Dateline Earth takes the broad view of what’s going on environmentally. Yes, we live in western North America. But we’re all over the map when it comes to the story of the century: climate change and, more broadly, the environment’s effect on all of our lives.
Editors Note: Kenyan Environmentalist Wagari Maathai, who received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004, died Sept. 26.
By John Mbaria
Special to InvestigateWest
I personally knew Professor Wagari Maathai, long before the world had fully acknowledged her struggles.
I was in university when she took on the Kanu Government for attempting to put up a 60-storey private building in Uhuru Park, the biggest public park. And even though matters environment had not engulfed my inner man, I was fascinated that an ‘ordinary soul’ had dared to go against the wishes of baba na mama (euphemism for the then mighty Kanu Party). Few of us at the University of Nairobi were dedicated to any cause. Although we would find immense excitement as we ganged up to stage riots over issues we thought were important, hardly did environmental issues in general or Wangari Maathai’s causes in particular, feature in our struggles.
Our lives’ journeys were to come to a confluence when I became an environmental reporter with The EastAfrican and later a columnist with Daily Nation. This wasin the early 2000s. Around the time, the regime of the former President Daniel Moi had stubbornly refused to see the sense in sparing the last of the country’s ecosystems. At the time, the ruling party’s intransigence had become legendary. And to crown its folly, the regime came up with one devious anti-environment scheme after another. If it was not the decimation of Karura forest, it was Ngong Forest, if not Ngong, it was Mount Kenya forests, Marmanet, Sirimoni, Kaptagat, Maasai Mau and so on ad nauseum.
Our recent collaboration with KCTS Channel 9 on worrisome air pollution levels in south Seattle looked hard at the role played by the 1,800 to 2,000 truck trips that do business at the Port of Seattle on an average workday.Today the Seattle Port Commission deals directly with the air-pollution controversy we covered. Staff members are scheduled to brief the commission on the agency’s air-pollution-reduction programs.The background: the Port Commission failed on complicated but essentially 3-2 votes in December 2010 to speed up the air-pollution cleanup process and to support federal legislation giving ports more authority to regulate the trucks. Seattle City Council members Nick Licata and Mike O’Brien, along with state Rep. Dave Upthegrove, asked the commission to go the other way. Commissioner Gael Tarleton appears to have been the swing vote.*But in January of this year the commission, on a motion by Tarleton, agreed 5-0 to ask its staff to look into what might be done to clean up port-related air pollution sooner, citing “an urgent need to address the public health risks of poor air quality caused by expanding container (ship) traffic, the continued strength of cruise ship visits, and the associated growth in port trucking…”
Have you ever had to wait for a train at, say, Broad Street in Seattle, right by the SAM Sculpture Park? Or anyplace else along the Burlington Northern Santa Fe tracks that hug the coast of Puget Sound?Imagine roughly doubling the train traffic on that railroad. Imagine further that each of these new trains is a mile and a half long. That’s a lot of waiting at railroad crossings.But critics of the Gateway Pacific Terminal – the proposed coal-exporting port near Bellingham that would service those very long trains full of coal – say that’s only the first of many impacts on communities and the environment because of the terminal’s overall purpose: sending up to 48 million tons of coal to China every year.Topping the list of environmental impacts is climate change. The Chinese would burn a *lot* of coal, the most climate-unfriendly of the major energy sources. Plus there are the greenhouse gases emitted bringing the coal here from the Power River Basin in Montana and Wyoming. And – oh, yeah –air pollution created in China can find its way to our shores in just a week and a half.On the other hand, you may have noticed that financially, many of our neighbors are hurting. The proposed coal-exporting terminal west of Ferndale would mean hundreds of jobs – those “family-wage” jobs that are increasingly hard to find in Western Washington. The naturally deep port at Cherry Point would not need to be dredged, proponents of the terminal point out. And the Powder River coal is low-sulfur, meaning it creates less lung-attacking pollution when burned than the higher-sulfur coal the Chinese might obtain from elsewhere.
There’s an urgent need – recognized by leaders of such venerable corporate giants as Xerox, GE and Lockheed Martin – for the American government to inject a lot of cash in a big hurry into alternative energy research, Microsoft founder Bill Gates told 1,200 climate activists and business people in Seattle on Tuesday.To head off climate catastrophe, “the innovation piece is so important,” Gates said at a fundraising breakfast for the Seattle-based non-profit Climate Solutions. “The lip service that has been paid to energy innovation over the last few decades is disappointing.”Gates and others from the upper echelons of the corporate world banded together as the American Energy Innovation Council and pushed hard for a boost in federal energy research spending from $5 billion to $16 billion annually.“President Obama did see us. He said nice things, and I think he meant them,” Gates joked during an on-stage interview by Jabe Blumenthal, a former Microsoft executive who is co-president of Climate Solutions.Nevertheless, the CEOs’ bid ultimately was shot down. Gates said that at a less dire time financially, it’s likely the group would have succeeded, and that the executives must keep trying.Gates advocated research into many different energy sources, including nuclear, solar and wind power, that do not produce the gases scientists say are unnaturally heating the earth’s atmosphere, chiefly carbon dioxide. Many research projects won’t get very far but lots of them should be tried, said Gates, who is known widely for his philanthropy as well as his success at Redmond-based Microsoft.
