Noelle Swan

Archive for the ‘Climate Change’ Category

The Costs of Coal

In Climate Change, Healthcare on August 5, 2013 at 11:55 am

This article first was published by Spare Change News on August 9, 2013.

coalCamilo Viviero grew up in Somerset, Mass., in the shadow of two coal-fired power plants. “For years growing up, you would hear around midnight this air horn. That’s when they would send out the plumes of toxins. In the middle of the night, while we were sleeping,” he says.

One of those plants was decommissioned in 2007. The second plant, Brayton Point Power Station, still provides electricity to over a million homes in Mass. Last month, protesters from area environmental organizations rallied in front of Brayton Point as part of a series of protests across the nation by the environmental advocacy group 350.org. [Editor’s note: See “Turning Up the Heat on Coal Power in Massachusetts,” on page 8 of his issue, for more about this protest.]

At a fundraiser in Cambridge held a week before the protest, seasoned activist and 350.org founder Bill McKibben made the global case for reducing fossil fuel emissions.

“The science is troubling in the extreme. Last year was the hottest year on record in the United States, and we just came through the second hottest June in the history of the planet. . . . Things continue to fall apart,” McKibben told a crowd of around 150 activists gathered at the First Parish Cambridge Unitarian-Universalist Church.

For Viviero and other residents living in communities at the foot of coal-fired power plants, the issue is personal.

When Viviero watches his nieces pause during a soccer game to use their rescue inhalers, he wonders if pollution from the power plants could have caused or exacerbated their asthma. As a child, he knew several children with leukemia and heard adults speculate that the town could be part of a cancer cluster. Every time he hears of a neighbor suffering from a stroke or a heart attack, he wonders if the plants could be to blame.

Many residents in communities around Holyoke and the 50-year-old Mount Tom Power Station are asking the same questions, says Claire Miller, a community organizer for Toxic Action Center, a grassroots environmental justice advocacy organization.

Asthma rates in Holyoke are nearly twice the state average, according to the Asthma Regional Council’s 2009 assessment of the state’s asthma burden commissioned by the Governor Deval Patrick’s administration.

“We have to close down these power plants, not just because of climate change, which is roaring down on us, but because people are sick today,” Miller said.

While there is no conclusive evidence that power plant pollution directly causes asthma, there is robust evidence that it exacerbates the disease, says Jonathan Levy, an environmental health professor at Boston University with expertise in air pollution from power generation.

“If you have asthma, you are more likely to suffer from an acute attack or to be hospitalized if exposed to pollutants emitted by coal-fired power plants,” he said.

There is also a definitive link between cardiovascular disease and risk of heart attacks, he said.

The combustion of coal produces a variety of air pollutants that can be harmful to human health. Nitrogen oxides (NOx) react with molecules in the air to create atmospheric ozone, which can burn lung tissue and cause respiratory problems. Sulfur oxides (SOx) contribute to the formation of fine acidic particulates that can penetrate the lining of the lungs and absorb into the bloodstream. Particles of soot or “fly ash” can lead to chronic bronchitis. Heavy metal particles can cause brain damage and heart problems.

State and federal legislators have imposed regulations on the power industry to upgrade facilities in ways that will reduce these emissions.

The media office for Dominion Energy, which currently owns the Brayto Point Power Station, issued a public statement in response to last month’s protest. “The Brayton Point Power Station—capable of powering up to 1.6 million homes—is one of the cleanest electricity generators of its kind and is in compliance with all environmental regulations. More that $1 billion has been invested in recent years to reduce its impact on the air and water significantly.”

However, incremental improvements are little consolation to Viviero and his neighbors.

“There have been scrubbers added and pollutants have decreased, but the more insidious forms of pollution, the small particulate matter still exists. There is still soot . . . . There are still toxins seeping out that are getting into our children’s lungs and into our senior citizens’ lungs,” he said.

Levy agrees that upgrades to existing plants can only bring a degree of improvement. While he acknowledges that emissions have gone down at Brayton Point, he points out that the facility is still the highest-emitting power plant in New England.

Just a few years ago, there were four coal-fired power plants in the commonwealth: Brayton Point Power Station and Somerset Power Generating Station in Somerset, Mount Tom Power Station in Holyoke, and Salem Harbor Power Station. Somerset closed in 2010 to avoid costly upgrades required by state and federal regulations. Salem Harbor is scheduled to close in 2014.

While residents and environmentalists in the communities surrounding Salem harbor are celebrating the closing of the plant, the town of Salem is left scrambling to make up the loss of its largest taxpayer, reports Salem Patch.

Power plants are often situated in low-income and minority communities where jobs are scarce and the tax base is small.

When both Somerset plants were operational, they provided the town with 40 percent of its tax base. However, the closing of the Somerset Power station three and a half years ago and a recent devaluation of Brayton Point have led to a $14 million reduction of in-tax revenue, according to The Spectator, a local newspaper serving Somerset and Swansea. This year, the town increased residential and business property taxes by 20 percent to make up some of the revenue loss.

“The owners of these facilities have a spin and they tell people to blame environmentalists,” Viviero said, but he believes that the issue is far more complicated than that.

