By Doug Struck
The growing support shown in Concord this week for its ban on the sale of bottled water is a lesson in how public policy works. Given the paralysis in Washington, Concord offers a needed reminder that the levers of democracy can achieve progress on the environmental front.
In 2012, the town of 17,000 voted in a Town Meeting to become the first municipality in the country to ban the sale of personal-sized plastic bottles of water. Proponents, who said the ubiquitous plastic bottles were an assault on the environment, won the ban by only 39 votes after a long battle involving two previous efforts, a skittish Board of Selectmen, an adverse opinion by the state attorney general, and vigorous opposition by bottle manufacturers.
The ban took effect January 1. In April, after a telephone solicitation campaign some said was financed by the water bottle manufacturers, the Town Meeting considered a move to repeal the ban, and rejected it by seven votes.
Wednesday night, opponents tried again to get rid of the law, perhaps figuring that residents would be tired of the issue and would not show up for the Town Meeting. But 1,127 registered voters packed the high school auditorium, cafeteria and gym, and sat for nearly three hours to vote on the bottle ban again. This time, the results were not even close: moderator Eric Van Loon called the vote by a show of hands with no objections, and the bottle ban was overwhelmingly upheld. (Full disclosure: I was in the crowd; I'm a resident.)
By Doug Struck
The first documented victim was a little girl, just shy of six. Bright and active, she suddenly had troubles walking. Her words spilled out, uncontrolled and disordered. Her body whipped about in convulsions. A few days later, her sister developed the same symptoms.
Soon others in the small Japanese town of Minamata were stumbling, jerking, careening, in the same strange way that the cats in town had been known to fall into the sea: “cat suicide,” the residents had called it.
Those cases in 1956 blossomed into one of the world’s most shameful environmental scandals. They, and eventually more than 2,200 others, were poisoned by the mercury pumped into the local bay by a plastics factory. The mercury accumulated in fish, then in the people (and cats) that ate the fish.
The company and the government in Japan denied the cause for years. Scientists now know the heavy metal accumulates in the body, sends the central nervous system into seizures and convulsions, impairs the brain, and eventually kills.
We have grown more suspicious of our food. But as our technological and industrial age has produced more toxins, and as we have turned more to the sea for food, sinister traces of mercury remain in our diet.
The Environmental Protection Agency last week provided some good news. An epidemiological study found blood mercury levels of women of childbearing age have dropped 34 percent over the last decade in this country. Those women, the report said, appear to be choosing to eat fish lower in mercury, such as salmon, pollock, catfish, shrimp, and canned light tuna.FULL ENTRY
By Doug Struck
The prospect of solar power here poses a question for armchair psychologists: on a very long trip, is it better to rejoice in the steps you’ve taken, or lament how far you have to go?
The steps so far are impressive. Massachusetts is in the midst of a gangbusters expansion of solar energy. The state had a little more than 3 megawatts of installed solar power just six years ago when Governor Deval Patrick set a goal of boosting that to 250 megawatts by 2017. In May, the state surpassed that goal -- four years early.
Massachusetts ranks seventh in the nation for installed solar capacity. It’s not California or Arizona, but not bad for our spot in a region more renowned for grey snow clouds than sunny days. With a Chinese-made glut of solar panels helping drive down prices, solar installation companies are enjoying the equivalent of a dot.com boom, and the state says the clean energy industry grew by 11 percent in 2012, outpacing the economy by tenfold.
By Doug Struck
A fungus attacking coffee trees in Latin America is the kind of unexpected consequence that accompanies climate change, and two New England institutions are trying to help farmers there cope.
The farmers have been hit hard by coffee leaf rust, called la roya in Spanish, a fungus roaring through the orchards in Central America and, to a lesser extent, Peru, Bolivia, and Columbia.FULL ENTRY
By Doug Struck
Some years ago, I was hitching a ride on the back of a snowmobile in the Arctic town of Pangnirtung, on Baffin Island, when I remarked that the seat was badly slashed.
Oh that, said Noah Metuq, the Inuit hunter who was taking me on a seal hunt. “Polar bear,” he explained. “He missed me.”
Metuq was a man of few words.
What brings this to mind was the report this week of a polar bear attack on two people in Churchill, Manitoba. A woman stepped out of her house early in the morning after Halloween and a young polar bear mauled her and a neighbor who rushed to help. The bear finally retreated when another neighbor drove at it with a pickup truck, according to a report in the Canadian Press.FULL ENTRY
By Doug Struck
Forget peak oil. It’s peak water we should worry about, says Lester R. Brown.