Please join InvestigateWest, the Washington Policy Center and Sightline Institute for an informative conversation about stormwater, the biggest threat to clean water in the Pacific Northwest. It’s next Wednesday, March 23, from Noon to 1:15 p.m., Conference room B/C, John Cherberg Building, Capitol Campus, Olympia.According to state officials, stormwater pollution is the top threat to the health of Puget Sound. Over the last several years Washington lawmakers have considered various measures to protect Puget Sound, including proposals to increase taxes or put fees on chemicals, such as oil and grease, to pay for projects to clean up stormwater. But with local and state budgets stretched to the breaking point, what actions can be taken to deal with this problem? What can be done about polluted runoff that will help the environment, but won’t hamper the economy Now is the time to have this discussion. The Department of Ecology is drafting regulations to require a more widespread use of “green” stormwater solutions and the Puget Sound Partnership (PSP) is receiving public comments on its draft Strategic Science Plan, which will be used by the future Legislatures.Format: Panel discussion/Q-and-A followed by moderator-led interaction with audience members.Bring your questions and suggestions!Featuring: – William Ruckelshaus, former two-time administrator, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and founding chair of the Puget Sound Partnership Leadership Council- Josh Baldi, special assistant to the director, Washington Department of Ecology- Grant Nelson, Association of Washington Business, Government RelationsPanel of questioners: – Brandon Houskeeper, Policy Analyst, Center for the Environment, Washington Policy Center, www.washingtonpolicy.org
CANCUN — As two weeks of United Nations climate talks wound down this weekend, negotiators emerged with a global agreement they predict will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by limiting deforestation in the developing world.
The deal, known as REDD, has held a leading role in UN deliberations since the end of last year’s talks in Copenhagen, but the details of the plan remain unsettled.Simply put, REDD would create a global market for selling and trading carbon credits, a practice which would allow corporations in the developed world—from hotel chains to those involved in practices that directly harm the environment—to continue their operations, so long as they pay for forest preservation and reforestation projects in the developing world.With the promise of money on the negotiating table, the UN timber proposal makes for an unlikely alliance between northern industrialists and those in the global south. A number of REDD-eligible projects are already underway.Just three hours south of Cancun sits the Mayan city of Felipe Carillo Puerto. Outside its crowded maze of buildings and cracked roads, locals have begun a reforestation project they hope will offer them the financial benefits currently promised by negotiators. The Mayans believe they earn $12 per ton of carbon they sequester. Their project, managed cooperatively in what is known as an ‘ejido,’ was given the name ‘Much’ Kanaan K’aax.’ The name is Mayan for ‘Together we take care of the forest.’ Roughly 240 locals oversee the effort to preserve and reforest over 3,300 acres.
EASTSOUND, ORCAS ISLAND – Everyone knows Washington’s budget crunch is going to be really severe come next spring. But it wasn’t until I heard state Sen. Kevin Ranker’s take on the situation the other day – complete with new numbers – that I realized how impossible it will be to realistically expect money for enhanced environmental protections in 2011.Addressing members of the volunteer but quasi-governmental Marine Resource Committees of north Puget Sound counties, the San Juan County Democrat laid out in stark terms why it will be so hard to cut $5 billion from a $31 billion state budget. That alone would represent a 16 percent reduction from an already-decimated budget. But it’s actually worse than it sounds. Much, much worse.Here’s why: Of that $31 billion, some $23 billion comes from categories that can’t really be reduced, Ranker said: debt service, Medicaid, prisons, pensions, transportation, the capital budget and the constitutionally protected state contribution to public education. (Now, the Sunday Seattle Times seemed to anticipate efforts to make some fairly substantial cuts there anyway. Ranker seemed to have access to newer and scarier numbers, though.)What does that leave? Three areas get the remaining $8 billion of the state budget: Higher education, government services and natural resources (a.k.a. environment). “Government services” sounds like a likely place to cut until you understand that it includes money for senior citizens, health care, the needy and so forth. So $5 billion – and it could grow to $5.2 billion, Ranker says – is supposed to be cut out of $8 billion for those three areas. Ugly, ugly, ugly.Said Ranker:
The U.S. Navy decided this week it would go ahead with underwater explosions and ear-piercing sonar in the Olympic National Marine Sanctuary despite protests by environmentalists the training exercises would hurt orcas and other imperiled marine creatures.Curiously, the decision has yet to prompt any news coverage that I can find. And yet we're at a crucial juncture because the National Marine Fisheries Services is finalizing its proposed conditions for allowing the Navy to go forward with beefed-up training efforts in its Northwest Training Range Complex.Earlier this month a bunch of environmental groups led by the Natural Resources Defense Council appealed to Northwestherner Jane Lubchenco, head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (and therefore NMFS), not to alllow the Navy to harm orcas, whales, and other marine creatures.Among their comments to Lubchenco:
In this regard, a 2008 NOAA report specifically identified both military activities and underwater noise pollution as two of several emerging threats to the Olympic Coast NMS. … In particular, it found that "an increase in Navy activity or areas of operation, if not properly controlled, could have potential to disturb the seabed, introduce pollutants associated with test systems, and produce sound energy that could negatively alter the acoustic environment within the sanctuary."