Many residents of Somerset, including Viviero’s family, are immigrants from the Azores. His mother worked in the garment industry and his father worked in construction. While the textile industry once thrived in the area, the mills shut down decades ago.

Many people in Somerset and the surrounding communities depend on Brayton Point for employment.

This article first was published by Spare Change News on August 9, 2013.

coal“These are some of the only jobs in the area. They are union and good-paying jobs,” Viviero said. “But the jobs that are here are polluting our families and bringing toxins into our homes.”

Viviero sees this as an issue of environmental injustice; the pollution is disproportionately distributed to low-income and minority communities.

Last fall, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) issued Brayton Point a failing report card for environmental justice, ranking the plant fourteenth out of the 75 most egregious offenders.

Low-income and minority communities also tend to be more susceptible to resulting health risks, says Levy.

“Low income communities and communities of color tend to have higher rates of diabetes, asthma and things that make you more susceptible. People in these communities will feel greater health effects [from pollution],” Levy said.

Climate Change: The Latest Tax on the Poor

In Civil Rights, Climate Change, Food Security, Poverty, Social Issues on October 19, 2012 at 9:29 am

This article first was published in print and online by Spare Change News on October 19, 2012.

Photo Credit: 350.org, Nancy Battaglia

“Poor people are not something that we talk about too much or pay much attention to in our world,” Bill McKibben said, sipping a glass of sparkling water to nurse a throat hoarse from a weekend of meetings and rallies.

McKibben knows something about poverty. In the early 1980s he helped to start a 15-bed homeless shelter at The Riverside Church on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. He spent several months living in the shelter system himself and wrote about his experiences for The New Yorker in hopes of shocking the public into action.

In recent years he stepped out from behind the reporter’s role as an observer and became a leading participant in what he calls the greatest battle the world has ever seen, the fight to halt climate change.

“There’s nothing we’ve figured out how to do that makes life harder for the poorest people on this planet than climate change, and the great irony is that those people have had nothing to do with creating the problem,” McKibben said, hunched over in a rattan chair before a fundraiser at a private home in Newton.

He draws a contrast between the industrialized countries that produce the greenhouse gasses linked to climate change and the developing countries that suffer the effects.

Rapidly industrializing China contributes more carbon dioxide than any other country, largely because of its population size. With less than a quarter of China’s population, the United States comes in a close second with more carbon emissions than India, Russia, and Japan combined. Americans contribute more carbon dioxide per capita to the atmosphere than most people on the planet, second only to Australians.

The developing world has experienced the first effects of climate change, McKibben said, citing outbreaks of dengue fever linked to increasing flooding in Bangladesh, diminished glacial water supplies in Peru, and territorial loss due to sea level rise in the island nation of Maldives. Those countries rank 55th, 61st, and 161st in carbon emissions.

He adds that this years’ widespread drought in the United States, which he attributes to climate change and has led to a 50 percent increase in the global price of corn, has directly affected poor families around the world.

Later, leaning casually against a wall, with hands thrust deep into his pockets and sneaker-clad feet crossed at the ankles, he addressed a small crowd of about 50 environmental activists, professors, and potential donors.

“All over the world, there are people that right now are scrambling around to find enough coins to buy enough corn meal to make dinner for their families tonight,” he told group crowded into the living room and perched on couches, radiators, and the floor.

While the scientific community debates what role climate change may or may not have played in the recent drought, a consensus among climatologists are clear that climate change certainly will bring more extreme weather conditions such as drought in years to come.

McKibben has been warning of the dangers of climate change since he published his first book, The End of Nature, in 1989. He worries that time is running out. Small changes in lifestyle such installing energy-efficient light bulbs and toting reusable bags to the grocery store will not be sufficient to halt or even slow climate change, he said.

McKibben aims to take on oil and gas giants where they will feel it, by going after their stockholders.

His latest campaign calls on universities, institutions, and churches to sell their stock holdings in fossil fuel companies, in a collaboration among 350.org, 350 Massachusetts, and The Better Future Project, an environmental advocacy group that seeks a transition to renewable energy.

McKibben scoffs at the idea that Americans are addicted to fossil fuels and suggests that the average American would be just as happy to use energy derived from the sun and the wind as from oil, gas, and coal.

Instead, he charges that the fossil fuel industry is addicted to huge profits, which it has invested in lobbying against policies favoring a shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy.

“They intimidate everybody in Washington. The fossil fuel industry is spending more money on this election than anybody else. Nobody dares offend them and as a result the planet is silently melting,” he said quietly as guests fist started to arrive.

Trying to get politicians to listen to concerns about climate change is like waiting on hold for customer service, he later half-joked with the crowd. Listening to the music for 20 minutes is one thing, he said, but after 20 years, it is time to hang up the phone.

McKibben and 350.org earned a temporary victory in Washington last year after staging one of the largest acts of civil disobedience in the nation’s history. Police arrested more than 1,200 people surrounding the White House during a 15-day-long protest of Keystone XL, an oil pipeline designed to carry oil drained from the Canadian Tar Sands in Alberta to Texas refineries.