Brown, whose early warnings about the dangers of climate change and resource overuse have made him a respected elder of the environmental movement, focused on the looming water shortages while promoting his memoir, "Breaking New Ground: A Personal History," the latest of his 50-plus books. He spoke Friday at the Harvard University Center for the Environment.
His point: It’s not that we will run out of water to drink; it’s that we won’t have enough to grow the food to feed the world.
By Doug Struck
Eugenia Gibbons will bundle up her 15-month old daughter, Sylvie, on Monday for the child's first Washington protest: a “stroller brigade” of mothers and others unhappy about the chemicals that surround us.
The Revere woman and three others from Massachusetts will join parents and their children from 35 states, converging on the capital to lobby for better federal protections from toxic chemicals.
“It’s really important for our elected leaders to hear what their constituents want,” said Gibbons, 33. She works for the Environmental League of Massachusetts, but said she is donning her “mom hat” to go to Washington.
“When I became a mom it blew my mind to see how much we were exposing our children to chemicals in the food they eat, the clothes they wear… it’s just in stuff everywhere.”
The “stroller brigade” movement grew from 40 local protests around the country and arrived in Washington in May, 2012, to protest the failure of federal law to properly regulate the toxic chemicals that have become a part of our modern life. The campaigners will gather again Tuesday to hold a rally and then fan out to lobby their congressional representatives.
“The rate of so many illnesses and disorders linked to toxic chemicals is rising,” said Elizabeth Saunders, director of the Massachusetts Clean Water Action group, which is helping organize the stroller brigade. “One in eight women will get breast cancer in their lifetime. One in two men, and one in three women will get cancer. Asthma is the biggest reason for kids missing schools.”
Toxic chemicals in consumer goods and work places are suspect in many of these diseases. In 1976, the federal government passed the Toxic Substances Control Act, but it has succeeded in regulating only a small number of the chemicals used in products.
It is “a broken law,” said Lindsay Dahl, deputy director of a coalition of interest groups called Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families, which is organizing the Washington protest. She said demands for better regulation have grown rapidly as the public learns of the shortcomings of the existing law.
“The majority of the public assumes the EPA or the federal government is looking out for them on this issue. When they learn that is not happening, they are shocked,” she said by telephone from Washington.
The politics of the effort in Washington are delicate, however. The “stroller brigades” supported tougher legislation proposed by New Jersey Sen. Frank Lautenberg, who died in June. In May, he co-sponsored a new bill, called the Chemical Safety Improvement Act, in an attempted compromise.
The new bill would give the EPA power to take more action on chemicals, according to Rick Reibstein, a legal expert who teaches environmental law in the Sustainability and Environmental Management program at Harvard Extension School. But it also would undercut regulation in states that have more ambitious laws, such as Massachusetts and California. “These laws would be in danger of repeal,” he said.
“The bill falls short of adequately protecting people,” Dahl said. So the mothers in Washington will be lobbying for the intent of the legislation, but against the version of the bill that is now before the Senate.
“We think it is common sense,” she said. “Why would we not remove toxic chemicals that have been shown to be carcinogens from the products we have contact with every day?” Dahl said she believes Congress will support that effort as it hears from more of its constituents.
“We have seen an absolute groundswell on this issue. Five years ago, no one knew what bisphenol-A was,” she said, referring to the chemical found in plastic food containers—and the urine of most Americans. “Now, everyone knows BPA.”
Gibbons said she is taking a secret weapon to Washington—Sylvie. “She is super cute,” Gibbons said with the pride of a mother. “I look down at my child every day and say, ‘I have to do this for you, because you are going to inherit whatever we leave you.’”
On Tuesday, Oct. 22, the two candidates for mayor will sit with the Boston Globe's Derrick Jackson and former secretary for Commonwealth development, Doug Foy, in separate conversations on energy, the environment and the innovation economy.
TIME: 1 - 2:30 p.m.
WHERE: Old South Meeting House, 310 Washington Street, Boston
TICKETS: Are free but tickets are required: Visit bostongreenmayor2.eventbrite.com to register.
By Doug Struck
Environmentalists who believe the adage “money talks” are finding it difficult to disrupt that conversation, as protesters have found recently at both WGBH and Harvard.
Demonstrators marched on the public broadcast station WGBH Wednesday to present a petition demanding the ouster of coal-oil-and-gas billionaire David Koch from the station’s 32-member board of trustees. His deep-pockets contributions to groups disputing climate change make him unfit for the board of an educational television and radio broadcaster, the protesters contend.