MISSOULA, MT – Only you can prevent forest fires from obliterating your house. This twist on the old advice of Smokey Bear* is what the U.S. Forest Service is telling homeowners nowadays. But the agency is having some trouble getting the word out.The Forest Service’s chief of firefighting, Tom Harbour, left his D.C. office and flew to Missoula to relay that message to reporters here for the annual conference of the Society of Environmental Journalists, which wrapped up today. Even with more than 10,000 federal firefighters ready to roll every fire season, the Forest Service simply can’t protect the throngs who have chosen to move into the woods in the last few decades, Harbour said.“When that fire is coming over the ridge at your house, it’s too late,” Harbour said. “From an ecological perspective and a social perspective, we only face two choices: We’re either going to act as a society, or we are going to get acted upon. … The choices we have made as a society have put us in this position.”Those choices include a century of suppressing fire in the woods, a policy kicked off by the more than 1,700 wind-fueled blazes that coalesced from eastern Washington to western Montana on Aug. 20-21, 1910. Next came the individual decisions by so many Americans to move into the woods over the last four decades. Many others moved to suburbs set amid fireprone grasslands or chaparral such as the acreage scorched annually by the Santa Ana winds in southern California.“It may be the most significant internal migration we’ve ever had,” Harbour said.Those folks living in the woods and fields are the ones Harbour and other fire scientists want to take action.
Nationally and internationally, John Arum was best known as the lawyer who won the Makah Indian Tribe the right to resume whaling, a case that brought him widespread obloquy from those who called themselves lovers of animals and the Earth. But as friends and acquaintances of the brilliant attorney gathered to celebrate his cut-short life over the weekend, it was impossible not to understand that John Arum was completely and utterly dedicated to caring for this planet and the creatures put here by our Creator.I had the good fortune to meet John on a few of his later cases. I was awed by his ability to completely immerse himself in a case, mastering the obscure details of timber harvesting and stream flow and biology and geology and all the other ologies. I could tell he was a genius. I always figured I’d get to know him better as the years went on. Instead, that knowledge came second-hand from Arum’s friends and family at a celebration of his life Saturday at the Daybreak Star Center in Seattle’s Discovery Park.The ceremony gave the several hundred present a look at an individual so much more remarkable than I had suspected – sure, a great lawyer. But also a consummate outdoorsman, a loving husband, a true friend, a devoted uncle. I wasn’t the only one learning. Even his widow, Susan Hormannn, said this of the outpouring in the weeks since her husband died in a mountain-climbing accident, “I have gotten a much broader perspective of him.”Wife. Law partner. Brother. Sister. Father-in-law. Clients. Friends. Climbing partners. Together they sketched a portrait of an incredibly skilled litigator, negotiator and mediator driven to preserve an environment worth handing down to future generations who was at once a master climber, hiker, biker, kayaker and birder – and who still found time to stay in touch with his family and friends here in Cascadia and across the continent in his native New York.
Consider that as the earth heats up, different parts of the world experienced as many as 398 outbreaks of different diseases over the last 10 years, and diseases typically confined to the tropics are on a consistent march to the more temperate lands, according to findings reported at the Global Health Conference held at the University of Washington this week.This poses significant risks to people in the United States and their counterparts in other countries in the West.Changes in climate are steadily gnawing into the earth’s ability to keep billions of people fed and their thirsts quenched, researchers reported. This is because rise in temperatures has led to a decline in the supply of billions of gallons of water needed to quench our thirst and keep crops watered. At the same time, the lowering in quality of air we breathe is adding its own load of serious ailments to an already disease-burdened world.Making the chilling presentation were five experts drawn from diverse academic backgrounds and institutions. As Kristie Ebi of Carnegie Institution for Science gave an overview on climate change and health, she delivered data which pointed to the fact that rate of climate change is now faster than it ever was over the last 10,000 years. On average, global temperatures have risen by more than one degree Fahrenheit (0.7 degrees C) since 1880s and that if this trend was to hold by 2025, as many as 1.8 billion people will be living in places without enough water for their needs.It appears that rising temperatures are encouraging the spread of such tropical diseases including malaria and dengue fever -a virus spread by mosquitoes. The World Health Organization estimates that each year as many as 150,000 deaths occur due to health complications created by global warming.