President Barack Obama backed off of the project soon after, and The Boston Globe declared McKibben “the man who crushed Keystone XL.” However, both before the event and while addressing the crowd, McKibben voiced suspicion that once the election is out of the way, the President, either Obama or Romney, will push forward with the project.

“We are not going to stop global warming one pipeline at a time. There’s just too many oil wells and coal mines and pipelines.” Later he added, “We’re going to have to [attack] more at the center of the whole problem, which is the fossil fuel industry.”

This November, starting the day after the election, McKibben and his supporters will board a bus in Seattle and begin a nationwide tour of 25 cities in 25 days, designed to bring public attention and pressure to his call to universities, churches, and institutions to unload their holdings in fossil fuel companies.

McKibben modeled his new campaign after the campaigns of the 1980s that called on organizations to divest from corporations supporting the apartheid government in South Africa. The movement was not widely successful in getting organizations to participate in divestiture, he noted. “But it was everywhere successful in bringing the issue straight to the heart of the discussion,” he added, pointing out that more than 200 colleges and churches around the country did change their investment practices.

McKibben reminded the group that the first calls for divestment from the apartheid regime came from the United Nations in the 1960s. It took more than 20 years for that action to gain sustained momentum. He worries that this time, the world might not have that long.

“If we don’t do this relatively quickly, in fact quite quickly, then it’s not worth doing, because there won’t be the intact planet to deal with,” he said.

UD researcher explores potential impact of new ice island breaking off Greenland

In Climate Change on July 25, 2012 at 6:06 pm

This article first was published by DFM News on July 25, 2012.

A floating ice island, twice the size of Manhattan, broke off of Petermann’s Glacier last week. The glacier, a giant ice pack, connects Greenland’s ice sheet to the Arctic Ocean. According to University of Delaware researcher Andreas Muenchow, this most recent event could be literally just the tip of the iceberg, a warning sign that the rate at which the Greenland ice sheet discharges freshwater into the Arctic Ocean is accelerating and potentially driving a global rise in sea level.“This ice island looks dramatic, but the larger story will evolve over 10 years,” says Muenchow, an assistant professor of physical ocean science and engineering.

Muenchow is conducting a multi-year study of freshwater discharge into the Arctic Ocean in collaboration with Canadian researchers and the U.S. and Canadian coast guards. Next week, Muenchow will collect instruments that he hopes lie waiting at the bottom of Nares Strait, where he and his fellow researchers deposited them in 2009 to record basic information about salinity, temperature, currents, and pressure. In 2010, another giant ice island, this one four times the size of Manhattan, broke off in the same area of Petermann’s Glacier. This 2010 ice island purportedly floated directly above these instruments which could be a blessing or a curse; his instruments could either be ruined or contain bonus data about the passing ice island.

When he heard about the new ice island last week, Muenchow downloaded the raw data from a NASA database and processed the imagery. As the world started to ask questions about the Arctic Ocean’s newest ice island, his Canadian colleagues found themselves tangled in a controversial gag order requiring all Canadian scientists to sift through red tape before speaking with the press and leaving the UD professor to field the press.

Most Americans are familiar with the photos of Alaska’s majestic cliff glacier formations, which tower above the sea, routinely shedding chunks of ice into Glacier Bay, Muenchow explains. However, this latest ice island broke away from a different kind of glacier, a sheet of ice that stretches out flat and thin across the surface of the ocean, closer to the frozen surface of a pond than a solid mountain of ice. At 656,000 square miles, the Greenland ice sheet is the second largest expanse of ice in the world, second only to the Arctic ice sheet.

Glaciers flow continuously. Their speed is well … glacial, so humans can’t see it happening. The effects are visible, however, as pieces of ice continually break off into the sea in a process known as “calving.” Muenchow worries that the combined girth of the 2010 and 2012 calvings could signal major changes in the overall ice sheet.

“Breaking off is perfectly normal to us in a state where nothing is changing. That’s happening all around Antarctica. Because these masses of ice are so huge and they reflect what is happening all over Greenland in some way, they have an impact.”

Researchers may not fully understand that impact for years to come, Muenchow adds. While chunks of ice that tumble from cliffs and splash in the waters below add volume to the sea and immediately affect sea level, Greenland’s ice sheet adds volume continually as it expands and the edges melt into the sea. Melt-off accounts for far more glacier loss than even ice islands of this size. While some melt-off is typical every summer, NASA satellite imagery released this week indicates that this month melt-off has reached unprecedented levels.

The size of this ice island and the one that broke off in 2010, the likes of which Muenchow says have not been observed in the last 100 to 150 years, raise additional concerns. A delicate balance keeps a glacier glued to the layer of bedrock below. Ice, rock, and sea meet at what is called the hinge line. In Antarctica, researchers have seen hinge lines move over time, resulting in a thinner, potentially less stable ice sheet behind it. “We don’t know what it takes to move that hinge line. Nobody knows,” Muenchow says, adding that in general the physics are poorly understood.

The advent of these giant ice islands combined with rapid melting have left researchers scrambling to understand what this means for global climate. Greenland has been long considered a canary in the coal mine for global climate change. Only time will tell how drastic changes seen this summer affect the rest of the world.