Their protest was largely shrugged off. Koch did not resign. A spokesman for the station insisted that trustees “plan to make no changes,” and board chairman Amos Hostetter defended Koch, who has been on the board for 16 years, as an example of “diversity” on the board. He added, there is “no political litmus test” for board members.
The rebuff from Harvard was more blunt. Students have led a campaign to get the $32.7 billion endowment fund at Harvard, the largest of any university in the country, to divest of its stock in the fossil fuel energy producers. The campaign, spurred by superstar climate organizer Bill McKibben, has spread nationally, and even gotten a nod of encouragement from President Obama.
But Drew Faust, Harvard’s president, this month said Harvard has no intention of divesting. “I do not believe ... that university divestment from the fossil fuel industry is warranted or wise,” Faust said in an open letter. She said the university has a “strong presumption against divesting investment assets” for political reasons, such action could hurt research at the university, and Harvard's money should not be used as a “tool to inject the University into the political process.”
Those reactions indicate the difficulty faced by campaigns seeking to disrupt the big money connections to institutions. Koch, for example, has donated more than $18 million to WGBH and $10 million to its science show, NOVA. For a public television station, the threat of losing those kinds of contributions are alarming.
"WGBH trustees do not have a role overseeing any WGBH programming, and funders have no involvement over the editorial contents of programs," WGBH spokesman Michael Raia said. "Just as our viewers and listeners reflect a full spectrum of political and cultural views, so do our board members."
Still, “we think WGBH should look at the cost of this,” said Emily Southard, the campaign coordinator for Forecast the Facts, an activist organization that organized the campaign at WGBH. “David Koch has dedicated his life and tens of millions of dollars to misleading people about climate change. At the same time, he has tried to de-fund public broadcasting,” she said.
“The cost is really too high for Boston and for WGBH,” Southard said. “WGBH is a respected institution and we believe that they will see eventually it doesn’t make sense to have Koch on the board.”
The “eventually” may be key qualifier here. The model that such campaigners point to is the campaign from the mid-1970s to 1994 to persuade fund managers, colleges, cities, states, and countries to divest from South Africa because of its racial apartheid. That worked, but it took almost two decades.
“Apartheid was when the tactic of divestment proved its efficacy,” said Harvard sophomore Chloe Maxmin, one of the Divest Harvard campaigners. “But the apartheid campaign took 20 years to get 300 [separate] campaigns going. With divestment, it’s taken less than a year. The politicians are already listening.”
Neither movement says it will give up. Southard says the group plans to try to talk individually to WGBH board members to persuade them to oust Koch. The petition presented the station Thursday, which organizers said had 119,000 online signatures, may raise eyebrows at a public station that regularly appeals to listeners for donations.
And they note that earlier this year, Koch did resign from the board of WNET, a New York public broadcast station, following broadcast of a documentary critical of Koch and other rich powerbrokers.
On the campus of Harvard, Maxmin says, “we are going forward strong. It is unfortunate [Faust] is siding with the fossil fuel industries and not the students and faculty.” She said the group will ask the Harvard president to participate in an open debate on the issue. Krishna Dasaratha, who graduated from Harvard in May but is continuing to work on the issue from Stanford, predicts such efforts will not move with the glacial pace of past campaigns.
“The early indication is that the divestment movement is spreading a lot faster and picking up more early victories than the apartheid fight,” he said. “So there is reason to be optimistic. People understand that we are working on a very short timetable if we are to avoid the effects of climate change.”
John Wettlaufer, one of the world’s leading authorities on the physics of ice and its role in climate, will give a talk Thursday at 7 p.m. in the Aquarium’s Simons IMAX Theater as part of MIT's Lorenz Center's 3rd annual Carlson lecture.
The New England Aquarium is hosting a series of informative free lectures, films, and discussions for the community this fall.
Wettlaufer will talk about a “mathematically observatory” that focuses its telescopes on Arctic ice and climate.
Programs last about an hour with discussions afterward, and most are available on the Aquarium’s YouTube channel afterward. Pre-registration is encouraged on the Aquarium’s website or call 617-973-5200 for more information.
Dow Chemical and The Nature Conservancy will be awarded the 2013 Roy Family Award for Environmental Partnership at Harvard tonight (Oct. 7) for working together on a project that places a value on natural resources and using it to make business decisions.
The award, presented by the John F. Kennedy School of Government is given every two years to draw attention to an outstanding public-private partnership project that enhances environmental quality through novel and creative approaches.
