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A little climate music

Steve McGrath · August 6th, 2013

Pen mightier than the sword? Hardly. All the words in the world have barely moved the needle on American’s indifference toward climate change. As long as there’s air conditioning in the summer and skiing in the winter, it’s pretty much business as usual.

Maybe music can help?

In separate projects, two musicians mapped temperature readings to musical notes to spotlight recent warming spikes. The songs start in the past and conclude in the present, with the pitch rising markedly along with the temperatures.

First, let’s listen to the anxious violin, a 24-second song spanning six centuries of climate readings.

 

 

Now the somber cello, which covers the last 130 years.

 

A Song of Our Warming Planet from Ensia on Vimeo.

 

“Climate scientists have a standard toolbox to communicate their data,” says the cellist, Daniel Crawford, University of Minnesota class of 2017. “What we’re trying to do is add another tool to that toolbox, another way to communicate these ideas to the people who might get more out of this than maps, graphs and numbers.”

It’s not Mozart, but it certainly makes the point. Credit these guys for recognizing logic is overrated and that sometimes you’ve got to go straight for the gut.

More here from the New York Times.

Today’s forecast: changing climate views

Steve McGrath · February 28th, 2013

We had a blizzard up here the other day, the second biggest in our history. Yet a few days before that, the thermometer was pushing 60 degrees. This certainly feels like global weirding.

IcebergAlthough I’m generally concerned about climate change, I worry more about the fate of this planet on days when the temperatures don’t match the season. When it’s balmy in February, that’s troubling.

On the other hand, when the snowbanks tower over my head, warming doesn’t seem to be an issue. Doubts chip away at my climate change convictions, notwithstanding the statements of NASA, NOAA, the United Nations, 34 science academies and countless other credible agencies.

I’m not the only one who’s fickle on climate.

A University of British Columbia study found a strong connection between weather and climate attitudes over the past two decades “with skepticism about global warming increasing during cold snaps and concern about climate change growing during hot spells.”

The University of New Hampshire came up with similar findings, especially among independent voters in the state. “Interviewed on unseasonably warm days, independents tend to agree with the scientific consensus on human-caused climate change,” said researchers Lawrence Hamilton and Mary Stampone. “On unseasonably cool days, they tend not to.”

Why do our attitudes change like this? Because despite what we know, we just can’t deny what we see and feel. Yes, sensory experiences do play a big role in what’s relevant to us, maybe more than we think. You can see it in our new Conversational Relevance study. Although hotel guests value location and recreational facilities for the kids, these highly rational concerns are only part of the mix. Guests also chatter online about water pressure in the shower and the view from the room, and about abstractions like a hotel’s culture and cachet.

The bottom line? When it comes to decision-making, whether it’s a hotel room or the destiny of the human race, logic is overrated. Think about it. Rationally, if you can.

Vermonters want to tame the wind power momentum

Steve McGrath · January 15th, 2013

What’s not to like about wind power? It’s clean, it’s abundant, and windmills look pretty sleek – unless they’re blighting scenic mountain ridges.

That’s just one concern that some in Vermont, the country’s second-bluest state, are decrying in their bid for a three-year moratorium on large-scale wind development. Supporters of the measure want the state to take time to figure out how to better manage wind proposals.

“We shouldn’t permit ourselves to be pressured by corporate, mostly out-of-state entities while we take that time,” said co-sponsor Bob Hartwell, D-Bennington. “We shouldn’t be allowing our cherished mountains, our cherished history to be destroyed while we take that time. We shouldn’t involve ourselves in social upheaval while we take that time. For that reason, a bipartisan effort … is being made to make sure we back up the train, set the reset button and redefine a conversation with Vermont’s history and environmental proactivism involved in the discussion.” (Source: vtdigger.org)

Although a similar bill failed last year, Gov. Peter Shumlin has called for a commission to look at energy permitting in the state. And with every wind proposal come a new group of affected neighbors. Last fall, nearly 200 activists descended on the capitol, issuing a mock “Certificate of Public Harm” to the governor, wind developers and others.

This should get interesting. There’s enough energy in wind to power our warming planet more than 20 times over. But if resistance is coming from a state that’s so blue it has “green” in its nickname, we’re in for a long slog.

Dots for our destiny

Steve McGrath · May 4th, 2012

Climate Impacts Day is Saturday, May 5

If Earth Day is like a birthday for the planet, Climate Impacts Day is the ominous doctor visit.

