Topic: Energy and Environment

USDA/HHS Removes Consideration of “Sustainability” from Dietary Guidelines

The U.S. Departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services made headlines last winter when they released the draft form of their updated dietary guidelines and revealed that they were considering “sustainability” as a factor in their recommended diet—and by “sustainable” they meant foods that had “lower greenhouse gases” associated with their production. This favors plant-based foods over animal- based ones.

President Obama’s Climate Action Plan now even had its far-reaching fingers in our food. We found this somewhat rude.

Under the wildly-crazy assumption that all Americans, now and forever, were to convert to vegetarianism, we calculated that the net impact on future global warming as a result of reduced greenhouse gas emissions was two ten-thousandths of a degree Celsius (0.0002°C) per year. Not surprisingly, we concluded if one were worried about future climate change, “ridding your table of steak shouldn’t be high on the list.”

Want Better Tomatoes? Add Carbon Dioxide and a Pinch of Salt!

Who isn’t nuts about fresh tomatoes plucked from a garden at the peak of ripeness? And who doesn’t bask in the adulation of those to whom we give them?

According to work recently published by Maria Sanchez-González et al. (2015), the more years you garden, the more tasty your tomatoes are likely to get, as atmospheric carbon dioxide increases. And, if you add a pinch of salt to the soil, they’ll taste even better.

Here’s the story:

The authors note “the South-Eastern region of Spain is an important area for both production and exportation of very high quality tomatoes for fresh consumption.” This is primarily due to favorable growing conditions such as a mild climate, good soils and saline waters that promote “exceptional fruit quality of some varieties,” including the Raf tomato hybrid. However, Sánchez-González et al. additionally note that, “despite the high value of Raf tomatoes in the Spanish national market, their productivity is relatively low and the consumer does not always get an acceptable quality, often because the fruit growth conditions, mainly thermal and osmotic, were not adequate.” Against this backdrop, the team of six researchers set out to determine if they could improve the production value of this high value commercial crop by manipulating the environmental conditions in which the tomatoes are grown. To accomplish this objective, they grew hybrid Raf tomato plants (Lycopersicon esculentum Mill. cv. Delizia) in controlled environment greenhouses at two salinity levels (low and high) under ambient (350 ppm) and elevated (800 ppm) CO2 concentrations. Then over the course of the growing season, and at harvest, they measured several parameters related to the growth and quality of the hybrid tomatoes. And what did their analysis of those measurements reveal?

Platitudes Won’t Solve Metro’s Problems

The Washington City Paper asked “thirteen riders, advocates, and experts” how to fix the Washington Metro Rail system. Former Metro general manager Dan Tangherlini and former DC DOT director Gabe Klein offered banalities about “putting the customer first.”

Smart-growth advocate Harriet Trepaning thinks Metro “needs a different kind of leader,” as if changing the person at the top is going to keep smoke out of the tunnels and rails from cracking. She admits that “I don’t think we’ve been straight with anybody, including ourselves or our riders, about what it really takes to [keep the rails in a] state of good repair.” But her only solution is to have “a dedicated source of revenue,” i.e., increase local taxes for a system that already costs state and local taxpayers close to a billion dollars per year.

Coalition for Smarter Growth director Stewart Schwartz and former APTA chair Rod Diridon also want to throw money at it. Others dodge the money question and suggest that Metro do all sorts of things that it can’t afford and doesn’t have any incentive to do anyway.

Only one writer–yours truly–dared to suggest that “rail was probably the wrong choice for D.C.” for the very reason Tregoning suggests: Metro planners and managers have deceived themselves and the public about how much it truly costs to keep it in a state of good repair. Moreover, in the long run–10 years–“shared, self-driving cars are going to replace most transit.”

In the short run, tnstead of building the Purple Line, completing the Silver Line, and rebuilding the other rail lines, Metro should “seriously consider replacing” some of its worn-out rail lines “with bus-rapid transit.” This way, it won’t be stuck paying for a bunch of white elephants when people discover that shared, self-driving cars are less expensive, more convenient, and more reliable than trains. Unfortunately, these suggestions are likely to fall on deaf ears even though they are the most affordable ones offered.

Sorry, George Carlin, Plastic Is Biodegradable

Remember George Carlin’s hilarious skit about plastics? Here is the transcript:

“The planet … is a self-correcting system. The air and the water will recover, the earth will be renewed. And if it’s true that plastic is not degradable, well, the planet will simply incorporate plastic into a new paradigm: the earth plus plastic. The earth doesn’t share our prejudice toward plastic. Plastic came out of the earth. The earth probably sees plastic as just another one of its children. Could be the only reason the earth allowed us to be spawned from it in the first place. It wanted plastic for itself. Didn’t know how to make it. Needed us. Could be the answer to our age-old egocentric philosophical question, ‘Why are we here?’”