In January 2011, Dow and TNC launched a five-year collaboration to promote valuing ecosystem services to ensure more sustainable business practices. The Dow-TNC work takes a science-based approach to help companies understand how to incorporate the value of nature into business decisions, according to a Harvard press release.
Since the launch, Dow and TNC have worked together to identify key ecosystem services that Dow relies upon as well as the environmental impacts priority for Dow manufacturing sites around the world.
The collaboration recently completed its first pilot at Dow’s facility in Freeport, Texas, the company’s largest manufacturing facility; and is currently in the midst of the second pilot in Santa Vitoria, Brazil. A major goal of this collaboration is to produce results and findings that are replicable and transferable to Dow’s other 135 sites.
“Valuing natural services is a critical step in protecting our environment – and one that should be replicated around the globe,” said Henry Lee, director of the Environment and Natural Resources program at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, in announcing the 2013 award winner.
Dow and TNC will take part in a panel discussion called “Valuing Nature: Saving Ecosystems is Good Business” at the Kennedy School tonight at 5:00 pm to describe their development of tools and models to integrate the value of forests, watersheds, and biodiversity into more sustainable business and community decisions.
By Doug Struck
Pat yourself on your insulation, Boston.
As Erin Ailworth reported on in the Globe recently, the city was ranked number one for energy efficiency, out of 34 big cities, by a group called the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy.
Eyes glazed already? Talk of energy efficiency does that to people. You can get a decent argument going, in the right circles, over whether we should rely on power from coal, or wind, or solar, or nuclear plants.
But the cheapest, easiest and best source of power is energy efficiency, a phrase that means using less energy to do the same work. Every kilowatt saved is a kilowatt that we don’t have to build a power plant to produce.
Yet people don’t pay attention, much less get excited, about it. It has often baffled the experts—they call it the ten-dollar-bill-on the-sidewalk puzzle. If you see a ten-dollar bill, would you stoop to pick it up? Sure. If you were offered an easy way to slice your electric bill by $10 a month, wouldn’t you? Many people don’t bother.
At least Boston is trying to get folks to pick up the money, according to the ACEEE. The group noted the city’s efforts to do things like requiring new buildings to meet stricter energy codes, promoting rooftop vegetation, pushing insulation and air-leak retrofitting of old buildings, developing smart metering to show one’s electricity use and promoting bicycling in the city. All of which save consumers money, of course.
Equally important, it can help slow climate change. One reason people don’t get excited by that connection is it is hard to see how saving a little bit of energy here and a little bit of energy there is going to make much of a difference.
But it does. In 2005, greenhouse gas emissions in the Northeast actually began to drop—a stunning reversal of expectations—and have continued to slide. Analysts scoffed that we did not have much to do with it; the drop came because cheaper and cleaner natural gas replaced coal, and when the recession hit in 2009, factories closed and business was curtailed.
But as the economy has eased and emissions have stayed low, analysts have re-parsed the data. They now believe a significant chunk of that reduction was due to energy efficiency acts that have cut back on our use of power.
“The recession was a factor, but not the driving factor” in reduced emissions, said Daniel Sosland, executive director of the non-profit research group Environment Northeast. His group calculates that energy efficiency has saved as much between 2001 and 2011 all the alternative sources of power combined. Some $500 million in transmission line construction has been cancelled because of the savings, Sosland said.
“When we really invest in energy efficiency, we get rid of dirty plants, and we do it in a way that saves consumers money, “ he said.
Too often, people confuse calls for energy efficiency as beckoning us all to shiver in cold homes and take 90-second showers. It’s really not about that. It’s about using energy smarter, in a less wasteful and less expensive way. Its about doing what we need—and what we want—while still using less energy. And picking up the ten-dollar bill.
By Doug Struck
Americans want more renewable power and less coal and oil - but not necessarily because they want to save the planet, according to Stephen Ansolabehere.
The Harvard professor of government, who has been studying polls on public opinion and energy choice for a decade, said the U.S. public’s energy preferences are a lot more personal and less global than renewable advocates often believe.
There is soot. And mercury. And other “co-pollutants” of coal and oil combustion-- all of which are important to a large portion of Americans who say they want to wean society from fossil fuels.
“When it’s a question of energy, what people care about is local, immediate pollution problems, not climate change,” Ansolabehere told an Energy Policy Seminar at the Harvard Kennedy School Monday.
“Regulating co-pollutants aggressively is, by far, the most popular. People really love mercury regulation. It’s across the board. People have been waiting for that regulation for a long time,” he said.