Aimed at spotlighting the nexus between climate change and extreme weather – e.g., drought, heat waves and torrential rains – tomorrow’s Climate Impacts Day is more about action than observance. Environmental advocacy organization 350.org urges everyone around the world to attend or start actions – rallies, presentations, art projects and more – that Connect the Dots between warming and weather for the mainstream media.

Since talk is cheap and logic is overrated, the common visual thread will be, yes, dots – painted, formed by groups of people holding hands, shot from above, etc. – a gimmick intended to roll up into a powerful multimedia statement. Why the heck not dots, since boring old science doesn’t seem to prompt much action. “We’ll hold up a mirror to the planet and force people to come face-to-face with the ravages of climate change,” writes Bill McKibben, president and co-founder of 350.org.

The organization predicts more than 1,000 Connect the Dots events in 100 countries. My neighbor Micum Davis, an arborist who can scale a tree as fast as any primate on the planet, will be attending one at the Portsmouth (NH) Farmer’s Market. Immediately afterward, he’ll invite participants to check out an urban garden he’s creating from a scruffy parking lot with his wife, Jennifer Wilhelm.

Climate Impacts Day “is an opportunity to bring attention to all the effects of climate change that many of us are already seeing,” he says. “ I feel like there’s no voice for climate change. It’s become taboo. It’s the elephant in the room. There’s nearly a consensus among scientists – basically, there is a consensus – but politically, it’s a black hole.”

Micum Davis is bringing positivity to the climate conversation.

Acknowledging that sacrificing the fossil fuel economy threatens the American way of life, Davis wants to emphasize the positive side of working for climate change. The garden is one example. “There are a lot of positive things we can do that not only happen to reduce carbon footprint, but also build community, build healthy soils and reduce pollution,” says Davis. “A whole array of positive activities go into the solution to climate change. It’s not just taking money from the consumer and shutting down corporations.”

Got a dot you want to connect? Find a nearby event here.

The Earth Speaks…

Steve McGrath · April 22nd, 2012

You’re honoring the Earth today. This just in: her reply.

Stunning interactive wind map

Steve McGrath · April 10th, 2012

Click on this screenshot and savor the beauty that is simply wind blowing around the United States.

 

Now can there be any doubt we have enough wind to make a serious contribution to our voracious energy demand?

The interactive map doesn’t tell us a thing we didn’t already know – the data that drives it comes from the National Weather Service – it just tells us in a sublime way. “These are near-term forecasts, revised once per hour,” say the creators. “So what you’re seeing is a living portrait.”

The U.S. government envisions generating 20 percent of our electricity through wind by 2030.

The Wind Map is a product of two people who lead Google’s “Big Picture” visualization group in Cambridge, Mass., Fernanda Viégas and Martin Wattenberg, The gallery section of their site showcases some particularly striking animations, including this one from March 14:

(Click on the image above to see the animation.)

Wonder if it was a starry night.

 

Refuse the bottle on World Water Day

Steve McGrath · March 22nd, 2012

Pour some tap water into a plastic bottle, slap a label on it, and what do you have?

Snake oil.

Nonetheless, Americans buy around 9 billion gallons of bottled water every year, sold by a brand promise of purity, health, beauty and personal style.

Although critics haven’t put much of a dent in the demand, there are signs that’s about to change. More than 90 colleges and universities, including Brown and Harvard, have banned or are restricting the use of plastic water bottles, Bloomberg has reported.

“The product just doesn’t make common sense,” Sarah Alexander, 20, an environmental-studies major at Dartmouth, told Bloomberg. “Companies are taking something that is freely accessible to everyone on the Dartmouth campus, packaging it in a non-reusable container and then selling it under the pretense that it is somehow better than tap water.”

Unlike the tap water you pour into a glass, the water in bottles is trucked around the country, consuming energy, producing carbon and leaving an unwanted plastic container. After the consumer’s refreshing drink, the container is:

  • trucked around some more and buried;
  • recycled (more energy and carbon);
  • tossed in the water (maybe even becoming part of the world-famous Pacific garbage patch); or
  • buffeted about the side of the road.

To serve parched students, Harvard and Dartmouth will be installing hydration stations in new buildings. These will enable students to refill their own bottles with filtered water. They’ll also be saving money: according to Ban the Bottle, it costs 50 cents a year to drink tap water and $1,400 to buy that equivalent in bottles.

Let’s raise a glass of tap water to the money back in our pockets. And let’s celebrate World Water Day by being grateful for even having choices about drinking water while so many people go dry.

