevant to their intervention, which is the recommended approach. This will normally require preliminary field work at the dissemination site to demonstrate pollution exposures before and after the intervention in a representative sample of households. If no local information is available, however, HAPIT contains conservative default values for four broad classes of household energy interventions based on the available literature — liquid fuels, chimney stoves, rocket stoves, and advanced combustion stoves. As each country’s health and HAP situation is different, HAPIT currently contains the background data necessary to conduct the analysis in 55 countries — those with more than 50% of households using solid fuels for cooking and China, which has a lower percentage of households using solid fuels for cooking, but a high number in absolute terms. See the drop down list on the left and the Info tab for more details.

HAPIT also estimates program cost-effectiveness in US dollars per averted DALY (disability-adjusted life year) based on the World Health Organization’s CHOICE methodology (see Info tab for more detail). It takes a financial accounting approach in that it 1) does not take into account the household costs such as fuel and health expenses or time spent cooking or acquiring fuel and 2) assumes that programs are covering the cost of fuel-based interventions (such as annual LPG costs per household). For custom scenarios, users can adjust the per-household maintenance or fuel cost based on the characteristics of their programs. All program costs should be entered in current US dollars.

There are a number of nice features of HAPIT, but one I’m particularly fond of is the customized, session-based pdf generated by clicking “Download Report.” HAPIT’s a work in progress and will continue to evolve in the coming months.

NYT: "Emissions From India Will Increase"

India’s new Minister of Environment and Forests, in the New York Times:

The minister, Prakash Javadekar, said in an interview that his government’s first priority was to alleviate poverty and improve the nation’s economy, which he said would necessarily involve an increase in emissions through new coal-powered electricity and transportation. He placed responsibility for what scientists call a coming climate crisis on the United States, the world’s largest historic greenhouse gas polluter, and dismissed the idea that India would make cuts to carbon emissions.

“What cuts?” Mr. Javadekar said. “That’s for more developed countries. The moral principle of historic responsibility cannot be washed away.” Mr. Javadekar was referring to an argument frequently made by developing economies — that developed economies, chiefly the United States, which spent the last century building their economies while pumping warming emissions into the atmosphere — bear the greatest responsibility for cutting pollution.

Not great news. Vox has interesting coverage of this story, as well; the bottom of their story has a great collection of links.

Water, Salt, and Sugar

Nice, brief origin story of Oral Rehydration Salts and their deployment in Bangladesh. In particular, I enjoyed the parts describing the challenges of translating the science into practice in the field. Many of the lessons are relevant to our work in household energy and health.

  1. Use competent, well-trained field workers — and figure out clever ways to incentivize good, thorough work.

So how did BRAC tackle this daunting challenge? A three-month field trial in 1979 tested whether mothers recalled BRAC field workers’ instructions on how to prepare O.R.S. This was no easy task considering that poor, illiterate households did not have measuring spoons or cups.

BRAC’s verbal guidelines included the dangerous symptoms of diarrhea, when to administer O.R.S. and how to make it with a three-finger pinch of salt, a handful of sugar and a half liter of water. In another critical step, monitors returned to villages days or weeks after the initial instruction to quiz the mothers. Health workers were paid according to how many questions their subjects answered correctly, thus incentivizing quality instruction and not just the number of lessons. The trial found that verbally trained illiterate and semi-literate rural mothers could make properly formulated O.R.S. that passed laboratory tests.

  1. Ensure that field workers believe in and, when appropriate, use the items and practices they are promoting.

[Mr. Fazle Abed, BRAC’s founder and chairperson] identified other early hurdles that slowed the adoption of O.R.S. by mothers. After inquiring about slow adoption in some villages, he found that only a fraction of health workers believed in O.R.S. themselves; they didn’t even use it to treat their own diarrhea. To dispel doubts among trainers, BRAC brought them from the field to research labs in Dhaka to scientifically show how O.R.S. worked. Health workers were then advised to convince distrustful villagers by sipping O.R.S. during household training sessions.

  1. Don’t ignore the men, who have disproportionate sway over household decisions in many parts of the world.

After this breakthrough, adoption of ORS increased but then plateaued. Again, Mr. Abed tried to find the root of the problem. He enlisted anthropology students in Dhaka to interview people about why they weren’t using O.R.S. They found that men were alienated from the discussions between female health workers and mothers and so withheld support for O.R.S. In villages, “we had to take men into confidences so we told them exactly how O.R.S. worked,” Mr. Abed recalled. When men were included in discussions, adoption of O.R.S. increased significantly.

Obviously not a perfect analogy. ORS is curative — a response to ill-health — and requires a change in treatment behavior. Arguably the need for ORS decreases in a world with adequate access to clean water and sanitation — but absent that panacea, removing barriers to affordable, easy treatment is essential. The shift we seek to encourage, towards clean cooking, is meatier — it requires big changes to routine behavior. The lessons above still hold, though. We need field workers who believe in the interventions (and, conversely, interventions worthy of their belief), we need to compensate them well, and we need buy-in from whole communities.

Kirk R. Smith in Science: In Praise of Power

Professor Kirk R. Smith in an editorial in Science:

Along with advanced biomass combustion, biogas, liquefied petroleum gas, natural gas, and other clean fuels, electric cooking needs to be directly incorporated into modernization plans for the world’s poorest people.

For those worried about CO2 emissions from power plants, consider that modest efficiency measures that reduce 3% of electric power consumption in rich countries (which are also largely supplied by coal) would “free” enough electricity to supply half of all biomass households with induction stoves. New supplies of electricity would produce far less than a 1% increase in global CO2 emissions.* It is not the cooking of the poor that threatens the climate.

Switching from solid to clean forms of energy can bring more health benefits than nearly any other modernization, including clean water and sanitation.† It is too early to tell whether induction cooking can be successfully promoted in biomass-using rural areas, but not too early to predict that electric cooking appliances will be attractive to people as electricity becomes more reliable. Although in one sense the most mundane of energy issues, given that billions do not use modern fuels in their households and suffer great impacts on health, welfare, and the local environment as a result, finding solutions for providing electricity has important implications for global health and sustainable development.

Citizen Science: Long Island Weather Observer

NY Times story about Richard Hendrickson:

Twice a day, every day, he has recorded the temperature, precipitation and wind from the same area of Bridgehampton. He has been at it through 14 presidencies, 13 New York governorships and 14 mayoralties in that city 96 miles away. The Weather Service says he has taken more than 150,000 individual readings.

His is the longest continuous streak in the history of the Weather Service, which has 8,700 such volunteers nationwide, including 55 in the New York area. The agency says he is the first to serve for more than eight decades. And to answer the obvious question, yes, he has been known to take the occasional vacation. In his 20s, he went to New Zealand — “as far away as you can get,” he said. His mother filled in at the weather station.

Mr. Hendrickson’s daily diary, kept since Jan. 1, 1931, records weather data and family matters. The Weather Service recognized Mr. Hendrickson last month with an award named for him. He said he did not realize until after a ceremony in Upton that he was getting the Richard G. Hendrickson Award, and he sounded embarrassed that the meteorologists had made such a fuss. He did not mention that notables like Benjamin Franklin and George Washington had kept weather records or that Thomas Jefferson had done so from 1776 to 1816 — less than half as long as he has.

Incredible. He started when he was 17. He’s 101 now. 101.

Hard to imagine today, when we expect these things to occur on their own, without intervention. I like this better. Routine thoughtfulness.

The Archdruid Report & Climate Clarity

John Michael Greer, communicating articulately about perturbations to complex systems (read: climate) at The Archdruid Report:

The next time you fill a bathtub, once you’ve turned off the tap, wait until the water is still. Slip your hand into the water, slowly and gently, so that you make as little disturbance in the water as possible. Then move your hand through the water about as fast as a snail moves, and watch and feel how the water adapts to the movement, flowing gently around your hand. .

Once you’ve gotten a clear sense of that, gradually increase the speed with which your hand is moving. After you pass a certain threshold of speed, the movements of the water will take the form of visible waves—a bow wave in front of your hand, a wake behind it in which water rises and falls rhythmically, and wave patterns extending out to the edges of the tub. The faster you move your hand, the larger the waves become, and the more visible the interference patterns as they collide with one another.

Keep on increasing the speed of your hand. You’ll pass a second threshold, and the rhythm of the waves will disintegrate into turbulence: the water will churn, splash, and spray around your hand, and chaotic surges of water will lurch up and down the sides of the tub. If you keep it up, you can get a fair fraction of the bathwater on your bathroom floor, but this isn’t required for the experiment! Once you’ve got a good sense of the difference between the turbulence above the second threshold and the oscillations below it, take your hand out of the water, and watch what happens: the turbulence subsides into wave patterns, the waves shrink, and finally—after some minutes—you have still water again.

This same sequence of responses can be traced in every complex system, governing its response to every kind of disturbance in its surroundings…

… Once things begin to oscillate, veering outside usual conditions in both directions, that’s a sign that the limits to resilience are coming into sight, with the possibility of chaotic variability in the planetary climate as a whole waiting not far beyond that. We can fine-tune the warning signals a good deal by remembering that every system is made up of subsystems, and those of sub-subsystems, and as a general rule of thumb, the smaller the system, the more readily it moves from local adjustment to oscillation to turbulence in response to rising levels of disturbance.

Small site changes

I’m making a small (but fundamental) change to the way the site works to reflect the traffic coming to the site (which has mainly been directed towards environmental health and other work/science related posts).

For the foreseeable future, snarglr.com will only display posts from the environmental health and science categories; all other posts (including the more fun ones) will be accessible from snarglr.com/all/.

For those who appreciate the more whimsical and fun posts, you can visit snarglr.com/all moving forward or click the “View All Posts” link in the sidebar.

Gates Notes: Two Videos That Illuminate Energy Poverty

Bill Gates, at his blog:

Many developing countries are turning to coal and other low-cost fossil fuels to generate the electricity they need for powering homes, industry, and agriculture. Some people in rich countries are telling them to cut back on fossil fuels. I understand the concern: After all, human beings are causing our climate to change, and our use of fossil fuels is a huge reason.

But even as we push to get serious about confronting climate change, we should not try to solve the problem on the backs of the poor. For one thing, poor countries represent a small part of the carbon-emissions problem. And they desperately need cheap sources of energy now to fuel the economic growth that lifts families out of poverty. They can’t afford today’s expensive clean energy solutions, and we can’t expect them wait for the technology to get cheaper.

Gates links to two videos from political scientist Bjorn Lomborg. They’re interesting and decent encapsulations of issues we grapple with regularly. We know what works, and indeed most of us in the developed world use either gas or electricity — or both — to cook everyday. Offering solutions that only partially protect health seems morally dubious, a point Lomborg and Gates make. Lomborg’s videos are embedded below. Grist for the mill.

Paulson on Climate Change and the Price of Inaction

Henry M. Paulson, writing in the NYT:

In a future with more severe storms, deeper droughts, longer fire seasons and rising seas that imperil coastal cities, public funding to pay for adaptations and disaster relief will add significantly to our fiscal deficit and threaten our long-term economic security. So it is perverse that those who want limited government and rail against bailouts would put the economy at risk by ignoring climate change.

This is short-termism. There is a tendency, particularly in government and politics, to avoid focusing on difficult problems until they balloon into crisis. We would be fools to wait for that to happen to our climate.

When you run a company, you want to hand it off in better shape than you found it. In the same way, just as we shouldn’t leave our children or grandchildren with mountains of national debt and unsustainable entitlement programs, we shouldn’t leave them with the economic and environmental costs of climate change. Republicans must not shrink from this issue. Risk management is a conservative principle, as is preserving our natural environment for future generations. We are, after all, the party of Teddy Roosevelt.

We maaaaaaa-aade it! Fox News goes after cookstove research.

“First, they came for your lightbulbs… Now the EPA, using taxpayer money to target kitchen stoves… Soon they’re coming… not just here, in third world countries. Why? Because climate change.”

The Petroleum Product That Can Save Millions Of Lives Each Year

Professor Kirk R. Smith, writing at Forbes:

The fracking furor over shale gas is the latest in a series of environmental debates that have bedeviled the oil and gas industry in spite of what might be considered an enviable record compared to related industries, coal for example. From off shore spills to the Keystone Pipeline, the industry probably feels a bit set upon at times. Similarly, its products are often the focus of environmental concern and consequent strict regulation, for example diesel air pollution. Finally, it often bears the brunt of concerns about carbon dioxide emissions leading to climate change risks.

The industry might keep in mind, however, that one of its products, liquefied petroleum gas (LPG — bottled gas containing propane and butane), is actually the most effective solution available for the largest environmental health risk in the world: cooking with solid fuels.

and

There is some opposition in the environmental community to promoting LPG, a fossil fuel, because of climate concerns. In reality, however, because of the poor combustion typical in biomass stoves, which produces black carbon, methane, and other climate-active pollutants, and the often non-renewable nature of the biomass supplies, which results in CO2 emissions, the net climate impact of a switch to LPG would be negligible. Even if only considering CO2, the incremental impact on global emissions of a switch to LPG would be no more than a percent of the emissions from the developed sector globally. It is not cooking by the poor that poses risk to the climate.

Nature: Deadly Dinners

A decent journalistic piece in Nature about household energy use and health. My favorite bit, from the one-two punch of Kirk Smith & Kalpana Balakrishnan:

After decades of battling to get people to use improved cooking-stoves, many researchers worry that such devices will never win over consumers and thus never achieve the desired health and climate gains. “My bottom line is that nothing works,” Smith says. “The only thing we know that’s ever worked is gas and electric.”

Balakrishnan makes a moral argument against improved cooking stoves, which still produce harmful amounts of pollutants compared with LPG or electric ones, powered by remote energy plants that comonly use fossil fuels. “Are you justified in saying that it’s OK to be just a little bit better?” she asks. “If it’s OK for 40% of the population to use fossil fuels, then why is not OK for the other 60% of the population? How can we have dual standards?”

Nature chimes in on clean cookstoves

Today, in Nature:

Even though high-profile programmes have distributed millions of stoves to households in south Asia, Africa and Latin America, it is hard to find signs that the stoves are being widely used. There is a vast gap between reported accomplishments and what researchers see when they step into people’s homes.

The crux of the problem is that simply supplying the stoves does not establish demand for them.

Amen.

Efforts could be redirected to providing people with the energy they most aspire to: not a stove designed by someone in the developed world to cook cleaner, but the actual stoves used in the developed world, which run on electricity or hydrocarbons such as liquefied petroleum gas (LPG).

This is not an absurd goal. The International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates that bringing electricity and clean-cooking facilities to every person on Earth by 2030 will cost US$49 billion a year. Although that is a considerable sum, the agency points to major commitments by Indonesia, Ghana and Nigeria to aggressively switch large portions of their population to cooking with LPG.

Where will all this new energy come from? It will require some additional consumption of fossil fuels, and that will increase the emissions of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. But the extra pollution would be minimal at the global scale: the IEA estimates that it would boost CO2 emissions by just 0.7% above its base scenario.

Yup.

Last Week Tonight's John Oliver on Climate Change, Scientific Consensus

Priceless. More, please.

Naomi Klein on Climate Change

Well-written and well thought piece on some of the challenges surrounding climate change from Naomi Klein in The Nation:

Another part of what makes climate change so very difficult for us to grasp is that ours is a culture of the perpetual present, one that deliberately severs itself from the past that created us as well as the future we are shaping with our actions. Climate change is about how what we did generations in the past will inescapably affect not just the present, but generations in the future. These time frames are a language that has become foreign to most of us.

This is not about passing individual judgment, nor about berating ourselves for our shallowness or rootlessness. Rather, it is about recognizing that we are products of an industrial project, one intimately, historically linked to fossil fuels.

And just as we have changed before, we can change again. After listening to the great farmer-poet Wendell Berry deliver a lecture on how we each have a duty to love our “homeplace” more than any other, I asked him if he had any advice for rootless people like me and my friends, who live in our computers and always seem to be shopping for a home. “Stop somewhere,” he replied. “And begin the thousand-year-long process of knowing that place.”

That’s good advice on lots of levels. Because in order to win this fight of our lives, we all need a place to stand.

British Pathé's films on smog and air pollution

From Variety:

British Pathé, the U.K. newsreel archive company, has uploaded its entire 100-year collection of 85,000 historic films in high resolution to YouTube.

The collection, which spans 1896 to 1976, comprises some 3,500 hours of historical footage of major events, notable figures, fashion, travel, sports and culture. It includes extensive film from both World War I and World War II.

Naturally, I looked for some videos about smog, air pollution, and the environment. The Archive doesn’t disappoint. There are pieces called “The Smog Menace”, “Smog Detector”, and a documentary called “Guilty Chimneys” (part 1 + 2, part 3).

There’s a lot of fascinating stuff in the archive beyond smog and air pollution. Pretty cool.

Urban Air Pollution in Delhi, India

I’ve got some fundamental issues with this recent article in the NYT, starting with its absurd title: Beijing’s Bad Air Would Be Step Up for Smoggy Delhi. The difference between levels in Beijing and Delhi are nigh indistinguishable shades of the same grey - we’re seeing similar and important trends playing out in large urban centers. We know the levels are health damaging and we know that the exposure-response relationships for a number of health impacts are not linear - a decrease from 400 to 300 ug/m3 doesn’t incur the same benefit in a population as the decrease from, say, 150 to 50 ug/m3. The latter decrease seems to have a far more profound and substantial positive impact on health. That, of course, is not to say we shouldn’t applaud any and all decreases in ambient air pollution — but instead to emphasize that we have a long way to go to fully protect public health.

No doubt, these issues need to become more prominent in Indian discourse, as the author acknowledges:

… [For] the first three weeks of this year, New Delhi’s average daily peak reading of fine particulate matter from Punjabi Bagh, a monitor whose readings are often below those of other city and independent monitors, was 473, more than twice as high as the average of 227 in Beijing. By the time pollution breached 500 in Beijing for the first time on the night of Jan. 15, Delhi had already had eight such days. Indeed, only once in three weeks did New Delhi’s daily peak value of fine particles fall below 300, a level more than 12 times the exposure limit recommended by the World Health Organization.

“It’s always puzzled me that the focus is always on China and not India,” said Dr. Angel Hsu, director of the environmental performance measurement program at the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy. “China has realized that it can’t hide behind its usual opacity, whereas India gets no pressure to release better data. So there simply isn’t good public data on India like there is for China.”

Experts have long known that India’s air is among the worst in the world. A recent analysis by Yale researchers found that seven of the 10 countries with the worst air pollution exposures are in South Asia. And evidence is mounting that Indians pay a higher price for air pollution than almost anyone. A recent study showed that Indians have the world’s weakest lungs, with far less capacity than Chinese lungs. Researchers are beginning to suspect that India’s unusual mix of polluted air, poor sanitation and contaminated water may make the country among the most dangerous in the world for lungs.

But even this doesn’t tell the whole story. Rural India is fraught with air pollution concerns of a different type — that arising from solid fuel combustion for household cooking. This ‘household air pollution’ results in approximately 900,000 annual deaths in India - 10% of national mortality. It disproportionately affects the rural poor, who, for the most part, don’t have access to modern fuels for cooking, heating, or lighting. It’s estimated that approximately 700 million people - more than twice the US population - in India rely on solid fuel use for household energy needs.

I applaud the NYT for covering air pollution in Delhi and across India. That said, neither of the above articles consider air pollution out of urban centers - and neither address the fact that these types of pollution events were commonplace in now-developed countries (see Donora, PA; London Smog; Thanksgiving Day Smog, NYC, 1966 ) as they stumbled in search of progress.

