My Greenpeace conundrum

climate-change-pol_1203588cGreenpeace USA wants me to renew my annual membership. I’m ambivalent.

A letter signed by Phil Radford, who leads Greenpeace USA, paints a dire picture of the state of the environment:

We all see polluters poisoning our air, water and land; killing innocent wildlife, destroying our forests, pillaging aquatic life, increasing global warming and endangering human health–particularly the health of our children.

This is, alas, mostly true. US air quality is improving, although 40 percent of Americans live in counties that sometimes have unhealthy levels of air pollution, according to the American Lung Association. Water quality in most American streams and river is poor, the most recent report from EPA says. The amount of forest land in the US has been more or less stable for about a century, says the USDA’s Forest Service, but just this week, it was revealed that valuable forest land is being destroyed to supply “green” wood for burning in Europe. As for global warming–yes, there’s lots to worry about, and Greenpeace’s activism around the climate issue has been one reason why I’ve supported the organization for years. [click to continue...]

When changing a lightbulb isn’t enough…

 

What have you done lately about climate change?

In the last two weeks, about 700 Americans – with more to come – have been arrested in front of the White House, calling on President Obama to block the construction of the $7 billion, 1700-mile Keystone pipeline project that will bring Canadian tar sands oil to largest refineries in the United States.

They include Bill McKibben, the writer, activist and founder of 350.org, who led the protests; James Hansen, NASA’s leading climate scientist; Gus Speth, who lead the Council on Environmental Quality under President Carter and went on to become dean of the Yale School of Forestry; Greenpeace executive director Phil Radford; actresses Daryl Hannah and Margot Kidder; and my friend and rabbi, Fred Scherlinder Dobb of Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregration in Bethesda.

Standing behind them are the nation’s leading environmental groups–Greenpeace, the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Environmental Defense Funds, Friends of the Earth, the National Wildlife Federation and others. In a letter to Obama, they described the Keystone pipeline ruling as “perhaps the biggest climate test you face between now and the election.”

“There is not an inch of daylight between our policy position on the Keystone XL pipeline, and those of the very civil protesters being arrested daily outside the White House,” the groups said.

There are strong arguments for and against the pipeline, which we’ll get to in a moment, but first, a few words about McKibben and  the protestors. I went to the White House to talk with them because I share their belief that climate change is not just another issue, but the defining issue of our time. To be sure, it’s not an issue that mobilizes people, at least not yet, for a number of reasons: You can’t see carbon dioxide pollution, climate science is complex (but clear in its basics), global warming is a slow moving threat and the troubled U.S. economy has crowded virtually every other concern off stage since the summer of 2008. [click to continue...]

Biochar: Too good to be true?

Agricultural residents and converted biochar

Would you like to curb or even reverse global warming? Help feed the world? Generate renewable energy?

Biochar is the answer, say its most fervent advocates.

If only life were so simple.

Biochar, alas, isn’t ready yet to be a meaningful solution to the climate crisis, or a way to enhance agricultural productivity at scale. But it’s an intriguing substance that has been around for thousands of years, and the production of biochar may prove to be one of the  technologies that governments and business deploy to deal with the threat of climate change. As, potentially, a carbon negative technology, it’s worth a look.

Biochar, for those of you who haven’t heard of it, is a charcoal-like substance that is created today by pyrolysis of biomass. In layman’s terms, biochar is made by taking organic material, like agricultural waste, heating it to very high temperatures, and allowing it to decompose in the absence of oxygen.

Jonah Levine

To learn about biochar, I met recently in Boulder, Colorado, with Jonah Levine, who is a co-owner of his own small biochar business and, until recently, was an executive with a startup called Biochar Engineering.   Jonah, who is 30 and lives near Boulder, got involved with biochar when a friend asked him to organize a conference on the technology in 2009 at the University of Colorado. A passionate environmentalist, he had previously worked as a wildlife biologist and as an engineer advising utilities on how to incorporate renewable energy into the grid.

Now he’s bullish on biochar.

“I feel like like I’m watching the beginning of an industry,” Jonah says. “Within a  decade, I feel this will be a functional business space.” [click to continue...]