 

 

 

When clean isn’t green

Steve McGrath · February 14th, 2012

Doing your best to tread lightly on the planet? Well, if you’re still laundering your clothes, you have room for improvement.

Turns out a single garment can release 1,900 microplastic fibers in a single wash, and fibers like these can end up in the food chain, says a study reported by the BBC. After being eaten, the plastics appear to get into animals’ cells.

“As the human population grows and people use more synthetic textiles, contamination of habitats and animals by microplastic is likely to increase,” says the study in the Journal of Environmental Science and Technology. “Already, microplastic contaminates the shorelines at 18 sites worldwide representing six continents from the poles to the equator, with more material in densely populated areas.”

And you don’t get a pass for wearing natural fibers. As TreeHugger observes, “cotton causes other problems because of how much water and pesticides is used to make it grow.”

Information like this makes you wonder how much damage humans are doing beyond CO2 and the obvious chemical pollutants, and exactly how we collectively determine which damaging actions we most need to discourage.

However insidious, microplastic is defined as being less than 1 mm in size, so we’re dealing with a bit of an abstraction. For a more tangible experience of plastic in the ecosystem, see TreeHugger’s Great Pacific Garbage Patch slideshow. Or these photos, which find beauty in the blight.

Unforgettable rides

Steve McGrath · January 17th, 2012

These gorgeous bikes are made of discarded trees – maybe even one you climbed as a kid.

“With urban wood, we know where it came from,” says Bill Holloway, proprietor of Masterworks Wood and Design in San Jose, Calif., in the slick video below. “We know a little history of the tree, so you get a story with it. [Customers] remember playing in that tree in their yard as a kid and their parents have passed, and they now own the house, and the tree is dying or is unsafe for some reason and needs to be removed. They think it’s really cool that we can salvage that tree, give it a second life and give it back to them as something they can ride.”

This is a great example of relevance – an experience that transcends mere logic and involves emotions, senses and community impulses.

From a logical perspective, these bikes are efficient, stylish transportation. What makes them wonderful, however, is, well, the other stuff: the exhilaration of riding, the liberation from oil, the tribute to carbon-eating trees, the reuse of valuable resources, the preservation of craftsmanship, the tactile sense of “having a piece of art under you,” and the emotional experience of sustaining a priceless family memory.

Pedal on.

(Via Urban Velo)

2012: The Year of the Tree

Steve McGrath · January 10th, 2012

Year of the Tree? Well, that’s my vote as I see these carbon dioxide-eating, oxygen-producing engines of our planet endangered all around.

To the south, for example, Texas just lost as many as 500 million. “In 2011, Texas experienced an exceptional drought, prolonged high winds and record-setting temperatures. Together, those conditions took a severe toll on trees across the state,” said Burl Carraway, head of the Texas Forest Service’s sustainable forestry department. “Large numbers of trees in both urban communities and rural forests have died or are struggling to survive. The impacts are numerous and widespread.” A half billion trees would be equivalent to 10 percent of the state’s 4.9 billion tree population.

A case of global weirding? Who can say.

And to the north, environmentalists say Maine’s governor is jeopardizing the state’s forests, as well as the green building movement, by effectively banning the use of LEED in construction in state-owned buildings. At issue is an ongoing battle over standards over standards for sustainable timber harvest.

“The Governor’s action constitutes government-sponsored greenwashing,” said the Natural Resources Defense Councils forestry specialist Sami Yassa, Senior Scientist and Director of NRDC’s Markets Initiative. “Eliminating LEED effectively turns Maine’s once-great green building program into business as usual. The Governor has chosen to benefit a small segment of the state’s logging industry, often financed by out-of-state interests, who refuse to improve their practices.” The administration says it’s simply creating “an even playing field among the diverse forest certification groups.”

Joining us in mourning the passing of trees is Oxford University, which is hosting a traveling exhibition of strangely beautiful tangled tree stumps. It’s called the Ghost Project. Here’s one of the specimens:

We humans love trees, don’t we?

Yes, we do, but our love has its limits. In 2009, Americans started prioritizing economic growth over the environment, according to Gallup.  Last spring, by a 53-38 margin, Americans agreed that “economic growth should be given priority, even if the environment suffers to some extent.”

Practical perhaps, but also scary.  The planet has been losing 10 hectares of forest per minute, according to UN numbers.

This is why, for me, 2012 is The Year of the Tree.

What about you?