Climate Change: If you see something, say something

Powerful opinion piece by Michael E. Mann in the NYT:

If scientists choose not to engage in the public debate, we leave a vacuum that will be filled by those whose agenda is one of short-term self-interest. There is a great cost to society if scientists fail to participate in the larger conversation — if we do not do all we can to ensure that the policy debate is informed by an honest assessment of the risks. In fact, it would be an abrogation of our responsibility to society if we remained quiet in the face of such a grave threat.

This is hardly a radical position. Our Department of Homeland Security has urged citizens to report anything dangerous they witness: “If you see something, say something.” We scientists are citizens, too, and, in climate change, we see a clear and present danger. The public is beginning to see the danger, too — Midwestern farmers struggling with drought, more damaging wildfires out West, and withering record summer heat across the country — while wondering about possible linkages between rapid Arctic warming and strange weather patterns, like the recent outbreak of Arctic air across much of the United States.

How will history judge us if we watch the threat unfold before our eyes, but fail to communicate the urgency of acting to avert potential disaster? How would I explain to the future children of my 8-year-old daughter that their grandfather saw the threat, but didn’t speak up in time?

Those are the stakes.

Planet Money, T-Shirts... and Household Energy

Planet Money recently tracked the creation of a t-shirt — from the farms of Mississippi and the yarn factories of Indonesia to garment factories in Bangladesh and in Columbia. They wrapped up with a meta-political piece about how trade deals allowed the creation of the garment industry in Bangladesh and opened the doors of the US to imported garments. The entire series is fantastic — well reported, compelling, fun, and insightful.

Household energy and cooking got a mention in the piece on Bangladesh. The story follows two sisters — Minu and Shumi — who move from a village to a city to work in a garment factory. Minu and Shumi cook on a gas stove that they share with neighbors near their modest one room apartment. The story then follows them to their parents’ home in a village a few hours away.

Their mom cooks in the back room. The difference between her life and her daughters’ lives is very clear. No gas burners here — its a fire pit, made from mud. There are holes underneath to stick branches into and the room fills with smoke when she cooks. Minu and Shumi grew up cooking like this, with sticks instead of gas…

Shumi and Minu send money back to the village… And you can see how that’s changed things right here in the kitchen. The stove is the same as what they had growing up — but what’s inside the pot is different. It’s chicken… Factory money has paid for a new house for Shumi and Minu’s parents. The house they grew up in was made of bamboo — it leaked — this house is made of brick. It’s water-tight.

Telling - and a little surprising - that Planet Money used a gas stove as an indicator of modernity and as a way to draw contrasts between city and village life. The flow of money back to the village paid for household improvements and chicken and fish, still cooked on the traditional stove. It would be interesting to track the point at which the transition to a more efficient cooking technology occurred, if ever. What other needs are perceived as priorities over replacing the stove? How much of the issue is related to supply of liquid fuels and their costs? How much is related to the perception that wood and biomass are free? You can see a niche for clean cookstoves in there — meeting the requirements of using a ‘free’ fuel, but also using it more efficiently and more cleanly. The endless challenge will remain - finding a clean stove that people want to use - and use often.

see a whole load of stories here

Some more graphs of Beijing's Air Pollution

A bunch of folks across the internet have been doing some great stuff with the air quality data coming out of China via official channels and the US Embassy twitter feeds. My advisor asked for some graphs of available data. They are posted below (all were created in R using ggplot2). If time ever permits, I’ll post some interactive visualizations.

Using RAW to visualize Global Burden of Disease Data

RAW is a really impressive and easy-to-use data visualization tool created by Density Design. I created the following plot in about five minutes from existing GBD data (of DALYs in India for women of all ages).

Air Pollution ? Household air pollution from solid fuels 14,430,417Dietary/Physical ? Dietary risks 14,139,801Dietary risks ? Cardiovascular and circulatory diseases 12,251,100Undernutrition ? Iron deficiency 10,145,794Undernutrition ? Childhood underweight 10,112,321Physiological ? High blood pressure 9,598,107Iron deficiency ? Nutritional deficiencies 9,245,200High blood pressure ? Cardiovascular and circulatory diseases 9,236,250Childhood underweight ? Diarrhea, lower respiratory infections, meningitis, and other common infectious diseases 7,993,580Air Pollution ? Ambient particulate matter pollution 6,963,544Physiological ? High fasting plasma glucose 6,839,755Tobacco ? Tobacco smoking 6,456,925Undernutrition ? Suboptimal breastfeeding 5,430,200Suboptimal breastfeeding ? Diarrhea, lower respiratory infections, meningitis, and other common infectious diseases 5,430,200Household air pollution from solid fuels ? Cardiovascular and circulatory diseases 4,939,660Sexual abuse ? Intimate partner violence 4,907,625Dietary/Physical ? Physical inactivity and low physical activity 4,684,952Household air pollution from solid fuels ? Chronic respiratory diseases 4,629,250Household air pollution from solid fuels ? Diarrhea, lower respiratory infections, meningitis, and other common infectious diseases 4,242,530Ambient particulate matter pollution ? Cardiovascular and circulatory diseases 4,051,780High fasting plasma glucose ? Diabetes, urogenital, blood, and endocrine diseases 3,758,890Physical inactivity and low physical activity ? Cardiovascular and circulatory diseases 3,212,120Intimate partner violence ? Self-harm and interpersonal violence 3,066,340Alcohol & Drugs ? Alcohol use 3,020,381Tobacco smoking ? Chronic respiratory diseases 2,767,440WatSan ? Unimproved sanitation 2,691,430Unimproved sanitation ? Diarrhea, lower respiratory infections, meningitis, and other common infectious diseases 2,691,430High fasting plasma glucose ? Cardiovascular and circulatory diseases 2,527,440Physiological ? High body-mass index 2,517,676Occupational risks ? Occupational risks 2,341,920Physiological ? High total cholesterol 2,308,860High total cholesterol ? Cardiovascular and circulatory diseases 2,308,860Childhood underweight ? Nutritional deficiencies 2,096,190Tobacco smoking ? Cardiovascular and circulatory diseases 1,914,150Ambient particulate matter pollution ? Diarrhea, lower respiratory infections, meningitis, and other common infectious diseases 1,721,660Intimate partner violence ? Mental and behavioral disorders 1,577,950Other Env ? Lead exposure 1,397,538Sexual abuse ? Childhood sexual abuse 1,374,294Lead exposure ? Cardiovascular and circulatory diseases 1,345,890Tobacco smoking ? Diarrhea, lower respiratory infections, meningitis, and other common infectious diseases 1,282,190Alcohol & Drugs ? Drug use 1,210,892High body-mass index ? Cardiovascular and circulatory diseases 1,197,470Undernutrition ? Vitamin A deficiency 1,185,772Vitamin A deficiency ? Diarrhea, lower respiratory infections, meningitis, and other common infectious diseases 1,178,350Undernutrition ? Zinc deficiency 1,126,100Zinc deficiency ? Diarrhea, lower respiratory infections, meningitis, and other common infectious diseases 1,126,100Dietary risks ? Neoplasms 1,101,710Ambient particulate matter pollution ? Chronic respiratory diseases 1,099,640Occupational risks ? Chronic respiratory diseases 1,008,390Physical inactivity and low physical activity ? Diabetes, urogenital, blood, and endocrine diseases 990,530Drug use ? Mental and behavioral disorders 986,262Iron deficiency ? Maternal disorders 900,594High body-mass index ? Diabetes, urogenital, blood, and endocrine diseases 896,822Occupational risks ? Musculoskeletal disorders 775,941Alcohol use ? Mental and behavioral disorders 718,838Childhood sexual abuse ? Mental and behavioral disorders 716,375Dietary risks ? Diabetes, urogenital, blood, and endocrine diseases 707,042Childhood sexual abuse ? Self-harm and interpersonal violence 657,919Alcohol use ? Cirrhosis of the liver 617,146WatSan ? Unimproved water source 604,815Unimproved water source ? Diarrhea, lower respiratory infections, meningitis, and other common infectious diseases 604,815Alcohol use ? Cardiovascular and circulatory diseases 576,253High fasting plasma glucose ? HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis 553,425Air Pollution ? Ambient ozone pollution 548,650Ambient ozone pollution ? Chronic respiratory diseases 548,650Physical inactivity and low physical activity ? Neoplasms 482,302Household air pollution from solid fuels ? Other non-communicable diseases 443,135Tobacco smoking ? Neoplasms 418,225High blood pressure ? Diabetes, urogenital, blood, and endocrine diseases 361,857Physiological ? Low bone mineral density 301,652Low bone mineral density ? Unintentional injuries other than transport injuries 301,652High body-mass index ? Musculoskeletal disorders 268,266Occupational risks ? Unintentional injuries other than transport injuries 265,035Intimate partner violence ? Maternal disorders 263,335Alcohol use ? HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis 225,666Occupational risks ? Other non-communicable diseases 205,120Alcohol use ? Unintentional injuries other than transport injuries 199,629Drug use ? Self-harm and interpersonal violence 176,098Household air pollution from solid fuels ? Neoplasms 175,842Alcohol use ? Neoplasms 168,593Alcohol use ? Transport injuries 166,825High body-mass index ? Neoplasms 155,118Alcohol use ? Diarrhea, lower respiratory infections, meningitis, and other common infectious diseases 144,849Alcohol use ? Self-harm and interpersonal violence 134,200Ambient particulate matter pollution ? Neoplasms 90,464Dietary risks ? Musculoskeletal disorders 79,949Occupational risks ? Transport injuries 68,973Tobacco smoking ? HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis 53,020Lead exposure ? Diabetes, urogenital, blood, and endocrine diseases 48,752Other Env ? Residential radon 46,637Residential radon ? Neoplasms 46,637Drug use ? HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis 41,603Alcohol use ? Diabetes, urogenital, blood, and endocrine diseases 34,055Alcohol use ? Neurological disorders 30,366Childhood underweight ? Neglected tropical diseases and malaria 22,551Tobacco smoking ? Diabetes, urogenital, blood, and endocrine diseases 21,900Occupational risks ? Neoplasms 18,461Vitamin A deficiency ? Nutritional deficiencies 7,422Drug use ? Cirrhosis of the liver 4,606Alcohol use ? Digestive diseases (except cirrhosis) 3,961Lead exposure ? Mental and behavioral disorders 2,896Drug use ? Other communicable, maternal, neonatal, and nutritional disorders 1,687Drug use ? Neoplasms 635Alcohol & Drugs 4,231,273Alcohol & DrugsAlcohol use 3,020,381Alcohol useDrug use 1,210,892Drug useAir Pollution 21,942,611Air PollutionAmbient ozone pollution 548,650Ambient ozone pollutionAmbient particulate matter pollution 6,963,544Ambient particulate matter pollutionHousehold air pollution from solid fuels 14,430,417Household air pollution from solid fuelsSexual abuse 6,281,919Sexual abuseChildhood sexual abuse 1,374,294Childhood sexual abuseIntimate partner violence 4,907,625Intimate partner violenceUndernutrition 28,000,186UndernutritionChildhood underweight 10,112,321Childhood underweightIron deficiency 10,145,794Iron deficiencySuboptimal breastfeeding 5,430,200Suboptimal breastfeedingVitamin A deficiency 1,185,772Vitamin A deficiencyZinc deficiency 1,126,100Zinc deficiencyDietary/Physical 18,824,753Dietary/PhysicalDietary risks 14,139,801Dietary risksPhysical inactivity and low physical activity 4,684,952Physical inactivity and low physical activityPhysiological 21,566,050PhysiologicalHigh blood pressure 9,598,107High blood pressureHigh body-mass index 2,517,676High body-mass indexHigh fasting plasma glucose 6,839,755High fasting plasma glucoseHigh total cholesterol 2,308,860High total cholesterolLow bone mineral density 301,652Low bone mineral densityOther Env 1,444,175Other EnvLead exposure 1,397,538Lead exposureResidential radon 46,637Residential radonOccupational risks 2,341,920Occupational risksOccupational risks 2,341,920Occupational risksTobacco 6,456,925TobaccoTobacco smoking 6,456,925Tobacco smokingWatSan 3,296,245WatSanUnimproved sanitation 2,691,430Unimproved sanitationUnimproved water source 604,815Unimproved water sourceCardiovascular and circulatory diseases 43,560,973Cardiovascular and circulatory diseasesCirrhosis of the liver 621,752Cirrhosis of the liverDiabetes, urogenital, blood, and endocrine diseases 6,819,848Diabetes, urogenital, blood, and endocrine diseasesDiarrhea, lower respiratory infections, meningitis, and other common infectious diseases 26,415,704Diarrhea, lower respiratory infections, meningitis, and other common infectious diseasesDigestive diseases (except cirrhosis) 3,961Digestive diseases (except cirrhosis)HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis 873,714HIV/AIDS and tuberculosisMental and behavioral disorders 4,002,321Mental and behavioral disordersNeoplasms 2,657,986NeoplasmsNeurological disorders 30,366Neurological disordersSelf-harm and interpersonal violence 4,034,557Self-harm and interpersonal violenceTransport injuries 235,798Transport injuriesUnintentional injuries other than transport injuries 766,316Unintentional injuries other than transport injuriesChronic respiratory diseases 10,053,370Chronic respiratory diseasesNeglected tropical diseases and malaria 22,551Neglected tropical diseases and malariaNutritional deficiencies 11,348,812Nutritional deficienciesMusculoskeletal disorders 1,124,156Musculoskeletal disordersOther communicable, maternal, neonatal, and nutritional disorders 1,687Other communicable, maternal, neonatal, and nutritional disordersOther non-communicable diseases 648,255Other non-communicable diseasesMaternal disorders 1,163,929Maternal disorders

The first column contains risk categories as defined by the comparative risk assessment of the 2010 Global Burden of Disease. The second column contains individual risk factors (each of which fits into an aforementioned risk category). The final column shows attributable DALYs by cause. Some color would help differentiate the different risks and causes, but the basic picture is clear if you spend a few minutes with the graph. Women in India, according to the 2010 GBD, predominantly lose healthy life years from CVD, chronic respiratory diseases, nutritional deficiencies, and infectious disease. A fair amount of this is attributable to air pollution.

To make this plot, I opened a CSV, copied its contents, pasted into a text field at RAW, and then used its simple, elegant GUI to generate the code for the plot. The options are a little limited now (would like to add some color, shift label positions around, etc). If I really wanted to make those changes, I could edit the code and do it manually. A really impressive showcase of what can be done in the browser and definitely worth checking out and keeping an eye on.

Lisa Jackson on the Moth

Lisa Jackson, former EPA Administrator, tells an audience at the Moth about how she transitioned into Environmental Engineering. Great story.

Earth Island Journal's Conversation with Naomi Klein

A good interview with Naomi Klein leading her new book coming out in 2014. Read the whole thing here.

You’ve said that progressives’ narratives are insufficient. What would be an alternative narrative to turn this situation around?

Well, I think the narrative that got us into this - that’s part of the reason why you have climate change denialism being such as powerful force in North America and in Australia - is really tied to the frontier mentality. It’s really tied to the idea of there always being more. We live on lands that were supposedly innocent, “discovered” lands where nature was so abundant. You could not imagine depletion ever. These are foundational myths.

And so I’ve taken a huge amount of hope from the emergence of the Idle No More movement, because of what I see as a tremendous generosity of spirit from Indigenous leadership right now to educate us in another narrative. I just did a panel with Idle No More and I was the only non-Native speaker at this event, and the other Native speakers were all saying we want to play this leadership role. It’s actually taken a long time to get to that point. There’s been so much abuse heaped upon these communities, and so much rightful anger at the people who stole their lands. This is the first time that I’ve seen this openness, open willingness that we have something to bring, we want to lead, we want to model another way which relates to the land. So that’s where I am getting a lot of hope right now.

The impacts of Idle No More are really not understood. My husband is making a documentary that goes with this book, and he’s directing it right now in Montana, and we’ve been doing a lot of filming on the northern Cheyenne reservation because there’s a huge, huge coal deposit that they’ve been debating for a lot of years - whether or not to dig out this coal. And it was really looking like they were going to dig it up. It goes against their prophecies, and it’s just very painful. Now there’s just this new generation of young people on that reserve who are determined to leave that coal in the ground, and are training themselves to do solar and wind, and they all talk about Idle No More. I think there’s something very powerful going on. In Canada it’s a very big deal. It’s very big deal in all of North America, because of the huge amount of untapped energy, fossil fuel energy, that is on Indigenous land. That goes for Arctic oil. It certainly goes for the tar sands. It goes for where they want to lay those pipelines. It goes for where the natural gas is. It goes for where the major coal deposits are in the US. I think in Canada we take Indigenous rights more seriously than in the US. I hope that will change.

Rim Fire images from NASA & the KPCC Fire Tracker

Devastating. KPCC has an interesting, interactive tool for monitoring California’s wildfires. A bit is embedded below, but the whole thing is worth a look.

NASA’s posted a number of photos of the fire from space. A smattering are embedded below.

In some of the photos, you can see the plume from the Rim Fire and the plume from the American Fire in Tahoe National Forest.

Reno’s been adversely affected by the plume from the Rim Fire, reporting unhealthy on their AQI (can’t find any numbers, at the moment); NASA projects that the plume is impacting AQ in 4 states.

Good luck to the firefighters and rangers working to control the blaze. Our thoughts are with them and others in the surrounding communities.

EIA: World petroleum use sets record high in 2012 despite declines in North America and Europe

U.S. Energy Information Administration:

The world’s consumption of gasoline, diesel fuel, jet fuel, heating oil, and other petroleum products reached a record high of 88.9 million barrels per day (bbl/d) in 2012, as declining consumption in North America and Europe was more than outpaced by growth in Asia and other regions (see animated map). A previous article examined regional trends in petroleum consumption between 1980 and 2010; today’s article extends that analysis through 2012.

Some other specific points of interest:

Between 2008 and 2012, Asia’s consumption increased by 4.4 million bbl/d. The rapidly industrializing economies of China and India fueled much of Asia’s demand increase, growing 2.8 million bbl/d and 800,000 bbl/d, respectively. If China’s use of petroleum continues to grow as projected, it is expected to replace the United States as the world’s largest net oil importer this fall.

Petroleum use in Europe has declined in every year since 2006. Part of this decline was related to a reduction in overall energy intensity and government policies that encourage energy efficiency. Europe’s weak economic performance has also affected its petroleum use, with declines of 780,000 bbl/d in 2009 and 570,000 bbl/d in 2012 occurring at a time of slow growth and/or recessions in many European countries.

John Nelson's A Breathing Earth

John Nelson, writing about the creation of these images:

Having spent much of my life living near the center of that mitten-shaped peninsula in North America, I have had a consistent seasonal metronome through which I track the years of my life. When I stitch together what can be an impersonal snapshot of an entire planet, all of the sudden I see a thing with a heartbeat. I can track one location throughout a year to compare the annual push and pull of snow and plant life there, while in my periphery I see the oscillating wave of life advancing and retreating, advancing and retreating. And I’m reassured by it.

Of course there are the global characteristics of climate and the nature of land to heat and cool more rapidly than water. The effects of warm currents feeding a surprisingly mild climate in the British Isles. The snowy head start of winter in high elevations like the Himalayas, Rockies, and Caucuses, that spread downward to join the later snowiness of lower elevations. The continental wave of growing grasses in African plains.

But, overall, to me it looks like breathing.

Past EPA Administrators: The US "must move now on substantive steps to curb climate change, at home and internationally."

Writing in an NYT Editorial, four previous EPA administrators make a strong case for climate action now.

Climate change puts all our progress and our successes at risk. If we could articulate one framework for successful governance, perhaps it should be this: When confronted by a problem, deal with it. Look at the facts, cut through the extraneous, devise a workable solution and get it done.

We can have both a strong economy and a livable climate. All parties know that we need both. The rest of the discussion is either detail, which we can resolve, or purposeful delay, which we should not tolerate.

