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British PM accused of sowing religious strife with ‘Christian country’ remarks

Britain is a ‘plural society,’ and characterizing it as a Christian country ‘fosters alienation and division in our society,’ public figures urge David Cameron in letter

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Three Gulf Coast victories scored since the BP spill

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You will hear a lot of gloomy reports about the state of the Gulf Coast as we approach the fourth-year commemoration of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster on April 20. And that’s fair. BP deserves little cheer in the face of widespread health problems across the Gulf, for both humans and marine animals, and the disappearance of entire fishing communities. Despite what BP is telling us, it ain’t all good. But it ain’t all bad, either. Gulf Coast communities from the Florida Panhandle to Texas’s right shoulder had been through a few disaster rodeos before the BP spill. They’ve survived hurricanes named for just about every letter of the alphabet. And they’ve endured careless and reckless decisions from every level of government, way more than one time too many. Given those past experiences, residents and activists along the Gulf corralled together after the BP disaster to make sure their most immediate concerns would be heard this time around. Region-wide networks like the Gulf Future Coalition and the Gulf Coast Fund for Community Renewal and Ecological Health were formed immediately after the spill to harness the expertise of Gulf citizens who often historically were excluded from recovery processes. Through guiding documents like the Unified Action Plan for a Healthy Gulf and media projects like Bridge the Gulf, community members were able to voice their concerns and demands, free of bureaucratic or political filters. These projects gave Gulf residents the opportunity not only to frame the Gulf recovery narrative, but also to influence government-led recovery plans. The result has been three demonstrable victories: 1. The Gulf Coast gets to keep the money: The current civil trial against BP to determine how much the company will pay in Clean Water Act fines won’t conclude until next year, but scientists and legal experts expect fines to total upwards of $20 billion, which normally would be great news … for the U.S. Treasury. Under the Oil Spill Liability Act, such fines are directed to a special Treasury account to be used to cope with future oil tragedies. But Gulf Coast communities said, “Wayment, y’alls oil and gas drillers been foulin’ up our waters for decades. We deserve that money for the tragedies y’all been causin’ today.” The community groups wrote up a new law called the RESTORE Act, which would keep 80 percent of the BP fine money right there in the Gulf, and out of reach of D.C.’s balanced-budget stalkers. Inside-the-Beltway conventional wisdom says no one’s been able to get anything passed through Congress the past few years. Well, the RESTORE Act passed, and it’s now law. The Gulf Coast keeps the money. Derrick Evans, director of the Gulf Coast Fund, explains it better in this video. 2. Gulf Coast residents get some health care (even as they’re denied the full benefits of Obamacare): Unexplained illnesses have become prevalent in the wake of the spill, particularly among those involved in the emergency cleanup response immediately after. Despite an untold number of Gulf residents complaining of respiratory problems, rashes, and nausea, BP stated it would not hear any health-related grievances through its claims process. In fact, BP publicly doubted that any of the reported illnesses were connected to the oil spill. But Gulf advocates did not let BP off that easy. When the company settled part of its civil case with a party of commercial fishermen and oil workers for $7.8 billion in 2012, activists were able to finagle a $105 million carve-out for health centers to be built in every Gulf state. These new health facilities will provide services to all Gulf residents, not just those directly impacted by the oil spill, and also epidemiological training for doctors so they can better monitor for spill-related illnesses as they surface over time. “These communities gave input early on that helped to shape the program that is now coming back to provide health services to them,” says Steve Bradberry, executive director of The Alliance Institute, which helped facilitate the community input. Another silver lining here is that the new health centers, some of which are just now coming online, are being built in states where the governors have turned down federal funding to expand Medicaid. 3. You don’t have to rely on Anderson Cooper for your Gulf news anymore: When disaster strikes the Gulf, national media forces like CNN and The New York Times drone in to capture the melee, then disperse at the first sign of another news story elsewhere in the world. And then Spike Lee comes and shoots a documentary, and it’s a wrap. But that’s not the whole picture anymore. Gulf residents have taken their stories into their own hands, eyes, and voices, mainly through documentaries. The result is what film scholars will hopefully one day recognize as the definitive canon of cinematic Gulf tales of survival. I’ve written about a couple of them, such as Leah Mahan’s Come Hell or High Water and Nailah Jefferson’s Vanishing Pearls. Add to that list Monique Verdin’s My Louisiana Love and Margaret Brown’s The Great Invisible. Then offscreen there’s Cry You One, a play that takes its audience directly to the bayous and wetlands of Louisiana for its narrative — literally. These stories — along with those told in the hundreds of local blogs, news outlets, and books that have sprouted in the past few years — will give future historians a view from the ground of what restoration looked like, who benefited, and who was excluded.Filed under: Article, Business & Technology, Climate & Energy, Politics