Not so fast! According to a new study published in Environmental Science and Technology by co-authors Professor Jun Yang and Yu Yang of Beihang University, and Stanford University engineer Wei-Min Wu, plastic is biodegradable.

“Plastic, long considered nonbiodegradable and one of the biggest contributors to global pollution, might have met its match: the small, brownish, squirmy mealworm. Researchers have learned that the mealworm can live on a diet of Styrofoam and other types of plastic. Inside the mealworm’s gut are microorganisms that are able to biodegrade polyethylene, a common form of plastic.”

Good news for the planet and for humanity.

The Nation’s Worst-Managed Transit Agency

Eight years ago, I argued that San Jose’s Valley Transportation Authority was the nation’s worst managed transit agency, a title endorsed by San Jose Mercury writer Mike Rosenberg and transit expert Tom Rubin.

However, since then it appears that the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA or just Metro) has managed to capture this coveted title away from San Jose’s VTA. Here are just a few of Metro’s recent problems:

  1. Metro’s numerous service problems include a derailment in August that resulted from a flaw in the rails that Metro had detected weeks previously but failed to fix;
  2. Metro spent hundreds of millions of dollars on a new fare system that it now expects to scrap for lack of interest on the part of transit riders;
  3. One of Metro’s power transformers near the Stadium/Armory station recently caught fire and was damaged so badly that Metro expects to have most trains simply skip that station stop for the next several weeks to months;
  4. Metro’s fleet of serviceable cars has run so low that it rarely operates the eight-car trains for which the system was designed even during rush hours when all the cars are packed full;
  5. WMATA’s most recent general manager, Richard Sarles, retired last January and the agency still hasn’t found a replacement, largely due to its own ineptitude;
  6. Riders are so disgusted with the system that both bus and rail ridership declined in 2014 according to the American Public Transportation Association’s ridership report;
  7. Metro was so unsafe in 2012 that Congress gave the Federal Transit Administration extra authority to oversee its operations;
  8. That hasn’t fixed the problems, so now the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) wants Congress to transfer oversight to the Federal Railroad Administration, which supposedly has stricter rules.

A complete listing of Metro’s problems could fill a book (and in fact have already done so). The “solutions” implemented so far have been ludicrous. That idea that giving FTA safety oversight over WMATA would solve any problems relies on the fantasy that top-down bureaucracy works better at the federal level than the regional level. Meanwhile, NTSB’s proposal to transfer authority to the Federal Railroad Administration is more rearranging the deck chairs on a sinking ship than providing any real fix.

On the Bright Side: Tropical Cyclones in the Bay of Bengal During Warmer and Colder Phases of ENSO and the PDO

While the hypothesis that tropical cyclones will become both more frequent and more intense as planetary temperatures rise has long been debated, real-world evidence has consistently refuted it (see, for example, the many reviews of this subject posted under the heading of Hurricanes at the CO2 Science website). The latest example is the work of Girishkumar et al. (2015), who examined over five decades of tropical cyclone (TC) data from the Bay of Bengal (BoB) in the Indian Ocean. Specifically, the authors “investigated how the relationship between ENSO and TCs activity in the BoB during October–December varies on decadal time scale with respect to PDO.”

More Buzz About RICO-Ing Climate Skeptics

In June I took note of Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse’s (D-R.I.) op-ed “urg[ing] the U.S. Department of Justice to consider filing a racketeering suit against the oil and coal industries for having promoted wrongful thinking on climate change, with the activities of ‘conservative policy’ groups an apparent target of the investigation as well.” I pointed out that this was a significant step toward criminalizing policy differences and using litigation and government enforcement to punish opponents in public debate, and meshed with an existing fishing-expedition investigation of climate-skeptic scholarship by Whitehouse and other Democrats on Capitol Hill. Others had already gone farther than the senator himself, calling for making “climate denial” a “crime against humanity,” holding public trials of fossil fuel executives for having resisted the truth, and so forth. (Gawker: “arrest climate change deniers.”) And I noted a recurring argument – “we did it to the tobacco companies, so there’s no reason we can’t do it here too” that tended to confirm my fears that the federal government set a dangerous precedent back then when it “took the stance that pro-tobacco advocacy could amount to a legal offense.”

Now there are further signs that a concerted campaign is under way. “Letter To President Obama: Investigate Deniers Under RICO” is the headline over a letter from twenty scientists, most at respected institutions, endorsing the Whitehouse idea and calling for the federal government to launch a probe under the racketeering (RICO) law. The letter was soon being widely promoted around the web, even at BoingBoing, often regarded as a pro-free-speech outlet.