Mr. Obama’s plan is just a start. More will be required. But we must continue efforts to reduce the climate-altering pollutants that threaten our planet. The only uncertainty about our warming world is how bad the changes will get, and how soon. What is most clear is that there is no time to waste.

The writers are former administrators of the Environmental Protection Agency: William D. Ruckelshaus, from its founding in 1970 to 1973, and again from 1983 to 1985; Lee M. Thomas, from 1985 to 1989; William K. Reilly, from 1989 to 1993; and Christine Todd Whitman, from 2001 to 2003.

China to spend $277 billion to curb air pollution

Reuters, reporting on statements by Chinese state-run media:

China plans to invest 1.7 trillion yuan ($277 billion) to combat air pollution over the next five years, state media said on Thursday, underscoring the new government’s concerns about addressing a key source of social discontent.

The money is to be spent primarily in regions that have heavy air pollution and high levels of PM 2.5, the state-run China Daily newspaper quoted Wang Jinnan, vice-president of the Chinese Academy for Environmental Planning as saying. Wang helped draft the plan.

EIA: World energy consumption will increase 56% by 2040

EIA’s recently released International Energy Outlook 2013 (IEO2013) projects that world energy consumption will grow by 56% between 2010 and 2040, from 524 quadrillion British thermal units (Btu) to 820 quadrillion Btu. Most of this growth will come from non-OECD (non-Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) countries, where demand is driven by strong economic growth.

Renewable energy and nuclear power are the world’s fastest-growing energy sources, each increasing 2.5% per year. However, fossil fuels continue to supply nearly 80% of world energy use through 2040. Natural gas is the fastest-growing fossil fuel, as global supplies of tight gas, shale gas, and coalbed methane increase.

The industrial sector continues to account for the largest share of delivered energy consumption and is projected to consume more than half of global delivered energy in 2040. Based on current policies and regulations governing fossil fuel use, global energy-related carbon dioxide emissions are projected to rise to 45 billion metric tons in 2040, a 46% increase from 2010. Economic growth in developing nations, fueled by a continued reliance on fossil fuels, accounts for most of the emissions increases.

Report of the US-China Climate Change Working Group

From the report:

We have prepared this Report mindful of the overwhelming scientific consensus about anthropogenic climate change and its worsening impacts, as well as the urgent need to intensify global efforts to combat climate change. Rising temperatures are predicted to lead to sea level rise that could affect tens of millions of people around the world, as well as more frequent and intense heat waves, intensified urban smog, and droughts and floods in our most productive agricultural regions. Global climate change represents a grave threat to the economic livelihood and security of all nations, but it also represents a significant opportunity for sustainable development that will benefit both current and future generations. We believe that ambitious domestic action by China and the United States is more critical than ever. China has given high priority to building an “Ecological Civilization” by striving for green, circular and low-carbon development. It has adopted proactive policies and measures to mitigate and adapt to climate change. The United States is implementing robust policies to promote renewable energy, enhance energy efficiency, and reduce emissions from transportation, buildings, and the power sector. Both countries recognize the need to work together to continue and build on these important efforts.

Five key areas of collaboration were outlined.

  1. Emission reductions from heavy-duty and other vehicles.
  2. Smart Grids
  3. Carbon capture, utilization, and storage.
  4. Collecting and managing greenhouse gas emissions data.
  5. Energy efficiency in buildings and industry.

There’s an explicit acknowledgement of coal as a bad actor here, but nothing explicated about moving from dirty to clean fuels for generation of electricity. Some mentions of co-benefits, as well.

Details on 'Power Africa,' the White House's new plan for electrification across sub-Saharan Africa

From the White House:

Today the President announced Power Africa, a new initiative to double access to power in sub-Saharan Africa. More than two-thirds of the population of sub-Saharan Africa is without electricity, and more than 85 percent of those living in rural areas lack access. Power Africa will build on Africa’s enormous power potential, including new discoveries of vast reserves of oil and gas, and the potential to develop clean geothermal, hydro, wind and solar energy. It will help countries develop newly-discovered resources responsibly, build out power generation and transmission, and expand the reach of mini-grid and off-grid solutions.

According to the International Energy Agency, sub-Saharan Africa will require more than $300 billion in investment to achieve universal electricity access by 2030. Only with greater private sector investment can the promise of Power Africa be realized. With an initial set of six partner countries in its first phase, Power Africa will add more than 10,000 megawatts of cleaner, more efficient electricity generation capacity. It will increase electricity access by at least 20 million new households and commercial entities with on-grid, mini-grid, and off-grid solutions. And it will enhance energy resource management capabilities, allowing partner countries to meet their critical energy needs and achieve greater energy security.

As that first paragraph points out, this is inherently an issue of rural energy — and of household energy. The following bit seems a bit… optimistic:

Power Africa will work in collaboration with partner countries to ensure the path forward on oil and gas development maximizes the benefits to the people of Africa, while also ensuring that development proceeds in a timely, financially sound, inclusive, transparent and environmentally sustainable manner.

Google Street View of Hashima, the abandoned island base featured in Skyfall

Hashima, commonly known as battleship island, served as a model for a set piece in Skyfall, the recent James Bond movie. Remember the creepy ruins where Javier Bardem’s character is introduced? That was based on Hashima. Google recently mapped the real island, using their trekker backpack camera.

PRI’s The World recorded and wrote a short piece on Hashima after the release of Skyfall.

The island is known as Hashima, or alternatively as Gunkanjima (“Battleship”) Island, and it sits about nine miles off the Japanese coast in the East China Sea.

In the late 1880s, coal was found on the sea floor beneath the island. In the early days, Japan’s Mitsubishi company, which was mining the coal, would ferry miners to and from the work site from Nagasaki.

Then, the company decided it would be easier to just build houses for the workers, and their families, on Hashima itself.

Giant, multi-storey concrete apartment blocks went up. Schools, bath houses, temples, restaurants, markets, even a graveyard, were built, all on a space the size of a football field.

“Once they reached 5,000 people or more out there, it was recognized as the most densely populated place on earth…ever,” says Thomas Nordanstad, a Swedish filmmaker.

EPA's thoughts on Keystone XL

Obama, yesterday:

Allowing the Keystone pipeline to be built requires a finding that doing so would be in our nation’s interest. And our national interest will be served only if this project does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution. The net effects of the pipeline’s impact on our climate will be absolutely critical to determining whether this project is allowed to go forward. It’s relevant.

The EPA, reviewing the State Department’s environmental impact assessment of the Keyspan proposal:

As recognized by the DSEIS (Department of State’s draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement), oil sands crude is significantly more GHG intensive than other crudes, and therefore has potentially large climate impacts. The DSEIS reports that lifecycle GHG emissions from oil sands crude could be 81% greater than emissions from the average crude reformed in the U.S. in 2005 on a well-to-tank basis, and 17% greater on a well-to-wheels basis. This difference may be even greater depending on the assumptions made. The incremental emissions from oil sands crude transported by the Project would therefore be 18.7 million metric tons C02-e (carbon dioxide equivalent) per year when compared to an equal amount of U.S. average crudes, based on the Project’s full capacity of 830,000 barrels of oil sands crude per day. To place this difference in context, we recommend using monetized estimates of the social cost of the GHG emissions from a barrel of oil sands crude compared to average U.S. crude. If GHG intensity of oil sands crude is not reduced, over a 50 year period the additional C02-e from oil sands crude transported by the pipeline could be as much as 935 million metric tons.

The whole report is interesting, though laden with acronyms. The EPA decided that there’s insufficient information to make a clear decision at this point, tossing the ball back into State’s court. They specifically focus on a central conclusion of the DSEIS report — that the tar sands oil will find a way to market whether or not the pipeline is built. EPA doesn’t contest that point directly, but requires more sophisticated and modern modeling of the impacts of these alternates routes of getting the oil to the US. This makes sense — if the oil will be pulled from the ground and travel to and through the US, then all possible routes and methods of transport must be equally evaluated.

That said, the current analysis of Keystone indicates it could “significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution.”

Obama: "...that bright blue ball rising over the moon's surface, containing everything we hold dear -- the laughter of children, a quiet sunset, all the hopes and dreams of posterity -- that's what's at stake."

President Obama, yesterday at Georgetown, at the end of his speech calling for action and outlining new policies on climate change:

Understand this is not just a job for politicians. So I’m going to need all of you to educate your classmates, your colleagues, your parents, your friends. Tell them what’s at stake. Speak up at town halls, church groups, PTA meetings. Push back on misinformation. Speak up for the facts. Broaden the circle of those who are willing to stand up for our future.

Convince those in power to reduce our carbon pollution. Push your own communities to adopt smarter practices. Invest. Divest. Remind folks there’s no contradiction between a sound environment and strong economic growth. And remind everyone who represents you at every level of government that sheltering future generations against the ravages of climate change is a prerequisite for your vote. Make yourself heard on this issue.

I understand the politics will be tough. The challenge we must accept will not reward us with a clear moment of victory. There’s no gathering army to defeat. There’s no peace treaty to sign. When President Kennedy said we’d go to the moon within the decade, we knew we’d build a spaceship and we’d meet the goal. Our progress here will be measured differently — in crises averted, in a planet preserved. But can we imagine a more worthy goal? For while we may not live to see the full realization of our ambition, we will have the satisfaction of knowing that the world we leave to our children will be better off for what we did.

“It makes you realize,” that astronaut said all those years ago, “just what you have back there on Earth.” And that image in the photograph, that bright blue ball rising over the moon’s surface, containing everything we hold dear — the laughter of children, a quiet sunset, all the hopes and dreams of posterity — that’s what’s at stake. That’s what we’re fighting for. And if we remember that, I’m absolutely sure we’ll succeed.

Mother Jones’s nice outline of the key points of the speech follows:

Here are the key components of the plan aimed at reducing US emissions:

  • Directs the EPA to issue draft emission rules for existing power plants by June 2014, to be finalized by June 2015.

  • Asks the EPA to “work expeditiously” on finalizing rules for new power plants that the agency issued in March 2012 (though does not appear to include a due date for that).

  • Pledges that the federal government will draw 20 percent of its power from renewable sources by 2020.

  • Sets a goal of permitting an additional 10 gigawatts of renewable energy on public lands by 2020.

  • Sets a goal of putting 100 megawatts of renewable energy on federally subsidized housing by 2020.

  • Creates a new, $8 billion loan guarantee program for advanced fossil fuel projects at the Department of Energy (think clean coal, etc.).

  • Directs the EPA and the Department of Transportation to work on fuel economy standard for heavy-duty trucks, buses, and vans for after 2018 (following up on the 2014-18 rules they rolled out in 2011).

  • Sets a goal of cutting at least 3 billion tons of carbon pollution by 2030 through improvements in energy efficiency standards.

  • Calls for an end to US funding for fossil fuel energy projects overseas unless they include carbon capture technology.

The 'Social Cost Of Carbon' Is Almost Double What The Government Previously Thought

Think Progress has a nice summary of the report out of the Obama administration updating the social cost of carbon (SCC). From the report’s executive summary:

The SCC estimates using the updated versions of the models are higher than those reported in the 2010 TSD. By way of comparison, the four 2020 SCC estimates reported in the 2010 TSD were $7, $26, $42 and $81 (2007$). The corresponding four updated SCC estimates for 2020 are $12, $43, $65, and $129 (2007$). The model updates that are relevant to the SCC estimates include: an explicit representation of sea level rise damages in the DICE and PAGE models; updated adaptation assumptions, revisions to ensure damages are constrained by GDP, updated regional scaling of damages, and a revised treatment of potentially abrupt shifts in climate damages in the PAGE model; an updated carbon cycle in the DICE model; and updated damage functions for sea level rise impacts, the agricultural sector, and reduced space heating requirements, as well as changes to the transient response of temperature to the buildup of GHG concentrations and the inclusion of indirect effects of methane emissions in the FUND model. The SCC estimates vary by year, and the following table summarizes the revised SCC estimates from 2010 through 2050.

After reviewing the full document, the changes update the science to the state of current understanding. As such, the projections offered within are more current (and based on more evolved science) than previously SCC estimates. The conclusions from the report are significant, but seem to overplay the US’s actions and role to date:

However, the climate change problem is highly unusual in at least two respects. First, it involves a global externality: emissions of most greenhouse gases contribute to damages around the world even when they are emitted in the United States. Consequently, to address the global nature of the problem, the SCC must incorporate the full (global) damages caused by GHG emissions. Second, climate change presents a problem that the United States alone cannot solve. Even if the United States were to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to zero, that step would be far from enough to avoid substantial climate change. Other countries would also need to take action to reduce emissions if significant changes in the global climate are to be avoided. Emphasizing the need for a global solution to a global problem, the United States has been actively involved in seeking international agreements to reduce emissions and in encouraging other nations, including emerging major economies, to take significant steps to reduce emissions.

This is a step in the right direction, but dodges real leadership.

Stories To Mark 60 Years Since First Summit Of Everest

slayers among men.

From SFGate:

Nepal celebrated the 60th anniversary of the conquest of Mount Everest on Wednesday by honoring climbers who followed in the footsteps of Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay.

Among them was Italian Reinhold Messner, the first climber to scale Everest without using bottled oxygen and the first person to climb all of the world’s 14 highest peaks.

“I am here in Nepal again for filming … not any more for climbing,” Messner said, adding he did reach the base camp of Mount Kanchenjunga during his visit. “I am full of energy and full of enthusiasm for this country.”

Nepalese officials offered flower garlands and scarfs to the climbers who took part in the ceremony. They were taken around Katmandu on horse-drawn carriages followed by hundreds of people who marched holding banners to mark the anniversary.

Hillary and Norgay reached the summit of Everest on May 29, 1953. Since then thousands of people have reached the 8,850-meter (29,035-foot) peak.

and from NPR:

On this, the 60th anniversary of the first successful summit of the world’s tallest mountain, there’s plenty of news about Mount Everest. Here are six stories [NPR] found interesting.

Tesla pays back US government early

NYTimes Dealbook:

Tesla, the maker of electric cars, paid off a $465 million loan on Wednesday that the Energy Department made in 2010. The repayment is a lift to the Obama administration, whose clean-energy loan programs faced criticism after the collapse of Solyndra, the solar panel maker. The company, using money it raised last week in the markets, is repaying the government nine years before its loan was due.

“Today’s repayment is the latest indication that the Energy Department’s portfolio of more than 30 loans is delivering big results for the American economy while costing far less than anticipated,” Ernest Moniz, the energy secretary, said in a statement.

Less coverage than hoped for across the big media outlets.

The Koch coke pile in Detroit

The NYT reports on a growing pile of coke, a byproduct of refining, in Detroit. In this case, the coke is produced as a result of tar sands refining; due to its high sulfur and carbon content, it is largely useless in the developed world. It seems that Koch brothers, who have purchased the coke from tar sands operations in Alberta, plan to sell it abroad.

Coke, which is mainly carbon, is an essential ingredient in steelmaking as well as producing the electrical anodes used to make aluminum.

While there is high demand from both those industries, the small grains and high sulfur content of this petroleum coke make it largely unusable for those purposes, said Kerry Satterthwaite, a petroleum coke analyst at Roskill Information Services, a commodities analysis company based in London.

“It is worse than a byproduct,” Ms. Satterthwaite said.”It’s a waste byproduct that is costly and inconvenient to store, but effectively costs nothing to produce.”

Murray Gray, the scientific director for the Center for Oil Sands Innovation at the University of Alberta, said that about two years ago, Alberta backed away from plans to use the petroleum coke as a fuel source, partly over concerns about greenhouse-gas emissions. Some of it is burned there, however, to power coking plants.

Paul Gipe: "For the Amount Spent on the Iraq War the US Could be Generating 40% to 60% of its Electricity with Renewable Energy"

David Roberts at Grist pointed to this article today. Striking.

If we had invested the $3.9 trillion that the war in Iraq will ultimately cost, we would generate nearly 40% of our electricity with new renewables. Combined with the 10% of supply from existing hydroelectricity, the US could have surpassed 50% of total renewables in supply.

However, this is a conservative estimate. If we include the reasonable assumptions suggested by Robert Freehling, the contribution by renewables would be even greater.

Freehling’s assumptions raise to as much as 60% the nation’s lost potential contribution by new renewables to US electricity supply by going to war in Iraq. With the addition of existing hydroelectric generation, the opportunity to develop as much as 70% of our nation’s electricity with renewable energy was lost.

And unlike the war in Iraq, which is an expense, the development of renewable energy instead of war would have been an investment in infrastructure at home that would have paid dividends to American citizens for decades to come.

In Focus: Two Years after the Japanese Tsunami and Earthquake

The Atlantic:

In a few days, Japan will mark the 2nd anniversary of the devastating Tohoku earthquake and resulting tsunami. The disaster killed nearly 19,000 across Japan, leveling entire coastal villages. Now, nearly all the rubble has been removed, or stacked neatly, but reconstruction on higher ground is lagging, as government red tape has slowed recovery efforts. Locals living in temporary housing are frustrated, and still haunted by the horrific event, some displaying signs of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Follows up on a similar activity they did after one year. In fact, some of the before shots are the same — so you can see how things looked a year and two years after the devastating disaster.

NYT Public Editor's Journal: For Times Environmental Reporting, Intentions May Be Good but the Signs Are Not

Margaret Sullivan, the fifth public editor appointed by The New York Times, on the recent closings of the Environment Desk and the Times’ Green Blog:

Here’s my take: I’m not convinced that The Times’s environmental coverage will be as strong without the team and the blog. Something real has been lost on a topic of huge and growing importance.

Especially given The Times’s declared interest in attracting international readers and younger readers, I hope that Times editors — very soon — will look for new ways to show readers that environmental news hasn’t been abandoned, but in fact is of utmost importance. So far, in 2013, they are not sending that message.

Understatement of 2013, thus far.

NYT, WaPo cut back environment coverage, since we're not worried about that anymore

Grist.org:

On Friday afternoon, The New York Times discontinued the Green blog, the paper’s one-stop shop for environment-related news. Then on Monday, the Washington Post announced it was pulling its star climate reporter, Juliet Eilperin, off of the beat and putting her on an “online strike force” covering the White House.

All of this can only mean one of two things: 1) The environment is fine, or 2) imminent global catastrophe is not as interesting as photo essays of matching, over-upholstered apartments in Manhattan.

R + Global Burden of Disease / Comparative Risk Assessment Data: A tutorial (version 0.1)

R can be scary for those new to it, but it is exceptionally useful for a number of things, including managing, importing, and merging text files; resaving them; and performing statistical analyses to your heart’s content. It is your friend, albeit one that you must learn to love slowly and painfully.

This brief tutorial does not serve as an introduction to R. Instead, it focuses on reading in a large, complex data set with ~1 million rows and 50+ columns. It was created to help facilitate some analysis in a GBD course at Berkeley. It will help you figure out how to do some basic manipulation and subsetting and export these subsetted data into a comma-separated text file (“csv”) for analysis in your favorite spreadsheet program. It is a work in progress and will be updated over time.

Ella Chou: What Would China's Carbon Tax Regime Look Like

A thoughtful and insightful overview of the proposed carbon/environmental tax by Harvard graduate student Ella Chou. Some excerpts follow.

The first thing I want to clarify is that calling it a “carbon tax” would be a gross misnomer, because for a long time to come, the majority of the tax collected from this would still be from what used to be called “pollution discharge fees”, not from taxing carbon emissions.

The tax on carbon would in fact be puny. The Xinhua report noted that previous MOF expert suggestion for the carbon tax was 10 yuan (US $1.5) per ton of carbon dioxide in 2012, with gradual increase to 50 yuan ($7.9) per ton by 2020.

…[T]he tax on coal in China is merely 2-3 yuan (US $0.4) per ton, and 8 yuan (US $1.27) per ton for charred coal, even though the price of coal has increased to several hundreds of yuan per ton.