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How BP turned a whole community into an endangered species

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Shawn EscofferyOystermen of Plaquemines Parish, La.Whether you live in Seattle, Baltimore, or Schenectady, N.Y., if you’ve had an oyster dish, chances are the shelled delicacies came from the Gulf of Mexico, most likely off the Louisiana coast, which produces a third of the nation’s oysters. Crabs? Hate to break it to you, but those luscious “Baltimore” crab cakes — yep, those are from Louisiana too. This has been a fact for a long time, but it might soon become an artifact. The reason: the BP oil spill disaster of 2010, which dumped over 205 million gallons of oil and another 2 million gallons of possibly toxic dispersants into the Gulf, devastating the area that’s responsible for 40 percent of the seafood sold commercially across the U.S. For the end user, this just means Maryland chefs actually using Maryland crabs again. But on the supply side, this means that whole communities of fishers along the Gulf Coast have been put out of business, their livelihoods ruined. Oystermen have fared among the worst in that bunch, notably the African-American oystermen who live and work in Plaquemines Parish, on the lowest end tip of Louisiana. They used to harvest a great deal of the shellfish that eventually adorned our restaurant plates, but the impacts of the BP disaster have proven too difficult to rebound from. They’re now facing “zero population” of oysters, as one seafood distributor put it. For too long, these black oystermen have been invisible not only to the nation they serve but also to the state they live in. The new documentary Vanishing Pearls from first-time filmmaker Nailah Jefferson hopes to raise the oystermen’s visibility and also our awareness of their value in our national economy and environment. Nailah JeffersonJefferson, a New Orleans resident, began making the film shortly after the BP disaster, based off a friend’s tip. She followed that tip down to Pointe à la Hache, on the east bank of the Mississippi River, where a small community of black fishers live and have subsisted off the bays there for decades. (You can read more about them in this story I reported shortly after the spill.) After meeting them, Jefferson immediately concluded that the hardscrabble men and women here deserved more shine, especially in the face of a disaster that threatens to destabilize their lives with little remedy. Vanishing Pearls makes its national debut on April 18 in New York and Los Angeles. It’s the culmination of more than three years of work by Jefferson, filming and reporting on the BP disaster’s impacts long after the rest of the media shifted their focus elsewhere. The documentary was featured this January at Slamdance, the Utah-based film festival known for showcasing breakout films that Sundance slept on. Christopher Nolan and Lena Dunham are among the directors discovered at Slamdance. Slamdance also helped Jefferson catch the attention of Ava DuVernay, founder of the pioneering film distribution company African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement (AFFRM), and the first African-American woman to win the Sundance Best Director prize for her 2012 film Middle of Nowhere. With DuVernay’s power behind the project, Vanishing Pearls will now throw more shine on the struggling black oystermen than Jefferson originally imagined. Friday’s opening coincides with the four-year commemoration of the BP disaster. I was able to catch Jefferson by phone from her home office in New Orleans to discuss her filmmaking experience and the fate of these oystermen. Q. So how does it happen that entire communities are just rendered invisible? A. Because they don’t matter enough. It’s about the money. Down there in Pointe à la Hache, you have a fishing community that has contributed so much to our state, our identity, and our economy. But what contributes more is oil and gas, and fishing has historically been in the way of the growth of oil and gas. So when up against the industry, they don’t matter. [The oystermen] know that, that the terms are unbalanced in favor of the oil and gas industry, but I don’t think they thought that a natural disaster would come and wipe out entire portions of their livelihood also. We will continue to drill, because it’s just a way of life here, but I think the state needs to work harder to strengthen regulations so that if another disaster occurs, it won’t wipe out the remaining estuaries that are still thriving. Q. While your film is about people and communities, you didn’t shy away from breaking down the environmental toll of the BP disaster. Did you personally have much background in the science? A. No, it was a steep learning curve. I interviewed Dr. Ed Cake, who’s one of three well-known oyster biologists in the Gulf Coast, because this is absolutely not my field. But I felt that if this was a story I was going to tell, I’d better dive in and figure it out. I didn’t want to bog people down with the science, but if you don’t grasp even a little bit of it, then you won’t get the whole story. Q. You show that the oyster beds were exposed to some oil and dispersants. How do you deal then with the question of whether seafood is safe to eat? A. The best way I can describe it is the way Dr. Cake explained it to me: Oysters are like the canaries in the coal mine. If they’re able to survive, thrive, and reproduce, then the waters are OK; if they’re not, then the waters are unhealthy. At the time that the spill had occurred, the dispersants had been sprayed, but the full effects hadn’t played out yet. So there were still oysters that could be harvested in that area. The last of that harvest came in late 2011. The Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries Department put a hold on fishing, closing the public [oyster bed] grounds for a long time, and then when they opened them back up, those guys went out and harvested the last of what survived. There hasn’t been much left. Q. The oystermen come across as the real scientists in your film. A. I think when people think of fishermen, they think of simple bayou people who aren’t educated. Perhaps they haven’t been in school for the longest time, or they don’t have post-grad degrees, but they are very much knowledgeable about what they do, and it’s something they’ve done for years. I wanted to show that their work is more complicated and harder than people think. You have to have a certain type of intellect to get this work and be successful at it. Q. You find many of the oystermen in the film talking about generational instructions on how to harvest oysters sustainably. Did you get the sense they were natural environmentalists? A. Yes, it was clear from when I first met them that these are the real environmentalists, because they actually have to live off the land and water. It really is in and of itself a science that’s been passed down to them, and I think it’s their passion for this work that makes them want to remain bayou residents. Q. Despite their expertise, they’ve had to play defensive with scientists and environmentalists, notably those who under the Louisiana coastal master plan want to use freshwater diversions to replenish the eroded marshlands, even though this will ruin what’s left of the oyster beds. Did you sense that professional environmentalists respected these fishers’ expertise at all? A. There isn’t proof that these freshwater diversions will work or will be as beneficial as stated. People have told them, “Look, you’re going to have to sacrifice for the greater good of the state.” If the diversions were something proven to work, then it probably wouldn’t be such a harsh pill to swallow for them. It’s not that the [environmentalists] know better [than the oystermen], they just understand things differently. We need a more collective approach moving forward. Q. What can people do after seeing your film if they want to help? A. One reason I signed with AFFRM is that they are very supportive of social advocacy campaigns. We’ve already launched one and hope to do more around supporting efforts to clean up the spill and make sure regulations are tighter so that we don’t have this kind of occurrence again. We have a petition you can sign encouraging EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers to support efforts to tighten regulations under the Clean Water Act so that our streams and tributaries going into the Mississippi River won’t be polluted — and also, of course, so those communities who rely on those waters will be able to have healthy water again. —– Watch the trailer for Vanishing Pearls: Filed under: Business & Technology, Climate & Energy, Living