The point of a carbon tax, be in China or elsewhere, is to set the price signal straight. We tax income; we tax property; we tax goods and services — all the things we want more of, so wouldn’t it be logic to actually tax the thing we want less of: pollution?

I should note that the proportion of environmental tax in the overall revenue of any level of government would be tiny, as is the pollution discharge fee portion of the revenue mix now. Local governments would continue to come up ways to give industries tax rebates and subsidies to attract them to their own jurisdictions, so the effect of the environmental tax or the carbon tax on the industries would be negligible. Standardizing fees into a tax is a step in the right direction. China can use a price on carbon, and environmental issues in general, as a starting point to address the price distortions that are stifling its long-term growth.

Traditional cooking and household energy use in the Library of Congress online archives

In the past few weeks, a lot of people have been mining the LoC photo databases for images of public works posters, images of cities early in their development, etc. The archive is outstanding and a lot of the pictures, negatives, schematics, and drawings are available online in multiple resolutions.

I ran some searches for household energy, hearths, cooking fire, cooking stoves, etc and found a number of fascinating results. Many of the pictures from the US were not available online yet - in particular, two libraries of “cooking technologies” from the 1920s and 1930s weren’t around. I’m working on getting access to those through some data request channels. A few that were accessible are below. The majority are from Sikkim and were taken by Alice Kandell between 1965 and 1971. The large one above is supposedly from Jerusalem and was taken between 1900-1920. The seventh one below is from 1908 in Paterna, Spain.

Clearly a wealth of interesting historical information in the archives. Looking forward to further explorations.

Climate Change in Obama's 2013 State of the Union

Strong words from President Obama on climate change during his 2013 State of the Union Address

But for the sake of our children and our future, we must do more to combat climate change. Yes, it’s true that no single event makes a trend. But the fact is, the 12 hottest years on record have all come in the last 15. Heat waves, droughts, wildfires, and floods - all are now more frequent and intense. We can choose to believe that Superstorm Sandy, and the most severe drought in decades, and the worst wildfires some states have ever seen were all just a freak coincidence. Or we can choose to believe in the overwhelming judgment of science - and act before it’s too late.

The good news is, we can make meaningful progress on this issue while driving strong economic growth. I urge this Congress to pursue a bipartisan, market-based solution to climate change, like the one John McCain and Joe Lieberman worked on together a few years ago. But if Congress won’t act soon to protect future generations, I will. I will direct my Cabinet to come up with executive actions we can take, now and in the future, to reduce pollution, prepare our communities for the consequences of climate change, and speed the transition to more sustainable sources of energy.

Four years ago, other countries dominated the clean energy market and the jobs that came with it. We’ve begun to change that. Last year, wind energy added nearly half of all new power capacity in America. So let’s generate even more. Solar energy gets cheaper by the year - so let’s drive costs down even further. As long as countries like China keep going all-in on clean energy, so must we.

In the meantime, the natural gas boom has led to cleaner power and greater energy independence. That’s why my Administration will keep cutting red tape and speeding up new oil and gas permits. But I also want to work with this Congress to encourage the research and technology that helps natural gas burn even cleaner and protects our air and water.

Indeed, much of our new-found energy is drawn from lands and waters that we, the public, own together. So tonight, I propose we use some of our oil and gas revenues to fund an Energy Security Trust that will drive new research and technology to shift our cars and trucks off oil for good. If a non-partisan coalition of CEOs and retired generals and admirals can get behind this idea, then so can we. Let’s take their advice and free our families and businesses from the painful spikes in gas prices we’ve put up with for far too long. I’m also issuing a new goal for America: let’s cut in half the energy wasted by our homes and businesses over the next twenty years. The states with the best ideas to create jobs and lower energy bills by constructing more efficient buildings will receive federal support to help make it happen.

Wind industry installs almost 5,300 MW of capacity in December

Today in Energy:

Approximately 40% of the total 2012 wind capacity additions (12,620 MW) came online in December, just before the scheduled expiration of the wind production tax credit (PTC). During December 2012, 59 new wind projects totaling 5,253 MW began commercial operation, the largest-ever single-month capacity increase for U.S. wind energy. About 50% of the total December wind capacity additions were installed in three states: Texas (1,120MW), Oklahoma (794 MW), and California (730 MW)…

Wind generators provided the largest share of additions to total U.S. electric generation capacity in 2012, just as it did in 2008 and 2009. The 2012 addition of 12,620 MW is the highest annual wind capacity installment ever reported to EIA. Wind capacity additions accounted for more than 45% of total 2012 capacity additions and exceeded capacity additions from any other fuel source, including natural gas (which led capacity additions in 2000-07, 2010, and 2011).

EPA Releases its "Climate Change Adaptation Plan"

We live in a world in which the climate is changing. Changes in climate have occurred since the formation of the planet. But humans are now influencing Earth’s climate and causing it to change in unprecedented ways.

It is in this rapidly changing world that EPA is working to fulfill its mission to protect human health and the environment. Many of the outcomes EPA is working to attain (e.g., clean air, safe drinking water) are sensitive to changes in weather and climate. Until now, EPA has been able to assume that climate is relatively stable and future climate will mirror past climate. However, with climate changing more rapidly than society has experienced in the past, the past is no longer a good predictor of the future. Climate change is posing new challenges to EPA’s ability to fulfill its mission.

David Miller: Global Justice and Climate Change: How Should Responsibilities Be Distributed?

Earlier today, I was looking for a Tanner lecture about climate change. I didn’t find the one I was looking for — but came across an equally intriguing one. I’ve just started working through it, but recommend it. The written version offers Miller’s take on a philosopher’s role in the climate change conversation. Early on, he offers a compelling take:

My aim here is not to answer all of the philosophical questions about climate change. I am simply going to assume, in particular, that if we continue to pump greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide and methane especially) into the atmosphere at the rate we are now doing, we will inflict serious harm on many human beings, harm that we have a basic ethical obligation to avoid. It is known that the damaging effects of global warming will be quite unevenly distributed across societies. The broad picture is that it will hit hardest those societies that are currently poor and already most vulnerable to natural disasters such as drought and flood. This is partly a matter of simple geography, and partly a result of the fact that these societies have fewer resources with which to combat the effects of global warming—for example, by erecting defenses against rising sea levels. The effects on human beings in those societies will be severe—they will starve as food production dwindles, fall prey to waterborne diseases, and so forth. If we do nothing to prevent this from happening, we can properly be charged with violating their human rights—not directly, as happens when we intend death and injury by waging war, but indirectly by virtue of failing to act when we had the opportunity to do so.

EPA: Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Large Facilities

A cool tool for visualizing large GHG emitters in the US.

Through EPA’s Greenhouse Gas Reporting Program, facilities that emit 25,000 metric tons or more per year of GHGs are required to annually report their GHG emissions to EPA. The facilities are known as direct emitters. The data reported by direct emitters provides a “bottom-up” accounting of the major sources of GHG emissions associated with stationary fuel combustion and industrial processes. Well over half of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions are accounted for in this facility level data set, including nearly complete coverage of major emitting sectors such as power plants and refineries.

Divestment in San Francisco

From a 350.org press release:

This Tuesday, February 5, San Francisco District 11 Supervisor John Avalos will introduce a resolution urging the Retirement Board of the San Francisco Employee’s Retirement System (SFERS) to divest from the 200 corporations that hold the majority of the world’s fossil fuel reserves.

“San Francisco has aggressive goals to address climate change,” said Supervisor John Avalos. “It’s important that we apply these same values when we decide how to invest our funds, so we can limit our financial contributions to fossil fuels and instead promote renewable alternatives.”

If the resolution is approved by the Board of Supervisors, San Francisco would become the second city in the nation to pursue fossil fuel divestment. This December, the Mayor of Seattle pledged to keep city funds out of the fossil fuel industry and urged the city’s pension funds to consider divestment. Avalos is also introducing a resolution today to push SFERS to divest from arms manufacturers.

Air Quality in Delhi

From India Ink at the NYT:

But in New Delhi on Thursday, air pollution levels far exceeded those in Beijing, only without any government acknowledgement or action. It is not the first time pollution in India’s capital has outpaced that in China.

The level of tiny particulates known as PM 2.5, which lodge deep in the lungs and can enter the bloodstream, was over 400 micrograms per cubic meter in various neighborhoods in and around Delhi Thursday, according to a real-time air quality monitor. That compared to Beijing’s most-recent air quality reading of 172 micrograms per cubic meter. (The “Air Quality online” link to the left of the Delhi website gives you real-time monitoring of Delhi’s pollution levels.)

At the University of Delhi’s northern campus at 12:30 p.m., the reading for PM 2.5 was 402 micrograms per cubic meter; in the eastern suburb of Noida it was 411; at the Indira Gandhi International airport it was 421.

Having spent winters in Delhi, I can attest to the intensity of the air pollution. Part of the problem, like in other large cities, relates to winter meteorology; another significant component is the location of industry and power production in close proximity to urban population centers.

I’m working on culling the data from the Indian Ministry of Earth Sciences air pollution monitors; check back soon.

In Focus: China's Toxic Sky

The Atlantic has an amazing collection of photographs of Beijing’s sky during these last few weeks of intense PM pollution. Particularly striking are the before-and-after shots, which on their site allow you to fade between polluted and less polluted days. One is adapted below, but check them all out.

Since the beginning of this year, the levels of air pollution in Beijing have been dangerously high, with thick clouds of smog chasing people indoors, disrupting air travel, and affecting the health of millions. The past two weeks have been especially bad — at one point the pollution level measured 40 times recommended safety levels. Authorities are taking short-term measures to combat the current crisis, shutting down some factories and limiting government auto usage. However, long-term solutions seem distant, as China’s use of coal continues to rise, and the government remains slow to acknowledge and address the problems.

The focus, of course, has been on Beijing, but astute observers note that it is hardly the most polluted city in the country. As a result of the widespread pollution - which has been getting remarkable coverage in the mainstream media - Chinese activists, educators, and policymakers are speaking out.

Professor Qu Geping, China’s first environmental protection chief, in a recent interview with the South China Morning Post:

“I would not call the past 40 years’ efforts of environmental protection a total failure,” he said. “But I have to admit that governments have done far from enough to rein in the wild pursuit of economic growth … and failed to avoid some of the worst pollution scenarios we, as policymakers, had predicted.”

After three decades of worsening industrial pollution resulting from rapid urbanisation and industrialisation, China has accumulated huge environmental debts that will have to be paid back, Qu said.

He said recently he regretted that some of the very forward-looking strategies - emphasising a more balanced and co-ordinated approach to development and conservation, that were worked out as early as 1983 - were never put into serious practice when China was still at an early stage of industrialisation.

Pan Shiyi, “one of China’s highest profile antipollution warriors” and a real estate mogul, asked Chinese bloggers and social media users to vote on whether or not China should enact national clean air legislation. According to the WSJ’s China Real Time Report,

In less than 10 hours of voting, nearly 32,000 microbloggers have said they agree with real estate mogul Pan Shiyi’s call for China to implement a clean air law. Fewer than 250 said they were opposed, while just over 120 said they weren’t sure.

As of a few minutes ago, 46,353 people had participated in the poll. A drop in the ocean, but a start.

Finally, according to the Times, the Beijing government is taking steps to curb emissions in the capital. The state run news agency reports that 180,000 old vehicles will be removed from the road; the heating systems of 44,000 old, single story homes and coal-burning boilers downtown will be replaced with clean energy; and 40% of Beijing will be forest covered in the next five years.

The city also plans to reduce coal consumption by 1.4 million tonnes and volatile organic compounds emissions by 8,000 tonnes, in addition to closing some 450 heavily polluting plants, according to municipal authorities.

Reasonable measures, but not ones that will occur rapidly. And, as mentioned, this doesn’t help much with the other, equally or more heavily polluted cities throughout the country.

In 2011, China consumed nearly as much coal as the rest of the world combined

From EIA’s interesting today in energy series:

Figure based on available EIA data

Coal consumption in China grew more than 9% in 2011, continuing its upward trend for the 12th consecutive year, according to newly released international data. China’s coal use grew by 325 million tons in 2011, accounting for 87% of the 374 million ton global increase in coal use. Of the 2.9 billion tons of global coal demand growth since 2000, China accounted for 2.3 billion tons (82%). China now accounts for 47% of global coal consumption—almost as much as the entire rest of the world combined.

Robust coal demand growth in China is the result of a more than 200% increase in Chinese electric generation since 2000, fueled primarily by coal. China’s coal demand growth averaged 9% per year from 2000 to 2010, more than double the global growth rate of 4% and significantly higher than global growth excluding China, which averaged only 1%.

Another thought-provoking climate post from David Roberts

A good, compelling piece from David Roberts, who appeals to a fundamental moral need for climate action:

The U.S. must act because all people have a moral obligation to act. We have no guarantee that if we act, others will act; we have no guarantee that if everyone acts, it will be enough. But inaction is not a choice. If the danger were an invading army from another planet or a raging global pandemic, we wouldn’t be having these arguments. The need for everyone to act would be obvious. Quibbles over who acts first, or who benefits most from the planet not being invaded, or how to avoid spending “too much” to avoid being annihilated would rightly be seen as verging on sociopathic. Everyone would be eager to act, despite having no certainty of success, because the alternative is simply unacceptable.

That’s the root of it: The results of inaction are morally unacceptable. They are also economically unacceptable, worse than virtually anything we might inflict on ourselves through too-vigorous pursuit of clean energy, regenerative agriculture, reforestation, resource-efficient land use, and resilient infrastructure. But ultimately it is a moral argument. We know we are on track for unthinkable human suffering and we know how to avoid it. Even if we can’t make a dime by saving millions of future children in Africa and Asia, we ought to save them. Even if we’re not certain of our success, we have to try. It’s a matter of human decency.

There was a time, not that long ago, when America took pride in leading the world against such dangers. Where is that pride now?

Your Warming World

newscientist.jpg

New Scientist has released a web app that asks you to think about climate change in a more selfish manner — for yourself or your community. It loads a world map and you can click where you live and get a quick glimpse of how temperatures have changed — for you.

The graphs and maps all show changes relative to average temperatures for the three decades from 1951 to 1980, the earliest period for which there was sufficiently good coverage for comparison. This gives a consistent view of climate change across the globe. To put these numbers in context, the NASA team estimates that the global average temperature for the 1951-1980 baseline period was about 14 °C.

The analysis uses land-based temperature measurements from some 6000 monitoring stations in the Global Historical Climatology Network, plus records from Antarctic stations recorded by the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research. Temperatures at the ocean surface come from a measurements made by ships from 1880 to 1981, plus satellite measurements from 1982 onwards.

It’s a neat, somewhat egocentric approach. I’m not sure if it really engages a broad audience — but it points towards the kinds of interactivity that may be able to reach skeptical members of the public.

David Roberts: The 14 fossil-fuel projects poised to seriously damage the climate

David Roberts, writing at Grist:

If we want a reasonable hope of hitting our 2 degree target, we have to leave about 80 percent of the known fossil fuels in the ground.

That is indeed terrifying math, but it may become slightly less so as it becomes more specific and concrete. (It is always helpful to break a large task into component parts.) Toward that end, today saw some fascinating new work from the research consultancy Ecofys. Commissioned by Greenpeace, it attempts to rank the most dangerous fossil-fuel projects currently being planned.

The metric is simple: how many additional tons of CO2 the project will emit by 2020. (See the report for more on methodology.) Here’s how they rank:

China’s Western provinces / Coal mining expansion / 1,400

Australia / Coal export expansion / 760

Arctic / Drilling for oil and gas / 520

Indonesia / Coal export expansion / 460

United States / Coal export expansion / 420

Canada / Tar sands oil / 420

Iraq / Oil drilling / 420

Gulf of Mexico / Deepwater oil drilling / 350

Brazil / Deepwater oil drilling (pre-salt) / 330

Kazakhstan / Oil drilling / 290

United States / Shale gas / 280

Africa / Gas drilling / 260

Caspian Sea / Gas drilling / 240

Venezuela / Tar sands oil / 190

A simple pie chart here is useful — of the 14 projects, the majority of the problem involves coal, though others aren’t far behind. Note that the the compression here is a bit tricky — coal includes export expansion, for instance. Nonetheless, the point stands — our dirtiest fuel, from a climate and health perspective, appears to be on a trajectory to create more substantial problems for the global environment.

Climate change and sustainable energy in President Obama's second inaugural address

President Obama, during his second inaugural address (emphasis added):

“We, the people, still believe that our obligations as Americans are not just to ourselves, but to all posterity. We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations. Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires, and crippling drought, and more powerful storms. The path towards sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult. But America cannot resist this transition; we must lead it. We cannot cede to other nations the technology that will power new jobs and new industries — we must claim its promise. That is how we will maintain our economic vitality and our national treasure — our forests and waterways; our croplands and snowcapped peaks. That is how we will preserve our planet…”

Tackling the world's forgotten killer

My advisor, writing at CNN:

About the worst thing you can do is stick burning stuff in your mouth. Every year, tobacco kills more than six million people, according to the World health Organization. Including secondhand tobacco smoke affecting non-smokers, it is the chief cause of ill-health (measured as lost years of healthy life) among men globally and for everyone in North America and Western Europe.

The terrible disease burden imposed by tobacco is recognized by most people, but the risk of another form of smoke is also highlighted in the new “Global Burden of Disease” report released last Month in The Lancet - smoke from cooking fires. About 40 percent of the world still cooks with solid fuels, like wood and coal, in simple stoves that release substantial amounts of the same kinds of hazardous chemicals found in tobacco smoke directly into the household environment. Indeed, a typical wood cookfire emits 400 cigarettes worth of smoke an hour.

This “household air pollution” is responsible for about 3.5 million premature deaths each year. Perhaps it is not surprising that the impact on health is so high when one considers that this smoke particularly affects a very vulnerable group - poor women in developing countries.

Why we shouldn't compare Beijing in 2013 to mid-20th century London, Pittsburgh, and Chicago

This week, amidst all the kerfuffle over Beijing’s smog, both Andrew Revkin at the NYT and Alexis Madrigal at the Atlantic looked back to historical periods of extreme pollution in the US and the UK as proof that cleaning up the air in large, rapidly developing cities can happen — will happen — given long enough time frames. Madrigal points to Chicago and Pittsburgh, noting

The fundamental struggle of any kind of pollution control is trying to get the polluters to internalize the costs of their pollution. Because if they don’t, the rest of us have to pay more. We — i.e. all of society — subsidize their businesses through increased health care costs, declining values of certain kinds of housing, toxic land or water or air. And the only reason they get away with it is that tracing the line of causality back to them — even when the air looks as disgusting as it does in these photographs — is just that difficult. They hide their roles in the complexity of the system.

So, next time you see one of the photos of Beijing’s pollution and say, “Geez! The Chinese should do something about this!” Just know that it took American activists over a century to win the precise same battle, and that they’re losing a similar one over climate change right this minute.

Similarly, Revkin first looks back to the 1950s London smog episodes and then looks forward, offering potential solutions.

…Much of what we in the West see as shockingly aberrant in today’s industrializing countries and fast-growing cities was our norm a short two generations ago. The same is true for rivers. As I wrote last year, while Nairobi has foaming floods of pollution now, the Hudson, which is now swimmable, had shores sticky with adhesive and shimmering with automotive paint a few decades ago. Prosperity leads to rising public environmental concern and the wherewithal for governments to change rules and practices.

Last year, I asked this question: “Can China Follow U.S. Shift from Coal to Gas?” The country has vast reserves of shale gas but lacks expertise and experience in hydraulic fracturing, also called fracking, the innovative mix of technologies that is poised to transform America’s energy prospects (if drilling is done with communities and the environment in mind). A prompt shift from coal to natural gas in China — which would have to involve substantial collaboration with the United States — could potentially be a big near-term step toward stopping growth in greenhouse-gas emissions, and of course clearing the air in crowded, coal-dependent cities.