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Chris Christie is still trying to force a pipeline through the New Jersey Pinelands

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In January, on the heels of the embarrassing revelation that New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s (R) staffers created a traffic jam on the George Washington Bridge to punish an obscure political rival, Christie and his allies were handed a defeat. The New Jersey Pinelands Commission rejected a proposed 22-mile natural-gas pipeline that would go through a national reserve of forests and wetlands. Though Christie went so far as to bully a commissioner who was skeptical of the pipeline into recusing himself from the decision, that wasn’t enough to secure approval. But now the pipeline is back. The state’s leading power brokers want the commission to reconsider and are pressuring commissioners to change their votes, working both behind the scenes and through public statements and symbolic votes in county and town legislative bodies. The Philadelphia Inquirer recently reported, “A growing number of elected officials from Gov. Christie to lawmakers including Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester) have joined county freeholders and township officials in support of the project. They are considering ways of returning the issue to the Pinelands Commission, possibly as a ‘compelling public need’ for energy security and scores of jobs.” The promise of merely “scores” of jobs in a state with 8.9 million residents is a clue that job creation is not the real issue. One of Christie’s top cronies is involved in the proposal. The law firm of David Samson, whom Christie appointed as chair of the Port Authority, represents Rockland Capital, owners of the power plant that the Pinelands pipeline would supply with natural gas. As Wayne Barrett noted in the New York Daily News, “Christie … was so eager to help Rockland that his [Department of Environmental Protection] and Board of Public Utilities (BPU) decided to support the pipeline, paid for by rate increases, despite that the fact that … it would run underground through 15 miles of the million-acre Pinelands, the country’s first natural preserve and a United Nations Biosphere Reserve.” (Samson resigned from the Port Authority last month after the Bridgegate debacle and media reports that he is under federal investigation for lobbying for companies with business before the Port Authority.) The B.L. England power plant, which would be served by the pipeline, currently burns coal. Christie’s Democratic predecessors had forced it to sign agreements to reduce its pollution or switch to natural gas. The Christie administration gave it a reprieve until 2015. Switching from coal to gas could be beneficial to the climate — when burned, gas emits roughly half the CO2 that coal does (though that’s not so impressive compared to wind or solar). But in practice, natural gas drilling operations and pipelines often leak methane, a far more potent greenhouse gas, which can neutralize any climate benefit. And beyond climate change, the pipeline would pose obvious threats to the local environment. Environmental critics say the proposal has such strong backing because the beneficiaries, such as Samson, are politically connected. “It’s not the jobs, it’s the power,” says Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. Tittel also speculates that Christie, seeking support from anti-environment conservatives in the Republican presidential primary, is trying to bolster his pro–fossil fuel bona fides. “The governor had been pro-wind until he went national,” says Tittel. “This [project] is in the middle of an area that was set aside for big wind farms. Cheap gas power will kill offshore wind.” The Christie administration did not respond to a request for comment. Environmentalists and neighbors would like to see the B.L. England plant shut down. Ironically, climate change, caused by the burning of fossil fuels, makes its shoreline location especially precarious. “The power plant is in an area that floods with storm surges,” notes Tittel. And the plant is a blight on the shore. “It’s a big ugly smokestack in a scenic area, Ocean City, which is a tourist hub,” Tittel says. If you decommissioned the plant, Tittel argues, you could create more jobs with development of condos, hotels, and restaurants in the area. (Although any development in a future flood plain could be risky, power plants are especially vulnerable to a storm surge, as all of Lower Manhattan learned when it lost power for days after a transformer station on the East River got hit during Superstorm Sandy.) Unfortunately, New Jersey politicians are notorious for making these types of decisions on the basis of cronyism rather than empiricism. Christie’s latest heavy-handed tactic was to veto 5 percent raises for the Pinelands Commission staffers.Filed under: Article, Business & Technology, Climate & Energy, Politics

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Here’s what fracking can do to your health