A few things stand out. While it’s perhaps fair to argue that pollution controls will come on a long enough time frame, it’s a bit problematic to compare 1940s - 1960s Chicago and Pittsburgh to emerging market mega-cities. Beijing’s population is approximately 20 million. Delhi and its surrounding National Capital Region, which suffer from similar bouts of intense ambient air pollution, have an estimated population of a bit over 22 million. In 1940, the population of Pittsburgh was ~700,000; Chicago was home to ~ 3.4 million. London was quite a bit larger during the smog episodes, with a population of ~9 million, but still much smaller than current-day mega-cities. The magnitude of the pollution in these cities — coupled with the sheer number of people residing within them — leads to extremely large, health-damaging population level exposures.

As Revkin points out, there’s a path forward that could lead to more rapid improvements in environmental quality and have a number of political and health-related cobenefits — collaboration between developed and developing markets to improve the quality of energy production. While I’m not 100% onboard with fracking, Revkin’s general point emphasizing cooperation should hold. We, the West, have repeatedly been through the pathway of industrialization -> environmental degradation -> outrage, illness, death -> <- regulatory struggles -> technological innovation -> cleaner environments. We’ve emerged from it in two or three generations with vastly improved environmental conditions, though we must now face the looming specter of climate change. It is in our own selfish interests — indeed, in everyone’s interest — to facilitate cleaner energy production and industrialization globally. The pollutants affecting millions in China and India have long-lasting global impacts that affect us all. Developing and developed countries acting in concert to reduce emissions results in a win-win.

Some caveats. I’m in no way implying that Revkin and Madrigal haven’t thought through these issues. They have - repeatedly and far more eloquently than I - throughout their writings. Second, I fully acknowledge that development occurs on vastly different timeframes and scales in each emerging market. The pace of development today is breathtaking — change occurs at a pummeling pace, enabled by our past technological innovations that now have a global reach. One hopes, given our global interconnectedness and inter-dependency, that we could avoid repeating some of these catastrophes. We’ve been through this repeatedly. We know the cost of environmental degradation in terms of human life, ecosystem quality, and money. And, to an extent, we know how to clean up our industrial processes. We have a fundamental obligation to share this knowledge, to make it heard, and to use our significant global clout to bring it to bear.

NASA/NOAA: Smog in China, as seen from space

smog_space.jpg

NOAA:

Smog is a common part of life across much of eastern China; however the past week has seen extremely high air pollution counts, some exceeding 750 micrograms per cubic meter of particles that are 2.5 microns or less in diameter. In the U.S., the EPA classifies any PM2.5 concentration above 100 as “unsafe,” as these tiny particles are able to penetrate deep into airways causing many health risks. This image of eastern China was taken on January 13, 2013 by the NASA/NOAA Suomi NPP satellite. Clouds can be seen as bright white areas, whereas the smog and other pollutants appear as a dull gray blanket over the region.

The great Beijing 'fog': dispatches from around the web

Dashiell Bennett, at The Atlantic Wire:

Chinese officials have shut down factories and ordered cars off the roads to try and save their capital city after spending three straight days under a cloud of toxic smog. Visibility has been as low as 100 yards in some parts of the city, as an increase in winter coal burning, combined with low wind conditions pushed the nation’s already crushing pollution problems to dangerous levels.

To put the current crisis in perspective, the World Health Organization considers an acceptable level of airborne particulates to be 25 micrograms per cubic meter (ug/m3). On Saturday, readings in Beijing reached 993 ug/m3. The head of cardiology at Peking University People’s Hospital said “The number of people coming into our emergency room suffering heart attacks has roughly doubled since Friday.”

James Fallows at the Atlantic, highlighting excerpts from an English-language version of an editorial in Global Times, a state-run newspaper:

It’s worth reading the English version of a notable editorial in Global Times, a government-controlled and often hard-line paper. In days of yore, the Chinese press would downplay pollution reports — calling it “fog,” saying that foreigners were meddling in Chinese affairs by even monitoring the most dangerous pollutants, etc. In context, this editorial is filled with quite eye-opening lines, which I have helpfully highlighted:

“The public should understand the importance of development as well as the critical need to safeguard the bottom line of the environmental pollution. The choice between development and environment protection should be made by genuinely democratic methods…

“The government cannot always think about how to intervene to ‘guide public opinion.’ It should publish the facts and interests involved, and let the public itself produce a balance based on the foundation of diversification.

“The government is not the only responsible party for environmental pollution. As long as the government changes its previous method of covering up the problems and instead publishes the facts, society will know who should be blamed.”

Additional interesting coverage at Live From Beijing, with reasonable explanations of what all the numbers mean.

Finally, a set of photos at WSJ’s China Real Time Report and a summary of the Chinese media response to the ongoing “airpocalypse.”

Beijing's Air Quality hits "Crazy Bad" status again

From the NYT:

The municipal government reported levels as high as 500 on Saturday evening from some monitoring stations. The Chinese system does not report numbers beyond 500. Nevertheless, readings in central Beijing throughout the day were at the extreme end of what is considered hazardous according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency standards. (By comparison, the air quality index in New York City, using the same standard, was 19 at 6 a.m. on Saturday.)

Pollution levels in Beijing had been creeping up for days, and readings were regularly surging above 300 by midweek. The interior of the gleaming Terminal 3 of the Beijing Capital International Airport was filled with a thick haze on Thursday. The next day, people working in office towers in downtown Beijing found it impossible to make out skyscrapers just a few blocks away. Some city residents scoured stores in search of masks and air filters.

Revisiting the old, real-time graph I created from the Twitter data:

The magnitude of the pollution is somewhat hard to comprehend. We often see levels as high as these peaks in unventilated, indoor spaces where people cook using solid fuels (like wood, grass, or dung). To imagine concentrations like that at ambient levels is terrifying from a public health perspective. Health data from Beijing in the coming weeks should back this up — if it is made accessible. Indicates a clear need for some sort of action to preserve population level health, especially amongst the most vulnerable.

NYT dissolves environment desk

I heard about this via kottke.org and found it pretty shocking. Most of the response on the internet has been somewhat bimodal, with positions of meh and dismay.

Grist offers a somewhat more balanced response.

…While the environment desk itself is fairly new, the Times has been a bulwark of robust climate coverage for decades. While it’s not clear if the reassigned environment desk reporters will still maintain a focus on the environment in their reporting, other areas of the paper will gain new reporters with a deep knowledge of and concern about environmental issues. The Times will still continue to turn out good climate coverage.

Part of the (justifiable!) hand-wringing over the move stems from the poor reporting of climate issues elsewhere. Earlier this week, a study revealed that the number of newspapers that maintain a weekly “Science” section dropped from 95 in 1989 to 14 currently. (The Times is one of the 14.) Television news continues to give climate coverage short shrift, especially in the context of policy and politics. With public opinion suggesting that Americans link the threat of global warming with information about its effects, it’s understandably disconcerting to think that one of the most vocal outlets on the subject is changing its approach.

There’s one thing that is certain. As the months and years pass, every other bureau of the New York Times will have to deal with the effects of a changing climate: business, international, health, even sports. Having reporters close at hand who are well-versed in the subject will be an asset to the paper. The problem is less with how the Times staffs its environment coverage and far more with how few other outlets knowledgeably cover the environment at all.

While I tend to agree with Grist’s take on the issue, a couple things stand out. First, we won’t really know how this will impact the paper’s coverage of environmental issues and climate change for weeks or months.

Second, and importantly, much of the uproar has surrounded potential impacts on coverage of climate change. The Times has been a stalwart source of information on other environmental news, as well — including political positions and opinions on the environment, global environmental change, environmental health,the relationship between industry and the environment, and the like. While climate change is perhaps the most pressing of our ongoing environmental concerns, it is certainly not the only one.

I worry that some the Times’ nuanced coverage of other environmental issues may suffer from this move. Moving knowledgeable reporters to other desks in the news department could help bring an environmental perspective to more stories. But it may also lead to weaker coverage of the environment — one can imagine environmental voices getting drowned out by other concerns and editorial decisions. Time will tell.

2012 was the United States' warmest year on record

2012 was the hottest year on record. It was 3.2 degrees higher than the 20th century average and 1 degree hotter than the previous record.

TemperatureAnomaly2012_HRl.jpg

The year consisted of the fourth-warmest winter, a record-warm spring, the second-warmest summer, and a warmer-than-average autumn.

The map above shows where the 2012 temperatures were different from the 1981-2010 average. Shades of red indicate temperatures up to 8° Fahrenheit warmer than average, and shades of blue indicate temperatures up to 8° Fahrenheit cooler than average—the darker the color, the larger the difference from average temperature.

Every state in the contiguous United States had an above-average annual temperature for 2012. Nineteen states had a record-warm year, and an additional 26 states had one of their 10 warmest. On the national scale, 2012 started off much warmer than average, with the fourth-warmest winter (December 2011-February 2012) on record. The winter snow cover for the contiguous United States was the third smallest on record, and snowpack totals across the Central and Southern Rockies were less than half of normal.

Weather Madness in Australia

First: days so hot that the Australian Meteorological Service defaulted on their normal heat-map color scheme and decided to indicate here-to-fore unseen levels of sweltering with… purple. The purple, by the way, represents just shy of 130 degrees Fahrenheit (54 Celsius). A few days ago, it was 95 degrees F at midnight in Sydney. That’s bloody hot.

Next up in the madness lineup: insane wildfires are raging across the entire continent. The Atlantic Wire has a terrifying set of photos from the fires.

Cyclone-Narelle2_729-620x349.jpg

Finally, storms. Tropical cyclone Narelle is approaching the northwestern coast of Australia. It is currently unclear how severe it will be when it hits lands. A second storm front off the coast has yielded at least a couple of amazing photographs from Brett Martin, one of which is above.

The Bakken Oil Shale Field

Nice, keen catch from Dr. Drang:

Look north and slightly east of Denver. See that big, somewhat diffuse patch of light? Here’s a zoomed-in view of that area with a few cities labeled to help you get your bearings.

Even if you didn’t know that this lit-up patch was in a generally empty area, covering western North Dakota and parts of eastern Montana and southern Saskatchewan, you could guess that it’s not a population center; despite its size, there’s no bright center to it.

The lights are from the oil shale fields spread out over the Williston Basin. It’s one thing to read about the boom in oil shale, it’s quite another to see such graphic evidence.

As a point of reference, here’s EIA map of 2011 oil shale plays in N. America.

The Imported Landscapes of Petur Thomsen

Petur Thomsen, an Icelandic photographer, has been documenting “man’s attempts to dominate nature” and “man’s transformation of nature into environment.”

One set of photographs - his “Imported Landscape” series — is particularly striking. It examines the impact of the Karahnjukar Hydroelectric Project in eastern Iceland.

The project consists of three dams, one of them being the highest in Europe, and a hydroelectric power plant. The dams block among others the big glacial river Jokula a Dal, creating the 57km2 artificial lake Halslon.

The power plant is primarily being constructed to supply electricity to a new Aluminum smelter built by Alcoa of USA in the fjord of Reyoarfjorour on the east coast of Iceland.

The artificial lake and the constructions have spoiled the biggest wild nature in Europe. Making the Karahnjukar project, not only the biggest project in Icelandic history, but also the most controversial one. There have been a lot of debates about this project. Environmentalists are fighting for the preservation of the wild nature while those supporting the project talk about the need to use the energy the nature has to offer.

The best way for me to participate in the debate was to follow the land in its transformation.

Environmental degradation in the name of energy production — even ‘clean’ energy production — is nothing new. Thomsen’s take starkly frames the respective powers of man and nature as antagonists. For me, he conveys perfectly our conflicting senses of nostalgia/loss and awe/control. His photos embody contrasting, awkward meanings of power — electricity, energy, dominion, destruction, beauty.

Via The Fox is Black.

It's been 27 years...

We’ve made massive progress since these days. Phones fit in a pocket, the internet connects billions of people, and shoulder pads are history. Isn’t it finally time to change the course of our climate, too?

A few weeks ago, I posted a link to a NOAA report that it had been 333 months with an above-average global temperature. Looks like that report stirred up some interested and advocacy. 27 years:

“27 years” is a creative project that illustrates the warming of the planet. It is inspired by NOAA’s State of the Climate Global Analysis, released in December 2012.

The analysis shows that November marked the 333rd consecutive month with an above-average global temperature. That means the world has not experienced a cooler-than-average or average temperature month in 27 years. In other words, it’s a clear sign that the world is quickly warming up.

Neat stuff — funny, hip, and pointed.

Memories for the Future: Documenting what was lost during the Tohoku quake & tsunami

Really cool - and thoughtful - use of internet tech from Google. The before and after photos, in particular, are striking and overwhelming. I like this kind of thing — it imagines the internet and social networks out of the doldrums of daily life and highlights the power of these kinds of technologies; it remembers the old promises of what these technologies could do for us.

On March 11, 2011 a devastating earthquake and tsunami hit northeastern Japan, causing unimaginable damage. Many people lost their lives, their homes, and all their precious memories collected over generations. Among the things lost were precious photos and videos — cherished images of family, friends, pets and once-in-a-lifetime events — buried in rubble or washed to sea.

To help people in Japan share their photographs and videos that did survive, Google created a website, “Mirai e no kioku” (text is in Japanese only), which means “Memories for the Future”. Through this site, people have been able to rediscover lost memories of their homes and towns.

Google is now also providing thousands of miles of Street View imagery in the affected areas that were collected before and after the disaster. Seeing the street-level imagery of the affected areas puts the plight of these communities into perspective and ensures that the memories of the disaster remain relevant and tangible for future generations.

Click the “Before” or “After” links at the top of this page and use the Google Maps display to see the areas where we have Street View coverage. Find an image in Street View by dragging the yellow “Pegman” icon onto the map where you see a blue overlay. Then click between the “Before” and “After” links to see how the earthquake and tsunami impacted that area.

If you're 27 or younger, you've never experienced a colder-than-average month

From NOAA’s State of the Climate (as reported by Grist) October 2012:

The average temperature across land and ocean surfaces during October was 14.63°C (58.23°F). This is 0.63°C (1.13°F) above the 20th century average and ties with 2008 as the fifth warmest October on record. The record warmest October occurred in 2003 and the record coldest October occurred in 1912. This is the 332nd consecutive month with an above-average temperature. The last below-average month was February 1985. The last October with a below-average temperature was 1976. The Northern Hemisphere ranked as the seventh warmest October on record, while the Southern Hemisphere ranked as second warmest, behind 1997.

Read more at NOAA.

On the Cold Front: Photos of Receding Glaciers

In an effort to provide concrete visual proof of climate change and its devastating effects, photographer James Balog embarked on a years-long project that spanned the northern reaches of the globe. He set up cameras from Greenland to Alaska in order to capture horrifying—yet undeniably beautiful—time-lapse photos that reveal the unprecedented rate at which glaciers are receding. As the award-winning Chasing Ice, which chronicles Balog’s monumental endeavor with his Extreme Ice Survey, hits New York on November 9, VF.com showcases breathtaking photographs from Balog’s Ice: Portraits of Vanishing Glaciers, published by Rizzoli.

From Dave Pell’s NextDraft

Stormpocalypse 2012: East Coast Version

NOAA’s GOES-13 satellite captured this visible image of the massive Hurricane Sandy on Oct. 28 at 1615 UTC (12:02 p.m. EDT). The line of clouds from the Gulf of Mexico north are associated with the cold front that Sandy is merging with. Sandy’s western cloud edge is already over the Mid-Atlantic and northeastern U.S.

NYC’s public transit hubs are closed in preparation for super-Hurricane Sandy. MTA has quite a few photos posted to their flickr account of emptied subways and workers preparing for the storm. An odd sight.

The pay wall at the NYT has been breached by the potential floodwaters.

Google.org has set up a “crisis” center for Hurricane Sandy. It worked until sometime on Oct 31. Then, it switched to the embed below.

Kottke.org has interesting (and typically amusing) coverage of all things NYC right now. He links to hint.fm’s wind map, which paints a near real-time picture of wind speeds across the US. The northeast portion of that windmap should be pretty terrifying for the next few days.

Stay safe, NYC.

Romney's once-sensible energy politics & presidential ambitions

A long excerpt from an interesting NYT piece:

Decades later, when he was governor, Mr. Romney remarked to an adviser, Rob Gray, that “we’d be a lot better off in this country if we had European gas prices” because Americans would buy more energy-efficient cars. He also invited Amory B. Lovins, the head of the Rocky Mountain Institute, a nonprofit research organization devoted to energy efficiency, to meet with him in Boston. While Mr. Lovins “shared his vision of a 75 m.p.g. hybrid automobile built with high strength steel and composites,” Mr. Romney wrote, “I shared my own dream for a super-efficient commuter vehicle.”

When Mr. Romney ran for governor in 2002, he fashioned himself “in the tradition of New England Yankee Republicans,” Mr. Clarke said — a tradition in which “the environment is a nonpartisan issue.”

He was animated by ideas like smart growth and sustainable development, former aides say. He wanted high-density housing clustered near public transportation, pedestrian-friendly urban areas and parks. To carry out his vision, he created an Office for Commonwealth Development, headed by an über-secretary who would integrate policy in housing, transportation, energy and the environment.

The man Mr. Romney installed in that job was Doug Foy, who had spent 25 years at the helm of the Conservation Law Foundation, an advocacy group that had sued Massachusetts numerous times on matters ranging from air pollution to cleaning up Boston Harbor. Mr. Foy says he found Mr. Romney “intellectually struck” by environmental concerns, though he filtered them through a business-friendly lens.

One of the first issues Mr. Romney and Mr. Foy tackled involved an aging coal plant in Salem that was spewing dirty particulates and was required by state regulations to clean up by 2004. The plant’s owner wanted extra time. The governor said no; three weeks into his administration, he denounced the company at a news conference.

“He strongly wanted to clean up the air,” said Eric Kriss, who founded the private equity firm Bain Capital with Mr. Romney and followed him to the Statehouse to become finance secretary. The governor and his entourage drove to Salem, where Mr. Romney confronted angry pickets — coal workers who said he was costing them their jobs.

“I will not create jobs or hold jobs that kill people,” Mr. Romney thundered. “And that plant, that plant kills people.”

Granted, a state is not a nation and a governorship is not the presidency. That said, it would be great to hear this kind of rhetoric or see a hint of this kind of flexibility (and let’s not conflate mental nimbleness with political switcheroos) on any policy front. The article goes on to discuss the regional carbon trading market that Romney almost agreed to and some of the political ambitions that may have played a role in his decision to instead choose less green approaches.

On Dec. 12, 2005, in an interview on national television, Mr. Romney embraced drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge — a position that, like his withdrawal from the cap-and-trade negotiations, aligned him more closely with the right wing of his party.

A few days later, the governor informed the people of Massachusetts that he would not be seeking re-election — a sign, many residents believed, that he had set his sights on the presidency.

Of course, these issues - the environment and climate change - aren’t coming up. They haven’t been mentioned in the debates or the campaigns beyond some perfunctory sneers by one party and reaffirmations by the other during the conventions.

It's getting hot in here: Shifting Distribution of Northern Hemisphere Summer Temperature Anomalies, 1951-2011

From Goddard Space Flight Center:

This bell curve graph shows how the distribution of Northern Hemisphere summer temperature anomalies has shifted toward an increase in hot summers. The seasonal mean temperature for the entire base period of 1951-1980 is plotted at the top of the bell curve. Decreasing in frequency to the right are what are defined as “hot” anomalies (between 1 and 2 standard deviations from the norm), “very hot” anomalies (between 2 and 3 standard deviations) and “extremely hot” anomalies (greater than 3 standard deviations). The anomalies fall off to the left in mirror-image categories of “cold, “very cold” and “extremely cold.” The range between the .43 and -.43 standard deviation marks represent “normal” temperatures.