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If you know one thing about fracking, it might be that the wells have been linked to explosive tap water. Of course, a tendency toward combustion isn’t the biggest problem with gas-infused water; it’s what could happen to you when you drink it. Although the natural gas industry is notoriously tight-lipped about the ingredients of the chemical cocktails that get pumped down into wells, by now it’s widely known that the list often includes some pretty scary, dangerous stuff, including hydrochloric acid and ethylene glycol (a.k.a. antifreeze). It’s also no secret that well sites release hazardous gases like methane and benzene (a carcinogen) into the atmosphere. So just how dangerous are fracking and other natural gas extraction processes for your health (not counting, for the sake of argument, explosions and earthquakes)? Is it true, as an activist-art campaign by Yoko Ono recently posited, that “fracking kills”? The answer to that second question is probably not, especially in the short term and if you don’t work on or live across the street from a frack site (which, of course, some people in fact do). But that doesn’t mean it’s okay to start fracking away next to kindergartens and nursing homes: Gas extraction produces a range of potentially health-endangering pollutants at nearly every stage of the process, according to a new paper by the California nonprofit Physicians Scientists & Engineers for Healthy Energy, released today in Environmental Health Perspectives, a peer-reviewed journal published by the National Institutes of Health. The study compiled existing, peer-reviewed literature on the health risks of shale gas drilling and found that leaks, poor wastewater management, and air emissions have released harmful chemicals into the air and water around fracking sites nationwide. “It’s clear that the closer you are, the more elevated your risk,” said lead author Seth Shonkoff, a visiting public health scholar at the University of California-Berkeley. “We can conclude that this process has not been shown to be safe.” Shonkoff cautioned that existing research has focused on cataloging risks, rather than linking specific instances of disease to particular drilling operations — primarily because the fracking boom is so new that long-term studies of, say, cancer rates, simply haven’t been done. But as the United States and the world double down on natural gas as a cleaner alternative to coal (as this week’s U.N. climate change solutions report suggests), Shonkoff argues policymakers need to be aware of what a slew of fracked wells could mean for the health of those who live near them. Even given the risks involved in producing natural gas, it’s still a much healthier fuel source than coal; particulate pollution from coal plants killed an estimated 13,000 Americans in 2010, while a recent World Health Organization study named air pollution (to which coal burning is a chief contributor) the single deadliest environmental hazard on earth. Still, how exactly could gas drilling make you ill? Let us count the ways: Air pollution near wells: Near gas wells, studies have found both carcinogenic and other hazardous air pollutants in concentrations above EPA guidelines, with the pollution at its worst within a half-mile radius of the well. In one Colorado study, some of the airborne pollutants were endocrine disrupters, which screw with fetal and early childhood development. Several studies also found precursors to ground-level ozone, which can cause respiratory and cardiovascular disease. Silica sand, which is used to prop open underground cracks and which can cause pulmonary disease and lung cancer, was also found in the air around well sites; one study of 111 well samples found silica concentrations in excess of OSHA guidelines at 51.4 percent of them. Recycled frack water: About a third of the water/chemical/sand mixture that gets pumped into wells flows back up, bringing back not just the toxic fracking chemicals but other goodies from deep underground, including heavy metals like lead and arsenic. Some of this wastewater is treated and recycled for irrigation and agriculture or dumped back into lakes and rivers. Multiple studies found that because the menu of chemicals is so diverse, treatment is often incomplete and has the potential to pollute drinking water supplies with chemicals linked to everything from eye irritation to nervous system damage to cancer, as well as the potential to poison fish. Even if wastewater is contained, spills can be a problem: One Colorado study counted 77 fracking wastewater spills that impacted groundwater supplies, of which 90 percent were contaminated with unsafe levels of benzene. Broken wells: Drinking water supplies can also be contaminated when the cement casings around wells crack and leak, which studies estimate to happen in anywhere from 2 to 50 percent of all wells (including oil wells, offshore rigs, etc.). Methane getting into drinking water wells from leaky gas wells is the prime suspect in Pennsylvania’s flammable faucets; a study there last year found some methane in 82 percent of water wells sampled but concluded that concentrations were six times higher for water wells within one kilometer of a fracking well. A Texas study found elevated levels of arsenic at water wells within three kilometers of gas wells. (While the Texas study linked the contamination to gas extraction in general, it was unclear what specific part of the process was responsible). Many of these issues could be improved with engineering advancements, like gadgets that monitor for leaks and capture gas emissions, or hardier cement. Regulation can also play a role: Just yesterday, the EPA released a series of reports on methane emissions that could eventually inform restrictions on them as part of President Obama’s climate plan. This story was produced as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.Filed under: Business & Technology, Climate & Energy

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No, the IPCC climate report doesn’t call for a fracking boom