As the graph moves forward in time, the bell curve shifts to the right, representing an increase in the frequency of the various hot anomalies. It also gets wider and shorter, representing a wider range of temperature extremes. As the graph moves beyond 1980, the temperatures are still compared to the seasonal mean of the 1951-1980 base period, so that as it reaches the 21st century, there is a far greater frequency of temperatures that once fell 3 standard deviations beyond the mean.

There’s another telling animation showing extreme heat events across the Northern Hemisphere. This one, like the above, was created by Goddard using Hansen’s data. It is available here.

More NPR Tar Sands Coverage

NPR’s got some great coverage of Tar Sands (and energy issues in general). In particular, there is a great, recent interview with a Texan whose land the Keystone XL pipeline will be traversing.

What Daniel wants most from TransCanada is answers. He actually drew up a list of 54 questions.

“One of my many questions was: If there’s a spill and we have to leave, are you going to take care of us?” Daniel says.

He also wanted to know things like: What kind of damage could a spill cause? And what chemicals would flow in the pipeline?

TransCanada told Daniel in writing that questions about spills were hypothetical because their pipeline would be designed not to spill. But in a document for the State Department, TransCanada predicted two spills every 10 years over the entire length of its Keystone XL pipeline, from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. Some scientists argue that the company underestimates that risk. Another pipeline it put into service two years ago has had 14 spills in the United States, although most were small, according to TransCanada.

2 spills every ten years doesn’t seem like great numbers - or numbers that should be permissible at all. And the ease at which the spills are cleaned up, according to the article - and unsurprisingly - is oversold. In Michigan,

Early on, the EPA gave the company a couple of months. Two years and $800 million later, the cleanup is still going on. The cost eclipses every other onshore oil cleanup in U.S. history.

… Cleanup crews didn’t know what they were dealing with. They expected it to act like oil usually does and float on water. So they focused on vacuuming oil and skimming it from the surface.

But about a month into the cleanup, some fish researchers got a surprise. One of them jumped from a boat into the river. With each step he took, little globs of black oil popped up.

That kicked off a search for sunken oil.

“And everywhere they looked, they found it,” Hamilton recalls.

And, finally, perhaps the most rational appeal people who oppose Keystone XL and tar sands writ large can make:

“For me, as a father, I have a duty and responsibility to protect my family. What I know about this project is they can break laws and put my family at risk. I’m not OK with any of that. If that means I’ll have to stand in front of a bulldozer, I’ll stand in front of a bulldozer.”

Tar Sands Madness, Depicted

Nice, simplified infographic from NPR about the production of Tar Sands.

The oil product extracted from Canada’s tar sands isn’t like conventional crude. Known as bitumen, it’s sticky and so thick, it can’t flow down a pipeline without extensive processing. There are two methods for getting bitumen out of the ground and turning it into usable products. Both are complex, energy-intensive and expensive processes - but high oil prices are finally making tar sands profitable.

Q: What do a broken fuel injector, a helicopter evacuation, a plague of diarrhea, a minor tornado, and Rohtang Pass all have in common?

A: The 2012 Himalayan Health Exchange Kargiakh expedition.

More on all that later, though. We made it through the whole trip relatively intact. The trip was long and productive.

Around 600 people came through the public health and medical camps, with complaints ranging from simple osteoarthritis to worms to primary syphilis (yup!). We were able to sample indoor air quality in six villages across the Zanskar valley - a minor miracle. Remarkably, the levels of pollution during this time of year seem to be a bit lower than expected, though we won’t be able to say anything definitive until we do some more thorough data analysis.

The team arrived post-trek in Manali late on August 24th after a harrowing drive down Rohtang pass. The sky was thick with cotton-gauze fog, sharply contrasted by sticky, dense brown mud smothering the road. Our bus met them both, sliding around corners, sometimes narrowly avoiding steep drops, all the while pummeling through pea soup. The driver performed admirably, exhibiting nerves of steel save occasional bouts of hyperactive profanity. The passengers did alright, as well, though they were clearly many frayed, over-stimulated synapses at the end of the bus ride. Manali is a kitschy oasis of hot showers, beer, and wandering Druids. Our motley crew fits in well and is re-finding their footing among the modern.

We head to Delhi by bus in a few minutes, another long sojourn before we all disperse to our separate homes around the world. It’s been a great trip - and one I look forward to describing more in the coming days.

Air Quality in London During the Olympics

Earlier this week, a few British newspapers ran stories about the implications of poor air quality in London and the impact it may have on athlete’s performance. The articles were a bit scant on details, but hinted at dangers for vulnerable populations and an increased risk of exercise-induced asthma during certain times of the day, especially for athletes. They cited London Air, a site that is tracking a number of important pollutants at sites throughout London.

They’ve got a remarkable amount of relatively easily accessible data on their site, and a special subsection catered towards visitors to London for the 2012 games. They’ve also created (in collaboration with the Environmental Health group at King’s College) free location-aware smartphone apps for Android and iOS that are impressive, easy to use, and comprehensive.

Click here to see a map of PM10 concentrations around London and visit their site for more information.

The AP story has been picked up by the Washington Post.

Rains in China + Changes in Air Quality in Beijing

Not so long ago, I created a little javascript to pull data from the US Embassy’s Twitter air quality feed from China, parse it, and plot the data. It’s worth revisiting now, since Beijing air has literally been washed by the huge amount of rain (and subsequent road closures and power outages) the population experienced last week.

From the NYT

The heaviest rainfall in six decades caused widespread havoc in this capital over the weekend, killing at least 37 people and forcing the evacuation of 50,000 others from waterlogged neighborhoods and villages, according to the state news media.

And from BBC:

State news agency Xinhua said 460mm (18.1 in) fell in Beijing’s Fangshan district, with the capital as a whole averaging 170mm.

About 1.9m people had been affected by the downpour, and flood and economic losses had been estimated at 10bn yuan ($1.5bn, £960m), Pan Anjun, deputy chief of Beijing flood control headquarters, was quoted as saying by Xinhua news agency.

By Sunday evening, more than 65,000 people had to be evacuated. Beijing officials said 37 people had died, 25 of them from drowning.

Outside the capital, 17 people were reportedly missing in northwestern Shaanxi province and eight people dead in southwestern Sichuan province due to heavy rains, said another Xinhua report.

Here’s the real-time data, again — only useful for a few more days. Note the sudden drop in PM2.5 and the slow creep back up. More rain expected this week. Hopefully all colleagues and friends in China are keeping safe, dry, and out of the streets.

Loading the Climate Dice & Global Warming's Terrifying New Math

Two stunning pieces of climate change work from pre-eminent scholar-journalists hit the internet in the past couple days. The first, from Paul Krugman in the NYT, focuses on the situation in the US:

How should we think about the relationship between climate change and day-to-day experience? Almost a quarter of a century ago James Hansen, the NASA scientist who did more than anyone to put climate change on the agenda, suggested the analogy of loaded dice. Imagine, he and his associates suggested, representing the probabilities of a hot, average or cold summer by historical standards as a die with two faces painted red, two white and two blue. By the early 21st century, they predicted, it would be as if four of the faces were red, one white and one blue. Hot summers would become much more frequent, but there would still be cold summers now and then.

And so it has proved. As documented in a new paper by Dr. Hansen and others, cold summers by historical standards still happen, but rarely, while hot summers have in fact become roughly twice as prevalent. And 9 of the 10 hottest years on record have occurred since 2000.

But that’s not all: really extreme high temperatures, the kind of thing that used to happen very rarely in the past, have now become fairly common. Think of it as rolling two sixes, which happens less than 3 percent of the time with fair dice, but more often when the dice are loaded. And this rising incidence of extreme events, reflecting the same variability of weather that can obscure the reality of climate change, means that the costs of climate change aren’t a distant prospect, decades in the future. On the contrary, they’re already here, even though so far global temperatures are only about 1 degree Fahrenheit above their historical norms, a small fraction of their eventual rise if we don’t act.

The second, from McKibben writing in Rolling Stone, is more far-reaching and expansive. He starts with some striking, scary numbers:

If the pictures of those towering wildfires in Colorado haven’t convinced you, or the size of your AC bill this summer, here are some hard numbers about climate change: June broke or tied 3,215 high-temperature records across the United States. That followed the warmest May on record for the Northern Hemisphere - the 327th consecutive month in which the temperature of the entire globe exceeded the 20th-century average, the odds of which occurring by simple chance were 3.7 x 10-99, a number considerably larger than the number of stars in the universe.

Meteorologists reported that this spring was the warmest ever recorded for our nation - in fact, it crushed the old record by so much that it represented the “largest temperature departure from average of any season on record.” The same week, Saudi authorities reported that it had rained in Mecca despite a temperature of 109 degrees, the hottest downpour in the planet’s history.

Not to mention floods in China. 179 fires raging across Russia. Drought alerts across many states in India. He outlines three big numbers to focus on.

One: 2º Celsius

Despite such well-founded misgivings, political realism bested scientific data, and the world settled on the two-degree target - indeed, it’s fair to say that it’s the only thing about climate change the world has settled on. All told, 167 countries responsible for more than 87 percent of the world’s carbon emissions have signed on to the Copenhagen Accord, endorsing the two-degree target. Only a few dozen countries have rejected it, including Kuwait, Nicaragua and Venezuela. Even the United Arab Emirates, which makes most of its money exporting oil and gas, signed on. The official position of planet Earth at the moment is that we can’t raise the temperature more than two degrees Celsius - it’s become the bottomest of bottom lines. Two degrees.

Two: 565 Gigatons

Scientists estimate that humans can pour roughly 565 more gigatons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere by midcentury and still have some reasonable hope of staying below two degrees. (“Reasonable,” in this case, means four chances in five, or somewhat worse odds than playing Russian roulette with a six-shooter.)

This idea of a global “carbon budget” emerged about a decade ago, as scientists began to calculate how much oil, coal and gas could still safely be burned. Since we’ve increased the Earth’s temperature by 0.8 degrees so far, we’re currently less than halfway to the target. But, in fact, computer models calculate that even if we stopped increasing CO2 now, the temperature would likely still rise another 0.8 degrees, as previously released carbon continues to overheat the atmosphere. That means we’re already three-quarters of the way to the two-degree target.

Three: 2,795 Gigatons

This number is the scariest of all - one that, for the first time, meshes the political and scientific dimensions of our dilemma. It was highlighted last summer by the Carbon Tracker Initiative, a team of London financial analysts and environmentalists who published a report in an effort to educate investors about the possible risks that climate change poses to their stock portfolios. The number describes the amount of carbon already contained in the proven coal and oil and gas reserves of the fossil-fuel companies, and the countries (think Venezuela or Kuwait) that act like fossil-fuel companies. In short, it’s the fossil fuel we’re currently planning to burn. And the key point is that this new number - 2,795 - is higher than 565. Five times higher.

The top half is great and informative. The bottom half really gets going, though, with salient discussions of the politics and economics of change. Read it.

The Yellow River

Zhang Kechun is a 32 year old Chinese photographer born in Sichuan, China. He’s created a large-format collection of photographs called “The Yellow River Surging Northward Rumblingly.” The images — with their muted tones — showcase a stunning, vast landscape mottled with people. The large intrusions and scars on the scenery — smoke stacks, superhighways, cooling towers — appear unnatural, huge, imposing. Large compared to the scale of the people in his photos, but small in comparison to the enormity of the surroundings. Really impressive work.

It is a river, with its unity of bend and straight, fullness and imperfection, rapid and slow, active or tranquil, majestic and elegant, simple and wonderful, bright and dark, light and color, form and spirit, visionary and real… It embraces people’s reality and fate, joy and sorrow, firmness and leisure.

I determined to follow its pace, with all my courage and my… large format camera.

See the whole set here.

From Twitter to Graph: Plotting the US Embassy's Air Quality Monitor in Beijing

There’s been a lot of dingus kerfuffle around the US Embassy monitoring air quality in Beijing and posting the results to Twitter at @BeijingAir. I personally like this kind of thing — its almost as though the government is acting as an environmental activist with infinite clout, stirring up problems by bringing known issues to light.

I thought, in passing, that it would be fun to pull the data stream from Twitter, parse it, and graph it. The embassy updates the data hourly; I figured I could make a call to Twitter’s API, without the need for any hacky AJAX refreshing. When people view the post, it’ll show the most recent two hundred tweets, representing 200 hours of data. Perhaps there’d be a need/interest to backup more to a database, but I was running out of steam - turns out that this undertaking wasn’t as easy as one would have hoped.

So, without further ado, here’s approximately the latest week of PM2.5 data from Beijing. The lower line — in red — is the PM2.5 concentration; the upper line — in green — is the air quality index (AQI). The dotted, light-grey line is the US EPA 24h PM2.5 standard. Note that Beijing is rarely, if ever, below that designation. I’ll do my best to explain what each of those lines represents below. But now, the graph:

PM2.5 is defined by the US EPA as follows:

Particles less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter are called “fine” particles. These particles are so small they can be detected only with an electron microscope. Sources of fine particles include all types of combustion, including motor vehicles, power plants, residential wood burning, forest fires, agricultural burning, and some industrial processes.

Exposure to particles of this size has been implicated in a wide range of health effects. Like other chemical exposures, at a first approximation the intensity of the health effect depends on the duration of exposure, the concentration of particles in the environment, and an individual’s proximity to the source. There’s increasing evidence that any exposure above very low levels — the types we rarely see anywhere on Earth these days — are bad for health and can exacerbate heart and lung disease, asthma, bronchitis, and the like.

The Air Quality Index (or AQI) is a summary measure that

tells you how clean or polluted your air is, and what associated health effects might be a concern for you. The AQI focuses on health effects you may experience within a few hours or days after breathing polluted air. EPA calculates the AQI for five major air pollutants regulated by the Clean Air Act: ground-level ozone, particle pollution (also known as particulate matter), carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen dioxide. For each of these pollutants, EPA has established national air quality standards to protect public health. Ground-level ozone and airborne particles are the two pollutants that pose the greatest threat to human health in this country.

Finally, the US EPA standard is pretty straightforward. For the US, there are not supposed to be 24-hour average PM levels above the 35µg/m3. Of course, as we can expect, not every locale in the country can meet this standard.

Back to China.

It’d be interesting to add some summary statistics and look at variation between weekdays and weekends — I’m working on that now. I’m also trying to find an accessible data source from China to plot along with the US data. Some comparison would be good, especially after China began posting its own data not too long ago.

The previous (and awesome) work that inspired this undertaking was done by China Air Daily. They’ve got some amazing visuals of the air pollution. One is attached below; I recommend checking out their site for more great stuff.

British Columbia's Carbon Footprint: An Interactive Map

British Columbia is a net carbon sink, owing largely to huge swaths of forest and eelgrass and partly to a relatively low population density and footprint.

Tyee Solutions Society recently published an interactive carbon map showing the impacts of a number of sources on the net carbon footprint of BC. They include forest, eel grass & salt marsh, communities, highways, and industrial facilities. Each contributor/sink can be toggled; a Google Map updates in realtime. Pretty neat.

Click here to see the map.

A rough approximation, of course — we’re not going to “turn off” communities, highways, or the forest — but an interesting one, nonetheless. To create their map, Tyee Society sought out

the most credible data available to quantify the most important currents in B.C.’s carbon “flux” — the scientific term for the net difference between carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere from all sources, and carbon dioxide removed from the air and sequestered in stable carbon stocks (typically in plants or organic matter). The goal and, with some important qualifiers, the result is a rough carbon balance sheet revealing the interplay of emissions and ecosystems at scales from the provincial to the local.

They found a number of interesting, though unsurprising, facts while doing their research. First,

According to the latest 2010 provincial data, B.C. emitted 62 million tonnes of “CO2 equivalent” (a metric measure used to aggregate emissions from various greenhouse gases with different global warming potentials). But if [they] include emissions generated by the coal and natural gas we export, that number nearly quadruples, to as much as 240 million tonnes.

Second, as a result of warming, some of the net-sinks may be “switching” to net-emitters. Their explanation is a little unsatisfactory, but acknowledging this shift is important.

B.C.’s share of the northern boreal forest, considered in isolation, continues to soak up enormous quantities of CO2. But the broad swath of light gray that appears along the B.C. coast in the map, indicating ambiguity and uncertainty in the data, is a startling reminder that our historic forest carbon “sink” may be switching to a net emitter of greenhouse gases — a testament to wide-ranging changes in everything from forest decay rates to insect plagues unleashed by warmer winters.

Cheers to the Tyee society for citing their sources and explaining where their data came from. Good stuff, and rare.

Dave Pell's NextDraft: Meet Me in the City

Dave Pell, in his excellent NextDraft newsletter, points to a couple of quick and entertaining links about cities.

First, from NPR, a fun way to figure out if you live in a city.

Second, from The Atlantic Cities, a short but entertaining look at cities that may or may not have been without air conditioning. Pretty scary stuff, when we think about the rapid increase in AC use in the developing world and the concomitant strain on power supplies and use of harmful, climate forcing chemicals.

China's Air Quality Dilemma

Fascinating commentary in JAMA (related primarily to this article). The article and the commentary focus on the extraordinary pollution mitigation and control strategies undertaken by the Chinese government in the lead-up to the 2008 Olympics.

To ensure acceptable air quality during the Olympics (held from August 8-24) and the Paralympics (held from September 6-16), the Chinese government launched a series of aggressive measures to reduce pollutant emissions. To reduce industrial emissions, the operations of combustion facilities were restricted in smelters, cement plants, power plants, nonattainment boilers, and construction and petro-chemical industries. To reduce traffic emissions, certain vehicles and trucks were banned, 70% of government-owned vehicles were kept off the streets, and other vehicles could travel through the city only on alternating days.

The pollutant reductions are striking and substantial — reductions in mean concentrations of sulfur dioxide (-60%), carbon monoxide (-48%), nitrogen dioxide (-43%), elemental carbon (-36%), fine particulate matter (PM2.5, -27%), ozone (-22%), and sulfate (-13%), were reported. (Of note, even during the cleanest days in Beijing, mean concentrations exceeded the worst days in LA).

The study by Rich et al in JAMA (linked above) presents compelling evidence of changes in biomarkers due to the decreased pollution that point towards the vast potential for improved health with air quality regulation. The nitty-gritty scientific details are interesting, but more salient, I believe, are the policy ramifications. The reductions in ambient air pollution under the pressure of the IOC and widespread, international attention prove that change is possible, though at a potentially steep economic cost.

China’s dilemma, like many countries with emerging industries, is how to reconcile rapid economic growth with environmental protection. In recent decades, China has achieved industrialization and urbanization. However, China has been much less successful in maintaining the quality of urban air. Several factors challenge the implementation of air pollution controls in China: heavy reliance on coal as a main heating system, especially in subsidized housing; lack of political incentives for trading slower growth for less pollution; economic factors: most Chinese factories and power plants run on extremely thin margins and fines for polluting are generally lower than the cost of controlling emissions; and economic transformation of the landscape, from ubiquitous construction sites to the rapid expansion of the nation’s vehicle fleet. If air pollution in China and other Asian nations cannot be controlled, it could spread to other continents. A recent study by Lin et al provides compelling evidence that Asian emissions may account for as much as 20% of ground-level pollution in the United States. Clean air is a shared global resource. It is in the common interest to maintain air quality for the promotion of global health.

Rio +20 Recycled Art

As part of the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20) an enormous outdoor installation of fish was constructed using discarded plastic bottles on Botafogo beach in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The sculptures are illuminated from the inside at night creating a pretty spectacular light show.