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You might have heard that the latest installment of the big new U.N. climate report endorses fracking, urging a “dash for gas” as a bridge fuel to put us on a path to a more renewable energy future. These interpretations of the report are exaggerated, lack context, and are just plain wrong. They appear to have been based on interviews and on a censored summary of the report, which was published two days before the full document became available. The energy chapter from the full report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says “near‐term GHG emissions from energy supply can be reduced” by replacing coal-fired power plants with “highly efficient” natural gas–burning alternatives — a move that “may play a role as a transition fuel in combination with variable renewable sources.” But that’s only true, the report says, if fugitive emissions of climate-changing methane from drilling and distribution of the gas are “low” — which is far from the case today. Scientists reported Tuesday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that methane measurements taken near fracking sites in Pennsylvania suggest such operations leak 100 to 1,000 times more methane than the U.S. EPA has estimated. The IPCC’s energy chapter also notes that fracking for gas has “created concerns about potential risks to local water quality and public health.” To protect the climate and save ourselves, the new IPCC report says we must quit fossil fuels. That doesn’t mean switching from coal to natural gas. It means switching from coal and gas to solar and wind, plugging electric vehicles into those renewable sources, and then metaphorically blowing up the fossil-fueled power plants that pock the planet. Stabilizing greenhouse gas concentrations at “low levels” requires a “fundamental transformation of the energy supply system,” the IPCC says. Overall, its latest report concludes that we must reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 40 to 70 percent by midcentury, and stop producing any such pollution by the turn of the century, if we’re to keeping warming to within 2 degrees Celsius, or 3.7 F. And nothing is more important in meeting those goals than revolutionizing the way we produce electricity. Humanity’s thirst for electricity is the biggest single cause of climate change, with the energy sector fueling a little more than a third of global warming. Wind, solar, hydro, and other renewable forms of energy account for a little more than half of all new generating capacity being built around the world, the report says. But that is not enough. The report notes that renewable energy still requires government support, such as renewable portfolio standards and prices and caps on carbon emissions. But, as desperately as we need to be curbing fossil-fuel burning, we just keep increasing it instead. Greenhouse gas emissions from the energy sector rose 3.1 percent every year from 2001 to 2010. In the 1990s, they rose just 1.7 percent annually. “The main contributors to this trend were a higher energy demand associated with rapid economic growth and an increase of the share of coal in the global fuel mix,” the report states. Of course, slaking our thirst for electricity with renewables wouldn’t just be good for the climate. The energy chapter highlights “co-benefits” from the use of renewable energy, “such as a reduction of air pollution, local employment opportunities, few severe accidents compared to some other forms of energy supply, as well as improved energy access and security.” A revolution doesn’t sound so scary when you put it that way.Filed under: Article, Climate & Energy

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Breast cancer ‘personal drugs’ hope

Breast cancer research scientists at Cardiff University say they are a step nearer understanding why the disease has at least 10 different forms.

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How did Vancouver get so green?