Many of the photos from Rio +20 are worth checking out. See them here.

via Colossal

Cookstoves & the shadow of the past

There’s been a lot of “controversy” in the development sphere over the value of cookstove projects, stemming largely from one large trial in one country using one (arguably not) improved stove. The abstract nicely sums up their point:

We find no evidence of improvements in lung functioning or health and there is no change in fuel consumption (and presumably greenhouse gas emissions). The difference between the laboratory and this study’s field findings appears to result from households’ revealed low valuation of the stoves. Households failed to use the stoves regularly or appropriately, did not make the necessary investments to maintain them properly, and use ultimately declined further over time. More broadly, this study underscores the need to test environmental and health technologies in real-world settings where behavior may temper impacts, and to test them over a long enough horizon to understand how this behavioral effect evolves over time.

Cheers to JPAL for bringing in researchers from diverse backgrounds to think about and work on household air pollution and cookstoves. The field moves forward when alternative perspectives force us to think in new ways.

The rub, though, is that many of us in the field are acutely aware of the explicit requirement that any intervention be fully vetted with the community before being deployed. This isn’t the first time the development world has been interested in cookstoves; past large-scale interventions have had mixed success in part due to precisely what’s outlined in the article. Fully vetting devices in the community to make sure they are culturally appropriate, usable, clean, and efficient is a known requirement.

There’s always a chance an intervention will still fail, but due diligence dictates prolonged and complete community engagement. Because a product is available on the local market and has claims of “proven” laboratory performance means little. The laboratory provides a first step to grade stoves — but the field is where final decisions should be made. And the value of an ‘improved’ label is heavily diluted - we’re barraged by dozens of these products regularly. We derive value from meaningful, beneficial, and unobtrusive interaction with and use of appliances. Devices that fail to provide those traits fail to be used. This is definitely true here and seemingly true everywhere.

Two fundamental conclusions from the recent brouhaha stand out. First, the astonishing hype surrounding this article fits within the larger patterns we see in the news machine. A single article, statement, or editorial snowballs and catalyzes a lot of discussion (in the popular media for a news cycle, and in academia for an eternity). Not a bad thing in and of itself, but problematic when the media ignores the history of available knowledge and treats the news as something profoundly new and unequivocally true. Second, the coverage helps focus and hone the message of those working in the field — never a bad thing. It reminds us of past learnings and helps light a path forward.

In a blog post from June 18 on National Geographic, Radha Muthiah (the Executive Director of the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves) and the authors of the above article write,

This research, and the work of others, suggests that the first goal must be to develop cookstoves that people would actually want to acquire, use, and maintain—in addition to ones that meet clear guidelines and standards for cleanliness, efficiency, and safety. To ensure that scarce development resources are spent wisely, all promising cookstove designs must be tested in real world settings to assess their long-run benefits on health and greenhouse gas emission prior to large scale adoption of clean cookstoves. Moreover, additional research should continue in order to provide greater insight into what types of social marketing can improve the general acceptance of the stoves.

No argument there.

Business Insider: Tar Sands: A View from Above

Another look at the Athabascan tar sands operation, this time from above. The scale of the undertaking — both logistically and literally — is mind-bogglingly immense. From the air, the trucks look like micro-machines playing in the mud. Micro-machines, though, don’t have tires 17 ft tall; they don’t claim to be able to roll over full-sized Ford and Chevy trucks with little effort; they aren’t bucketwheels, the “largest crawling machine in existence”; they don’t cost 40-6000 USD each. They don’t obliterate their surroundings so completely that you can see the whole blighted region on Google Maps (embedded below - zoom in, scroll around).

Two things stand out. First, the whole thing is on the scale of a hellish scene from a Michael Bay Transformers movie — the machines; the muted colors, occasionally splotched with a frightening vibrance; the flames; the mud-spattered faces; the destruction. A disaster, in every possible sense of the word.

Second, and more seriously, the impact here is tremendous. There’s the immediate environmental impact, which is severe. Then there’s the fact that the tar sands contain two times the carbon dioxide emitted by humanity’s cumulative fossil fuel use. The long-term implications of accessing and using this resource, while continuing to exploit our current stores of coal, natural gas, and oil, is nothing short of apocalyptic.

James Hansen, the pre-eminent climate scientist, put it nicely in a recent NYT Editorial.

The concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has risen from 280 parts per million to 393 p.p.m. over the last 150 years. The tar sands contain enough carbon — 240 gigatons — to add 120 p.p.m. Tar shale, a close cousin of tar sands found mainly in the United States, contains at least an additional 300 gigatons of carbon. If we turn to these dirtiest of fuels, instead of finding ways to phase out our addiction to fossil fuels, there is no hope of keeping carbon concentrations below 500 p.p.m. — a level that would, as earth’s history shows, leave our children a climate system that is out of their control.

See more pictures from Business Insider’s trip at Flickr. Check out my first post on the Athabascan Tar Sands.

Some gems from President Obama

These are non-sarcastic gems — honestly outstanding quips. First, on Congress and interest rate hikes on student loans (emphasis added).

For the first eight years of our marriage, [Michelle and I] were paying more in student loans than what we were paying for our mortgage. So we know what this is about.

And we were lucky to land good jobs with a steady income. But we only finished paying off our student loans—check this out, all right, I’m the President of the United States—we only finished paying off our student loans about eight years ago.

Madness.

Second, on false and forced dichotomies:

There will always be people in this country who say we’ve got to choose between clean air and clean water and putting people back to work. That is a false choice. With smart, sustainable policies, we can grow our economy today and protect our environment for ourselves and our children.

I heard some interesting facts along these lines today from John Harte. No amount of praise I can heap on John is sufficient — he’s a brilliant scientist, an outstanding professor, and occupies a rare, trusted position in the realm of public intellectuals. John discussed a few examples of the environment vs. jobs myth, honing in primarily on old growth preservation in the Pacific Northwest. He noted that instead of jobs being lost by forest preservation, quite a few were created through the processing of “lesser” wood products that had a larger market. Profits increased, as well. He also pointed to rapid growth in the environmental sector in other countries who have a larger focus on renewables — China and Germany, predominantly.

Finally, back to Obama and the students, as he slow jams the news with Jimmy Fallon.

That mic drop was priceless.

Burn: An Energy Journal

It is the fundamental issue of our time: Energy; where we get it; how we use it; what happens then. It powers our homes and our economy; it creates troubled alliances and disturbing divisions; it empowers and impoverishes; it enables almost all that we do and now threatens all that we have become.

The Peabody-award winning SoundVision Productions presents BURN: An Energy Journal, a broadcast and digital project hosted by one of public radio's most trusted journalists and master storytellers, Alex Chadwick. Alex will explore our energy future through the intimate stories of visionaries of research, maverick inventors, industry insiders and concerned citizens. These personal stories will help explain how and why we face an energy crisis, the dilemma of the continuing demand for energy, the realities and consequences of a mostly carbon-based industry and infrastructure, and some possible alternatives and personal/global solutions to an energy and climate future in the coming decades. BURN will follow the quest for Energy answers and the stirring public initiative required to transition to this new energy world.

I'm listening to the first episode now about the Fukushima Daiichi disaster and what it means for nuclear power in the future. Really well put together and reported. And timely. Highly recommended. Listen here.

Interactive, motion-filled US Windmap

A pretty stunning visualization of wind direction and speed over the continental US. Data is pulled from the National Digital Forecast Database every hour, so the visualization is almost in real-time. And, impressively, they're using HTML5 to draw the map and wind animation.

Beautiful + impressive.

Bloomberg Tech Blog: "Now Can We Start Talking About the Real Foxconn?"

Tim Culpan, on 20 March :

There are also things happening at Foxconn that just aren't sexy to talk about: the cheap accommodation and subsidized food for workers, the Foxconn-run health centers right on campus, the salary that's well above the government minimum and other companies, the continuous stream of young workers who still want to work there.

The problem with Mike Daisey's lies is that they've painted a picture of the Evil Empire, a place devoid of any happiness or humanity. A dark, Dickensian scene of horror and tears. They also make anyone who tries to tell a fuller, more balanced account look like an Apple or Foxconn apologist because your mind is already full of the "knowledge" of how bad it is there.

To the public, a story about a 19-year-old shrugging her shoulders and claiming work is not so bad just can't stand up against a 12-year-old working the iPad factory lines. The naïve and youthful smile of a kid having found his first girlfriend at a Foxconn work party pales in comparison to a crippled old man holding an iPad for the first time. Compared to the lies, the truth just doesn't make good theater.

And again, on 23 March:

If one of the most ardent and well-versed groups in the whole labor debate struggles to put a finger on exactly what the standards are for good employment practices, then there's little hope that the rest of the industry's stakeholders can reach a conclusion, let alone actually achieve it.

Some things are clear. Worker deaths are bad. Underage labor, with such ages clearly defined, is also bad. A safe, clean, healthy work environment is good. Social welfare such as health-care and pensions, also good. Student internships are a grey area while that ultimate desire of all workers - a decent living wage - hasn't exactly been solved in the West. So far neither local laws nor industry self-regulation have succeeded in turning these principles into rules the industry will comply with. Meanwhile, neither camp has done anything to compare conditions at Apple suppliers with the rest of the industry, the country, or the rest of the world.

His second set of points hit the nail on the head. We know what's good and bad -- but we don't know how to contextualize what we know about Apple and Foxconn in the larger global picture. More importantly, we're not clear how to move forward. So, yes, we can all acknowledge there's a problem and something needs to be done. But until there are clear standards and actionable, realistic, mutually agreed upon steps forward, the caustic, circuitous discourse will continue.

Mike Daisey: "It's not journalism. It's theater."

Ira Glass, showing again why he's among the best journalists in America today:

I have difficult news. We've learned that Mike Daisey's story about Apple in China - which we broadcast in January - contained significant fabrications. We're retracting the story because we can't vouch for its truth. This is not a story we commissioned. It was an excerpt of Mike Daisey's acclaimed one-man show "The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs," in which he talks about visiting a factory in China that makes iPhones and other Apple products.

The China correspondent for the public radio show Marketplace tracked down the interpreter that Daisey hired when he visited Shenzhen China. The interpreter disputed much of what Daisey has been saying on stage and on our show. On this week's episode of This American Life, we will devote the entire hour to detailing the errors in "Mr. Daisey Goes to the Apple Factory."

Daisey lied to me and to This American Life producer Brian Reed during the fact checking we did on the story, before it was broadcast. That doesn't excuse the fact that we never should've put this on the air. In the end, this was our mistake.

We're horrified to have let something like this onto public radio. Many dedicated reporters and editors - our friends and colleagues - have worked for years to build the reputation for accuracy and integrity that the journalism on public radio enjoys. It's trusted by so many people for good reason. Our program adheres to the same journalistic standards as the other national shows, and in this case, we did not live up to those standards.

Friends and loved ones encouraged me to see Daisey's show and listen closely. They pointed to my like of Apple products. I read about it, thought about it, and tried to balance it with the picture of conditions that Apple (and now others) puts out about their industrial hygiene and environmental practices. It didn't all fit, but I made room for it.

Today, then, the shocker -- This American Life is retracting the previous show and dedicating an hour to setting the record straight. Who does this in this day and age? Who makes a public pronouncement of their own fallibility and goes out of their way to correct it in an ethical way that respects their audience?

I'd argue very few do this. Corrections are relegated to the dusty interior pages of print papers and magazines and hidden from online viewers, for the most part, in the nether regions of websites. NPR may be the exception (as a slight aside, their ethics portal clearly and nicely lays out their stance on a number of things, including retractions, social media, and the like).

Looking forward to hearing the show and continuing to support This American Life's breed of ethical, conscientious, and respectful journalism.

One amendment: I doubt working conditions are perfect in Apple's contractor's factories in China and elsewhere. We know that efforts are being taken to improve them. We know that Apple is beginning to be more transparent about what goes on and is working with independent auditors to get some more precise data about working conditions. And we know they have a long way to go to true transparency.

Industrial hygiene and environmental audits of this type are difficult -- they're heavily biased because they are scheduled visits, often with predetermined and specific objectives. What Daisey's conflation of theatre and journalism does, though, is undermine legitimate reports of working conditions. Exaggeration for theatre may be fine, but the maniacal press tour -- with his descriptions of specific chemical exposures, guards with guns, underage workers, etc passed off as fact -- doesn't work. No one will argue that conditions should improve - but for them to improve, we need a true understanding of baseline conditions, actionable interventions to make the situation healthier, and regular reporting to understand how the situation is changing.

Pop Song Carbon Footprints

A little silly, but fun. My favorite is below.

"Light My Fire" by the Doors

The time to hesitate is through. No time to wallow in the mire. Try now we can only lose, And our love become a funeral pyre, Come on, baby, light my fire

Carbon Footprint: A traditional open-air funeral pyre burns for around six hours, using approximately 385 lbs. of wood. A single funeral pyre produces 362.25 lbs. of CO2, though in India four million tons of wood are used annually for traditional cremations.

Guardian Blog: Once the smoke clears: how clean cookstoves can transform lives

Julia Roberts, writing in the Guardian:

Alarmingly, nearly 3 billion people still rely on solid fuels to cook their food each day. When burned in open fires and inefficient cookstoves, fuels such as wood, coal, charcoal and animal waste create a toxic smoke that fills homes and communities the world over.

Two million people die annually from pneumonia, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), lung cancer and heart disease caused by cookstove smoke, and millions more suffer from these ailments for years, as well as from injuries such as cataracts and burns.

Women are predominantly the household cooks in most countries, and with their children swaddled to their backs or at their side as they cook, the entire family becomes victim to this silent killer.

Before they can even begin cooking, however, women will likely have spent hours searching for wood and other fuel sources. Children often accompany their mother on this journey, which keeps them from attending school or earning an income.

Such a nurturing act as cooking should not put lives at risk. There are effective solutions, which can save lives, improve livelihoods, empower women and combat climate change.

Resilience.

TOKYO (AP) -- Last Sunday was the six-month anniversary of the day the massive earthquake and tsunami devastated Japan's northeast coast.

Some 20,000 people are dead or missing. More than 800,000 homes were completely or partially destroyed. The disaster crippled businesses, roads and infrastructure. The Japanese Red Cross Society estimates that 400,000 people were displaced.

Half a year later, there are physical signs of progress.

Much of the debris has been cleared away or at least organized into big piles. In the port city of Kesennuma, many of the boats carried inland by the tsunami have been removed. Most evacuees have moved out of high school gyms and into temporary shelters or apartments.

Last week the Kyodo News agency distributed an amazing group of combination photographs showing three scenes. The first scene is right after the earthquake and tsunami hit, then three months later and finally, how the scene looks now.

Not compromise, but capitulation.

In a letter to Lisa P. Jackson, the E.P.A. administration, the head of the White House office of regulatory affairs, Cass Sunstein, said that the president was rejecting her proposal to tighten the standard.

"He has made it clear he does not support finalizing the rule at this time," Mr. Sunstein said.

He said that changing the rule now would create uncertainty for business and local government. He also said there was no compelling reason to rewrite the ozone standard in advance of the scheduled reconsideration in 2013, a key demand of business interests.

Mr. Sunstein told Ms. Jackson that since the rule is due for reconsideration in 2013, an earlier review would promote confusion and uncertainty.

"In this light," he wrote, "issuing a final rule in late 2011 would be problematic in view of the fact that a new assessment, and potentially new standards, will be developed in the relatively near future."

From the NYT
update: another from the NYT: Stung by Obama, Environmentalists Weigh Options.

Assessing Willingness to Pay for Environmental Health Interventions

Attended a great lecture today by Isha Ray and Jack Colford as part of a new BERC IdeaWorks series. It was a discussion of "Water resources for sustainability and health", focusing mainly on water quality issues in the developing world. A number of interesting studies were described (amazingly clearly, given the complexity of them on the ground) by Dr. Ray and Dr. Colford - both masterful professors. Dr. Colford's undertaking a multi-country assessment of water, sanitation, and hygiene interventions (individually and combined) to see their effects on height, weight, diarrhea. The challenge of doing this kind of randomized trial is not to be underestimated; they plan a year of pilots before the full study begins. A heady undertaking.

Dr. Ray described a couple studies that try to understand how people use these services, how they pay for them, and how they weigh options for water and sanitation. The most striking example she gave is a study kicking off shortly in Tanzania. Her research team is assessing how willing people are to use and pay for six commercially available point-of-use water treatments (like chlorine, a safe-water bucket, a UV filter, a biosand filter, etc). Her approach is novel. As with all studies of this sort, intervention devices will be given to participants. At the end of the study, she'll try one of the following two things: (1) randomly give participants an envelope with a cash amount her team will pay to buy back the point-of-use device or (2) plan the study so that at its conclusion all devices are returned to the researchers; participants are given the option to buy the device back, again at a randomized price. Its an elegant solution to figuring out how much a person would be willing to pay for a technology that is available on the local market.

Our work in the stove world needs to look towards these kinds of assessments to help us frame the issue of poor uptake and compliance of cookstove usage. Both of these types of environmental health interventions often run into the same issues - the technology is poorly designed for the target population, or the population doesn't perceive a need for it. Trying out locally available technologies and helping NGOs and governments figure out which ones people are willing to pay for -- which we hope is a proxy for willing to use -- is one step in the right direction.

This discussion ignores the impact of the devices on the market -- it assumes they work. That's a second, additional wrinkle that plays into the technology adoption.

A relaxing, impossible day

what a day. i got the call saying we were working today around 8:00 in the morning; i was up, but was hoping for a lazy, lazy day. alas, non. i got dressed, crammed some cereal down my throat, and split. the bus pulled up two seconds after i got to the stop; it took around 50 minutes to get to the train station. 12 rupees later, i was on the panvel express to khargar, where the YUVA office is located. I got there around 11:30 or so. The traffic this morning wasn't bad; as usual, the trains get super crowded at kurla, where two lines intersect and where the dash to get on the train embodies insanity. it is truly beyond description.

we hung around the office for around two hours, taking care of minor business; i looked over old YUVA annual reports. the reports are well put together; the organization does a lot in a ton of sectors. they are an amazing group of people.

around 1:30, we left the office - I presumed we were heading to k-wada... but I was way off base. We went to visit four of Rajen's activist friends, all of whom are living in a small apartment in Navi Mumbai, working on homeless rights - specifically migrant workers rights. The fellow in charge is bold, inspired, and inspiring. he advocates that the government of mumbai and maharashtra should provide some sort of transient home for the over 250,000 migrant workers officially thought to be homeless in mumbai. the number's most likely a lowball estimate. he's assembled a team of folks who have a variety of backgrounds - education, hunger advocacy, economic theory, social work. they bring a bunch of diverse backgrounds to the table - and have managed to get coverage on major indian news networks. they've caught the ears of politicians and large advocacy groups. change, though, is slow.

we sat around for hours and had a wonderful lunch, enhanced by really engaging conversation about development, about the way development has occurred in india, and about what motivates them in the context of an seemingly endless struggle. for abhishak, the public face of the group, it was simple - he said he was unable to close his eyes to the situation around him, and couldn't understand how others could ignore the obvious plight of so many in india. again, its hard to describe, but it is literally impossible to escape the crushing poverty here - even in the richest parts of bombay, you're never more than a few minutes from oppressive destitution.

development's damn tricky. we talked about the ways india is rapidly modernizing and developing. we discussed why development has been so different in the newly developing countries vs the 'older' developed countries. i always come back to simple arguments - the west forces a mode of development on third world countries that possess significantly different social, political, and religious institutions. develoment plans inherently undermine, undercut, and devalue those institutions in an effort to rapidly industrialize. the individual loses autonomy, loses self in the face of homogenization to improve efficiency, to make the country look developed. the process took hundreds of years to evolve in the west - and it evolved as the society created it, as the society grew into it. in LDCs, the society's not creating anything, change is seemingly being forced from the outside - a panacea embraced by self-aggrandizing politicians and economists. but there's no stopping development, the march of progress, or SAPs where the seeds have already been sown - the trick will be finding ways to maintain or retool successful indigenous institutions with the capabilities to find a footing in a rapidly globalized, developed world. it would be amazing if large business in india - be it state run or private industries, like TATA - could step up to the plate and make significant changes or commitments [be it to the environment, workers' rights, or health] that fostered societal change. amazing, but unlikely. imagine if a large state run energy company took a strong stand for alternative fuels in a country of 1+ billion. or if india's largest auto manufacturer committed to producing electric or hydrogen ice vehicles. it would be a monumental slap in the face to the rest of the world, and would warrant the attention both over-populated nations so crave.

ranting, raving. meeting those four was a true treat. they are so inspiring, work so hard, and manage to keep their wits about them and remain hopeful. i pray i'm lucky enough to continue to meet people like them, wherever i may end up.

after that, rajen and I hopped on a motorbike and took off into the hills of navi mumbai. riding beeyach on the bike with 40 lbs of gear strapped to your back... made me cherish life a bit. slightly scary stuff. navi mumbai is already far less crowded than mumbai; heading into the hills was bizarre. population density vanished. trash vanished. it was beautiful - rolling hills all around; a couple of streams flowing swiftly, meandering through the small mountains; kids playing in the water; some wildlife. we hung around for an hour or so, and then returned to the hustle bustle madness. i hopped on the train back to worli, by way of vadala. it was packed.

at some point, a blind beggar came through the car. he sang as he walked up and down the aisles, using his cane to keep a simple beat. his voice and song were beautiful, a lilting dirge that made it seem as though all he had lost in vision was made up 100 fold in voice. and, for once, i wasn't the only one to notice - much of the car fell silent as he sang. some respect, at least, for another one of india's surprising miracles.

the day ended like so many others... i took the wrong bus home. :)

Blorgh!