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Vancouver is supremely green, in both senses of the word. Set between ocean and mountains and lined with verdant trees, Vancouver also has the lowest greenhouse gas emissions of any major city in North America. In 2007, the most recent year for which comparisons are available, Vancouver had annual emissions of 4.9 tons of CO2 equivalent per capita. By 2012, according to Vancouver’s city government, it had dropped to 4.4 tons per person. “Vancouver has done really well at decreasing greenhouse gas emissions and showing leadership on climate change,” says Ian Bruce, science and policy manager at the David Suzuki Foundation, a Canadian environmental research organization. “Vancouver is bucking the trend of a lot of North American cities when it comes to how quickly the city is growing in population — it’s increasing quite dramatically, its economy and jobs have increased — while greenhouse gas emissions have decreased by 9 percent in the last decade.” How did Vancouver achieve that? It’s an outlier in even the green-friendly Pacific Northwest: While Seattle and Portland look and feel a lot like Vancouver, their per capita emissions are roughly three times as high. The U.S.’s closest competitor to Vancouver is New York, followed by San Francisco, then Philadelphia. All of those cities are older, with many dense, walkable rowhouse neighborhoods developed in the 19th and early 20th centuries, before the car rose to dominate the landscape and city planning. Like its Pacific Northwest peers, Vancouver was built later, with more detached houses and parking garages. In part, Vancouver is just lucky. British Columbia is rich in hydroelectric power, so keeping the lights on in all those coffee bars pumps a lot less CO2 into the atmosphere than in cities where power comes from fossil fuels. It also helps that Vancouver has a relatively mild West Coast climate. Inland cities like Minneapolis and Denver, with more weather extremes, need more fuel for heat in the winter and electricity for air conditioning in summer. But Vancouver has also made a lot of smart public policy choices. Even as the Canadian national government backslides on environmental protection, Canada’s more liberal localities are making progress. Ontario banned coal-fired electricity this year. Vancouver has been committed to sustainability, and creating policies to advance that goal, for several decades. Mayor Gregor Robertson keeps raising the bar on his predecessor’s successes. He developed the comprehensive “Greenest City 2020 Action Plan,” which lays down benchmarks that each sector of the city’s government must achieve. According to environmental advocates, the city has pursued three main agendas that account for its success: 1. Offering transportation alternatives. Vancouverites are eager to ditch their cars, and the city is trying to help them do so. In 2010 Vancouver started building separated bicycle lanes and it is launching a bikeshare system this year. “Continuing to shift people out of cars to walking, biking, and transit is crucial,” said Mayor Robertson in a phone interview with Grist. Robertson boasts that Vancouver has reached 44 percent of its trips being made without a car. That’s the third-highest percentage in North America, after New York City and Washington, D.C. His administration has also encouraged carsharing, which helps reduce car ownership and total driving, with free dedicated parking spaces for the Car2Go car-sharing service. Winston WongVancouver’s Mayor Gregor Robertson, IRL.Even as the city grows, its number of car trips decreases. That means its drops are even more impressive when adjusted for population. “In the past decade, the population in Vancouver has increased 18 percent, the number of jobs has gone up 16 percent, while vehicles entering downtown have decreased by 20 percent,” notes Bruce. The proportion of all trips taken into and within Vancouver by car have each dropped around 5 percent during the same timeframe. “It’s not based on breakthrough technology,” Bruce explains, “just planning decisions to invest in transit, bike, and walking infrastructure.” “Vancouverites have chosen to shift out of cars for 20 years in a row now,” says Robertson. The city’s average decline in car mode share is 1 percent per year. In addition to pedestrian and bike safety, Robertson is trying to expand mass transit. But without sufficient investment at the provincial and federal level, the biggest projects may not be completed. Right now, Roberston is lobbying Ottawa for help building a $3 billion subway line that would go to the University of British Columbia (UBC) and unclog traffic on Broadway, a major road through the city. 2. Density, building codes, and transit-oriented development. Walk around downtown Vancouver and you’ll see a lot of skyscrapers. But unlike the downtowns of many big cities, these aren’t all just office buildings. Vancouver has encouraged building housing upwards in its downtown and along transit corridors. This manages the population growth so that most new residents are living in dense, walkable, transit-accessible environments. Denser buildings also tend to be more energy-efficient. “Vancouver has been designed around the notion of building complete communities,” says Bruce. Shopping, housing, office space, parks, and public amenities are all found in the same neighborhoods, especially downtown. “A lot of downtown cores are ghost towns after businesses close at 5 p.m.,” adds Bruce. “Vancouver has tried to redesign the downtown and build enjoyable places. That has made public transit more efficient and a better investment — with more people living in the downtown core it made more sense to invest in things like mass transit.” Or, as Robertson concisely puts it: “We’ve battled hard against suburban sprawl.” All that development has its environmental challenges. “A lot of the new development is in high-rise condos. Their actual energy performance does not look like it’s as good as anticipated,” notes Ellen Pond, senior policy advisor at the Pembina Institute, a Canadian environmental think tank. Buildings are the largest source of Vancouver’s emissions. And while density is preferable to sprawl, luxury high-rises encased in glass are not necessarily more efficient than, say, compact low-rise brick apartment buildings or townhomes. “The modeled energy performance and actual performance can be quite different,” Pond explains. “For example, sometimes there is no thermal barrier between an apartment’s concrete balconies and the floor inside. So, basically you’re building a building with fans that transmit energy in or out.” That can make it colder in winter and hotter and summer, and thus less energy-efficient. The city is working on these issues. Last fall the city council adopted amendments to the city’s building code requiring all new large buildings to be designed to meet strict energy standards and use 20 percent less energy – below 2007 benchmarks – by 2020. Pond says she expects these new regulations to help make future high-rises more efficient. 3. Clean, productive waste management. Trucking garbage to landfills uses energy. Burning garbage may be even worse. Vancouver also tries to make efficient use of its waste. “Our waste goal of diverting waste away from landfills and incinerators is crucial,” says Robertson. The city has introduced compost pick-up for single family homes and is now working on doing the same for multi-unit buildings. “Vancouver has a really aggressive waste management strategy to divert organics from the waste stream,” says Pond. Food waste and yard waste go to a large composting facility. The city’s compost materials are then sold to gardeners. Vancouver even makes use out of leaky gas (although not the kind that comes out when you’ve eaten a burrito). The city captures methane at the landfill and use it to heat greenhouses. They even take the warmth that naturally accumulates in sewers and use it to heat homes. The biggest problem with Vancouver is that this high quality of life attracts too many people. Last year, The Economist ranked Vancouver the most expensive city in North America [sub req]. Robertson argues that his environmental initiatives also make it less expensive. “Greening a city makes it more affordable,” says Robertson. “You have more affordable transportation, with walking, biking, and transit. Healthier buildings burn less fuel. You get more success by investing in a green city — both [in] quality of life and affordability.” Certainly, Vancouver’s high cost of living is a byproduct of its success. If local governments elsewhere were smart — never a safe assumption — they will seek to emulate it. Robertson is also working on climate adaption, as any responsible mayor must these days. Vancouver, like so many coastal cities, is experiencing adverse effects from climate change and CO2 emissions, and could face much worse problems if CO2 pollution continues unchecked. The city’s harbor has become increasingly acidic due to CO2 pollution, and that may be why its shellfish are dying in droves. Vancouver has adopted a Climate Change Adaptation Plan, which is leading to policies such as flood-proof building regulations and developing plans to deal with extreme heat. And that illustrates the most daunting fact of all: While Vancouver is doing great comparatively, it still needs to do more if it is to meet the generally accepted goal of an 80-percent reduction in greenhouse emissions from 1990 levels by 2050. While environmentalists have almost nothing but praise for Vancouver’s existing policies, they want to see the city go farther, faster. “The greenhouse gas emission targets need to be more ambitious than they are today,” says Stephanie Goodwin, Greenpeace’s director for British Columbia. Vancouver may not even meet its own goals. “We’re less than halfway to our emissions targets,” says Goodwin. “They want to reduce emissions by 33 percent from 2007 by 2020. They’ve made less than a 10 percent reduction so far. How far will the city really get over the next 6 years? I have hope but whether they’ll get from single digit reductions up to 33 percent? I’m sitting on pins and needles waiting for that.” Goodwin notes that while the city is following its roadmap to make its buildings carbon neutral by 2020, it is not yet on pace to get there. And so Vancouver’s status as a global warming mitigation leader is both encouraging and discouraging, depending on how you look at it. It shows how much can be done with the strongest political will and the boldest leadership – but is also uncovers a concerted strategy’s limits. At the end of the day, even most liberal Vancouverites don’t want to stop heating their homes or using electricity, and all that energy has to come from somewhere. Says Goodwin of the Vancouver government, “They’ve achieved what’s politically feasible, not what’s ecologically necessary.”Filed under: Article, Cities, Climate & Energy