Hell's bells, its been like ten trillion days since i've written. Since then, much has come to light, many things have gone down, blah blah.

Monitoring

The work has been extremely, insanely challenging. The rains subsided earlier this week; the heat rolled back in, the sun beaming down irately in a vain attempt to sunburn the 16 million melanin-enhanced residents of Mumbai.

It's been hot. Haydes fire and brimstone hot. Anyway, given the fortuitous change in weather, we decided to sample like mad. Since Tuesday, we've sampled 11 homes and run all the blanks - somewhere around 48 or 49 samples total. Remarkably, there have been no real mechanical problems - one pump went nuts, one family disconnected the monitor, but nothing too insane. A typical day of sampling kicks off around 7:30 or 8:00, when I hump 50 pounds of equipment over to the bus stand and wait for Magic Bus 85, which whisks me away to Sion Hospital. After a short walk to the slum, the work begins in earnest. We identify two homes, get consent, and set up the monitors for a four hour run in the morning.

Potters are on a schedule that lends itself to monitoring - they prepare pots in the morning, let them sit in the sun during the day, and kick off the firing process around 3. We monitor both inside and outside homes in the mornings from 9:30-1:30, before the kilns begin. Then, i swap out monitors and we monitor inside and outside again, while the kilns are running.

Two days ago, I encountered hands down the worst air quality i've ever witnessed. You could see/feel the pollution three blocks away; in the slum itself it was nearly impossible to get around due to the smoke. Imagine taking hot peppers, sprinkling them with acid, mashing them up, and then pouring them on your eyes; forget about breathing; plan on showering asap - the fires burn hot and dirty. The last home i visited was a disaster - when i stepped inside, i almost doubled over from the smoke; they had shut the doors and windows in attempt to keep the smoke out, but instead were preventing any air circulation. Smoke crept in through cracked windows, gaps in the doors, poor roofs. The indoor air was like pudding. Bad, burning, caustic, smoke pudding. The two matriarchs were just kickin' it in the kitchen; one little fellow who's been tagging along/helping out took one step inside the place and had the good sense to get the hell out of there. The air inside was a thousand times worse than the air outside, surprisingly. To make things more trying, the temperature inside was easily fifteen to twelve million degrees higher than outside. I'm doing no justice to the situation - it is awful. Its a miracle the children can breathe at all; many have a perpetual hacking cough and runny nose. Today, two of the older chaps involved in the co-op talked openly about a number of folks in the community with cancer.

How did Dharavi come to be?

As a result of becoming more familiar [or numb, take your pick] to my surroundings, i've been getting curious. How did Dharavi, sandwiched between moderately high income parts of town, arise? And, perhaps more significantly, what allows it to keep sitting there? My first, instinctual answer to the latter question revolves around simple economics – the place churns out goods sold throughout Mumbai and India. It is economically self-sustaining; like in other places throughout India, the division of labor is phenomenal. Everyone has a job and pays some fee for people to do nominal things for them. A tremendous number of the goods produced cheaply in Dharavi – including textiles, leather, pottery, the like – are exported to other regions of India for sale. The economic impetus for keeping the people there is present – especially when, by vacant land tenant law, the government does not have to officially recognize or support squatters with infrastructure. There's an open window for folks to be booted from the land at any point.

History tells an interesting story of Dharavi. Originally, as far back as 1909, it was one of the great koliwadas of Mumbai – a great fishing village, flanked on one side by a bustling creek that fed into the Arabian sea. British reclamation efforts dammed up the creek, redirecting it prior to simply eliminating it - spelling the end of the thriving fishing community. The area fell into extreme poverty and slowly grew into the modern day slum of Dharavi.

That's it - that's all i've been able to glean from reading and research. There are some folks in the slum - two elderly couples in particular - who have been there for 40 or 50 years. I plan on picking their brains once the monitoring is finished.

Bedtime. more to relate later on: women's group meetings; kids, cricket, and caram boards; politics; video scheme; supplies for the school.

Yesterdays

rewind -----> all aboard the shrimp train

i was slow catching my train, so i quickly scurried into a very small compartment - reserved, much to my surprise, for fish vendors carting their wares about the peninsula. (fantastic! perhaps I can acquire food for the evening.) the car smelled like one would imagine- pungent and brackish; raw shrimpy goodness. positive i was on my way to hurl city, i flung myself out of the train at the next stop [okay, flung is too strong... hopped daintily out of the "shrimp car"] and jumped into the next open car.

big, big mistake.

the only analogy i can think of is the floor at philips when we saw NIN... a number of sweaty folks, except this time crammed into a thin, barely lit tin can. all pushing. to make things more fun, the people waiting at the next stop fight and throw arms and generally take a running dive into the train. picture: flickering lights; a gaggle of limbs, flailing about; a small american-indian, grappling for air complete with pained look upon face; hundreds of people, rushing the car, as though the one true answer to the mystery of life, sex, wealth, happiness, and samosa resides in the cubic centimeter of space between resident indians 1 through 4 and non-resident alien me. i'm not claustrophobic, but at one point i was crammed between one dude's armpit and another's fella's back and pinned to the wall and seriously thought i was going to flip out, yo. i had to close my eyes and just sort of wish myself outta existence for a little while. Two sweaty armpits and their associated staaaank whisked me violently back into reality.

The shrimpies were a far more tempting fate.

fast forward -----> Tanneries, Textiles, & Domestic Violence

Yesterday scared me. Anil, Rajan, & I went to the slum to collect B footage and interview some children, women, and a few other folks for YUVA's documentary. The interviews were smashing; one elderly gentleman in particular, who has been making pottery for over 25+ years, remarked intelligently on the strong need for change in the community and the excellence of the gas-powered kiln. He spoke about his breathing and heart trouble, and how they seemed to be worse with the smoke; he spoke on his children, who have found other work; and he spoke on the way the gas kilns fired pots, how some of them broke but no more than when firing with the traditional kilns. He recognized the resistance in the community to change, but felt it necessary, inevitable. It was refreshing to hear an elder statesman speak positively of change, to be in favor of change. Similarly, the B-roll footage of the kids and the women's group went well. The kids adore "shooting" [as the filming is called] and stuck around until we had to chase them off.

The early chunk of the day was similar to others - fun yet not central to my work. The later part of the day involved shooting in other regions of Dharavi for the introduction to the video - this portion was insane. The areas with tanneries and other small to medium-sized enterprises were unlike the potters' colony; they were cramped, without the wide lanes to accomodate bhatti; sewage and trash were rife; naked children, beggars, flea-laden dogs. small pathways careening through makeshift housing alongside informal, open sewage ditches. overwhelming and intense.

i started looking for something less... caustic. a group of children with a litter of kittens. three men, pushing a wheel chair-bound companion through muddy, muddy alleyways, all of them laughing hysterically as they slide around. a beaming mother, looking down on her elder daughter of 5 or 6 holding her newborn brother, who is cooing and gurgling loudly. i felt and still feel remarkably out of place. i have no right to be there, invading, internalizing.

the industries themselves make the sweatshops of NBC and Baraka look tame. Groups of between five and ten workers of ages ranging from 7-80 are crammed in a reasonably large, unventilated room with one wide opening. they're all working; the eldest gent, 100000 years old, hums out a familiar hindi tune along with the radio whispering in the background; its hot, but sweating here is a way of life. Perhaps most striking are the products they are working on - one shop worked on plastic containers found around blankets and comforters; another worked on fabric, pressing it and printing it; and the tanneries worked hides. the tanneries were an environmental disaster. chromium was everywhere, green and blue, frothing, mixed with god knows what else. hide was everywhere. the place smelled of death, fixatives, and mold. across a major road, leather wholesalers abound. no regulation binds action here, and concern for the environment comes second to scraping by.

india doesn't allow visitors to focus on just the attractions or remain in fun, comfortable places. for better or worse, the beautiful stuff plays footsy with the devestating stuff on every street corner, at every tourist attraction, around every corner. difficult.

step forward -----> Thunder Lightening Strike!

"Very heavy rains expected in Mumbai in the next 48 hours. Thank you and have a safe monsoon."

The rains have begun. For those of you who've lived in Louisiana, think storm season times ten. The streets in Dharavi flooded in minutes, and the rains didn't let up for over an hour. They began anew two hours later, twice as intense.

Slums + Development

K-wada is a small chunk of Dharavi, Asia's largest slum that hosts 1 million people of varying religious and ethnic backgrounds. Dharavi sprawls in all directions - upwards for two or three stories, and out and out and out. K-wada's an interesting part of Dharavi. It's the region's largest pottery colony, home to some 1200 families. Around 600 of those families earn meager wages as amazing artisanal potters. The pots are stunning, but more amazing is watching the community at work - some work the clay, preparing it for the potters; other prepare the kilns; other still glaze the pots. The final products vary - some serve a strictly utilitarian purpose; some decorative; the majority find a niche between utility and decoration. The functioning, organized, delineated process of the operation is striking, contrasting sharply with larger Indian inefficiency.

Development is a tricky concept to grasp at home. It is even more convoluted in India, a country in the throes of modernization, industrialization, commercialization - all the "-tion" buzzwords affiliated with development. We went to the slum on Saturday to hold a drawing competition with around 30 of the children and to give the cooperative members their pictures, which I had taken the day before. The cooperative members were sincerely grateful and enjoyed the 7 or 8 basic portraits I had taken, which came out well. The lighting was awful, so some improvisation was required, but they were adequate. Anyway, at one point around 40 kids burst into a tiny office, surrounding a small desktop computer so they could see digital photos from a trip they had taken to the park. Technology be damned and all that, but the kids' reaction to the computer, to the images, was priceless - the excitement, energy, and enthusiasm was palpable and contagious. There's this side of modernizing - the amazing trickle of technology to societies who otherwise don't have access to it. The people in k-wada aren't marginalized by large MNCs, by the national government, or by any of the usual suspects - instead, repression comes from history; from an archaic, outdated caste system that, while buckling under pressure, manages to maintain a firm, vice-like grip on Indian society. Mobility outside of your designated lot in life isn't a reality, it's a pipe-dream. It seems impossible. Yet watching those kids - a few in particular - one gets the impression that things will change, that they have to change, that they are changing. The kids speak broken English, while their parents speak none. The kids read and write, few of their elder's do. Many of the teenagers volunteer at the school as tutors, mentors, as little leaders - of their own volition, sometimes to the chagrin of their parents. They kids seem to yearn for something else. The parents, like parents everywhere, boast and show-off scores from their chillun that ARE as good as students from more prosperous areas. The ability is there - it always is, always, in every single person - but will the society let it flourish? And then, the flipside of all this, the loss of cultural customs to developmental homogenization. To the desire to escape the current lifestyle. Lays potato chips next to homebrew masala-laden hot mix. Plastic containers in place of hand-made earthenware. High capacity housing in place of sprawling slums. I'm in no place to judge that escapist desire. But, for the first time, I'm not sure where I stand with regards to development. There is life here that doesn't exist elsewhere, energy and vitality and an approach to living that world is rapidly losing... but the need to ramp up production, the desire to create more product for as little money as possible, the pressure of modernization has lead to tremendous difficulty in continuing to actively pursue pottery in a sustainable fashion. The current kilns simply are not sustainable - from an environmental perspective, an economic perspective, and a political perspective. The sheer volume and thickness of smoke created EVERYDAY when the kilns are run is extraordinary. Sometime last week, I watched one elderly gent get caught between two kilns that were firing pottery and take a hacking deep breath - and then cough up blood and pass out. All hell broke loose, as children tried to move this fellow five times their size. Everyone mobilized to help him, and after a few minutes he regained consciousness. Then, the kids return to running around the kilns, playing cricket, chasing each other - blissfully ignorant of the poop they're breathing in. Elders look on, relatively unconcerned. This is how its been, and how it will be. This is their lot in life. Long live tradition, but foofaa that.

Traveling and Arrival, Recounted

these are ancient posts. only edits are to correct my potty-mouthed tendencies

Around 10 days ago, I threw comfort to the wind and left for Mumbai. Those last few days, I surprisingly found myself unprepared for departure. I was aware of how wonderful my friends were before leaving, but now I'm keenly, acutely aware of it. All the time. I miss you all more than I can describe.

I've never been to Mumbai, never imagined Mumbai, never conceptualized all that Mumbai is/could be/may be. On paper, I knew some facts - 16 million people, a city built by "reclaiming land from the sea", Bollywood, bhangra, clubs. Beaches.

16 million people - an unimaginable number, as though one person for every grain of sand on the beach. Then, in the larger context, 16 million is nothing... 16,000,000 out of over 1,000,000,000 in India. A glass of water against the oceans. 1+ billion people. Unfathomable.

Flights are flights, and I'll leave out most of the details of the prodigiously long flight from Atlanta to Mumbai via Amsterdam. Suffice to say, the flights were packed [though my concept of packed people moving has since changed]. I had brief conversations with a fellow from Cameroon, which was interesting; and even more interesting, I found myself sitting next to a fellow who works for the same company as Meg's dad. Small world.

The flight arrived on time, miraculously. The terminal at the international airport in Mumbai smelled ancient, like my old high school - lingering odors of mold, flopsweat, dust, saltwater. It felt creaky, rickety. I rushed myself through the airport to baggage claim, attempting to reassure myself that collecting my baggage and making it through customs would be a cinch.

Alas, non.

But, before I get ahead of myself, let me describe Indian baggage claim. The carousel snakes around a large, rectangular room, curving and swirling about senselessly, as though to maximize inefficiency. Indians coming home from abroad tend to return with copious excess baggage, often beyond the designated limit of 2 pieces per person - for example, the family of four that was standing to my right had 8 checked bags, probably each in excess of the weight limit, and 8 carry-on pieces. Never mind the fact that one family member is probably 4 and another is still in swaddling clothes. Seriously, no big deal.

I digress. The horn sounds, and the baggage starts coming through the very small entry point. Not single file, not piece by piece, but instead bags stacked haphazardly atop bags - a house of cards, a pyramid shaped flea market of oddly colored, oddly named suitcases, boxes, duffle bags, strollers, televisions, rice cookers, air quality monitors - you name, veeee have it. Every fifth piece gets caught in the entry door. Ever other piece has some strap that gets caught in the conveyor belt, resulting in literally dozens of large pieces of luggage crashing to the floor. This being India... the luggage just sits there, as though eventually - at some point - it will gain sentience, realize its mistake, and hop back onto the belt. Or, more likely, someone else will come by and take care of it. Small children sit on the fallen luggage, play amongst it, and then try to move it. Occasionally, they succeed. More often, they become trapped by it, and start screaming. Loudly.

My bags were two of the last ones off the plane, but they arrived intact, a blessing. Blessing be cursed; customs was a nightmare. After reclaiming bags in India, one is presented with two options - the "Green Channel" and the "Red Channel" for customs. The green channel facilitates rapid movement for residents and non-residents who have nothing of consequence they are importing; the red channel is for folks who need to make some sort of declaration. I hustled over to the queue for the green channel, but was instantly spotted. A large customs official - dressed from head to toe in spotless, pressed, pristine white - heralded me with great fanfare to the red channel, where not one, not two, but three magical customs officials awaited me. At this point, my pulse quickened to a breakneck pace, my pores began springing sweat like a geyser, and my brain turned into a smoldering lump of coal.

My bags contain around 10,000 USD worth of equipment, three-quarters of which belongs to Harvard and the remainder of which belongs to Emory. Every piece is essential to the study. And so the conversation begins...

Hello, bya, bags ma kya ha?(Hello, brother - what's in the bags?)

Well, in this one, camping gear. I'm going to Ladakh in August. Clothing, personal medicine - normal travel stuff.

And in this one?

More camping gear, some electronics.

Electronics? Quickly, bring them here (points to X-ray machine, bags go on x-ray machine. Man makes rapid clicking sound with mouth, Indian for, nonononono.)

What is all of this?

Long, drawn out explanation. Volunteer in slums, air quality monitoring, student, equipment all goes back to US.

... ... ... ... ... ... How much USD do you have?

350.

Duties for this equipment are $400

(oh, of course they are, since I only have 350. Foofaa, to be honest, I don't really have 350. I bought coffee and a sandwich at the airport. What if he takes all my money? Then what? Bribery! Must... bribe...customs fellow. What if he's honest? Jackass, slap yourself later, he's not honest. Figure out a way to bribe him. 100 bucks is like 4600 rupees. One month's pay. Foofaaing piece of poo assholes. Foofaa Foofaa Foofaa Foofaa.)

I don't have 400, and all of the equipment is coming back with me - it is NOT staying in India.

Give me 50 USD.

Wha...Excuse me? (I mean, yeah, I had contemplated 100, but the reality is so much more severe and... poop.)

He now calls two guys with big guns, who usher me to a back room. They speak to each other in Tamil or Maruthi, which I cannot understand; we go over to a wall with a one-way viewing mirror. Extending from the wall is around 2 feet of table, like a bar; they make me exchange the money literally under the table. I find this final flourish both inexorably cruel and hideously, ridiculously amusing. Finally, after between two and three hours, I'm outside of the airport, passport and equipment in hand. It's a bit after 1 am.

Harpreet & Niladri (Batman & Robin, The Justice League, Fantastic Two, Turner & Hooch, JD & Turk) come to my rescue. I get a prepaid cab, we stop at a restaurant, and we head into Mumbai. Despite it being 1 am, its still extremely hot out - the sort of heat that sticks to you like flypaper. 1000% humidity. Supersaturated air. You exhale here, it rains somewhere.

Finally, we're at the apartment; its beautiful. Running water, two beds, plenty of space. Constant electricity. A foofaaing television! Pots pans silverware cleaning supplies. Unbelievable. I owe these two chaps my life.

Sleep that night consisted of lying awake, wide-eyed, wishing for a beer and friends.

all rights reserved
snarglr is written & maintained by ajay pillarisetti



click here to turn on all posts