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Alexander Downer will be Australias next high commissioner to the UK

Former South Australian Labor premier Mike Rann will be shifted from London to Rome to make way for DownerFormer Liberal foreign affairs minister Alexander Downer has been confirmed as the next high commissioner to the UK.The foreign affairs minister, Julie Bishop, said former South Australian Labor premier Mike Rann would be shifted from London to Rome to make way for Downer.

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Republican presidential hopefuls woo billionaire casino tycoon

<!– google_ad_section_start –> Three Republican governors eyeing the White House, including New Jersey’s embattled Chris Christie, have attempted to court Sheldon Adelson, a billionaire casino owner who could give any of their eventual campaigns a major financial boost. <!– google_ad_section_end –>

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Warmer temperatures can lead to warmer tempers, UN report to say

Top scientists are saying that climate change will complicate and worsen existing global security problems

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Republican governors Chris Christie and Scott Walker court Jewish donors

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Big hitters stress Israel backing to Republican Jewish Coalition Billionaire Sheldon Adelson donated more than $90m in 2012 Two of the highest-profile Republican state governors on Saturday called for more aggressive leadership on America’s challenges abroad, emphasising their support for Israel as they courted powerful Jewish donors.New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker also stoked speculation about their own presidential ambitions as they discussed how to reclaim the White House in 2016.

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Pop Culture Parenthood: Ron Suskind on How Disney Films Helped His Autistic Son

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In 1993, Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Ron Suskind moved to Washington, DC with his wife Cornelia and sons Walter, 5, and Owen, 2, to embark on his career as a national affairs reporter for the Wall Street Journal. Soon after the move, Owen stopped speaking. Distant and agitated — he would … More »

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Ukraine’s ‘Chocolate King’ could edge new-look Yulia for president

Petro Poroshenko, a 48-year-old billionaire, emerges as leadership favourite

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More than 100,000 protesters rally in Taiwan against trade pact with China

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Protesters say deal was rushed through and could leave Taiwan beholden to China’s Communist party leadersMore than 100,000 protesters took to the streets of Taiwan’s capital on Sunday as a two-week-long campaign against a trade pact with China gathered steam, piling further pressure on the island’s leader.The rally in Taipei where many were dressed in black and some clutched sunflowers to symbolise hope was one of the largest in recent years in Taiwan, an island that split from China over six decades ago after a civil war.

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