The differences may seem irrelevant to the bottom line of public support for renewables; “Americans want a different energy future. They want a lot more solar and wind, and a lot less coal and oil,” he said.
But the motivations for that opinion do make a difference in what policies get public support, according to Ansolabehere. For example, he said a reliable 45 to 55 percent of Americans support a cap-and-trade approach to regulating carbon, in which excessive greenhouse gas polluters would be able to buy emission allowances from more efficient industries. But a larger 75 to 80 percent of Americans prefer a straight regulation limiting carbon emissions, even though economists argue the cap and trade gives more leeway to business and involves less control by government.
That may be because residents living near polluting power plants or factories want the other pollutants curbed as well, and they are not sure a cap-and-trade would do that.
Environmentalists should take that lesson when they advocate for policies on the argument that it will help reduce climate change, he noted.
“You’re not going to get public support for a climate policy” without considering local pollution, he said. “You can’t win on climate policy alone right now. You have to sell it in terms of those other things.” Some support for renewables comes from a mistaken impression they will be much less costly than fossil fuels, he added. But he acknowledged that “most of us don’t know where our power comes from.”
Ansolabehere said ten years ago when he became involved with regular MIT/Harvard energy surveys, oil was the public’s most preferred energy fuel. Now it is the least.
State Sen. Mike Barrett, who has pushed for a tax on carbon, was at the forum and said Ansolabehere’s conclusions point to a tough sell in Massachusetts. The Lexington Democrat said with only a few coal-burning power plants and reasonably clean air in the state, it may be difficult to convince voters to oppose carbon dioxide emissions just to reduce climate change.
“Ultimately,” he said, “we will all have to accept a personal responsibility for climate change.”
By Evan J. Berkowitz
For years, preventing tick-borne diseases has focused on three angles: Protect yourself, protect your yard and protect your pets. This includes tick checks, proper clothing, and land management. Now, work is being done to deal with deer that are key hosts to the parasites that feed on people.
Some have suggested killing the deer outright, depriving the ticks of living space and transport. But Larry Dapsis, an entomologist with Cape Cod Cooperative Extension, is testing a different concept, “turning Bambi into Rambo.”
It's done through a device known as a four-poster station.
The stations were developed by the US Department of Agriculture for use against cattle fever ticks, and are now being used to fight deer ticks. In practice, a station is essentially a feeder that dispenses corn. As deer eat the corn, the animal’s neck and chin rub up against posts that resemble paint rollers. The rollers are treated with permethrin, an insecticide.
Dapsis explains, “As the ticks crawl up towards the deer’s head, the permethrin on the fur will kill the ticks before they get a chance to feed.” Deer ticks can carry the organism that causes Lyme Disease, as well as Babesiosis and Anaplasmosis, all of which are on the increase. A fourth new deer tick pathogen was also recently discovered.
Stations cost about $600, plus maintenance costs for corn and permethrin. The manufacturer recommends one station per 50 acres of land, a significant investment. The study, funded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, aims to evaluate whether a station density of 1 per 150 acres can reduce tick populations and reduce program costs.
Forty-nine stations, including seven controls, have been maintained on the Cape & Islands for the past four years. Tick populations have been measured at treated and untreated sites to evaluate performance.
Nymph stage ticks are counted at the fourteen sites by running a sort of “flag” along the ground near where the Four Posters will be. The nymphs automatically latch on to the flag and are counted. Through the fall, the stations do their work, hopefully diminishing the next year’s tick count.
Final results are expected by December. Recommendations will then be presented to the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries & Wildlife to determine if this technology should be approved for general usage. Dapsis acknowledged that the 4-Poster system is “not a silver bullet”. It is potentially part of a larger plan to guard against ticks.
By Doug Struck
Pillow talk turns out to be the best motivation for climate action. Many Americans say they are likely to be moved to take action on global warming by their significant other. Or maybe a son or daughter. Or close friends.
But not a politician. Or a preacher. And certainly not social media.
These conclusions come from a study on “How Americans Communicate About Global Warming” released this month by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication.
“It’s easy to come away with the impression that social media is the most important way we communicate,” said Anthony Leiserowitz, who headed the study at the Yale Project. “But it’s still fundamentally about person-to-person, human relationships with our closest people--friends, family, loved-ones.”
The problem with that, Leiserowitz notes, is the study found there is relatively little conversation about climate change within those personal circles-- 67 percent of those polled said they “rarely” or “never” talk about the changing environment.
“We just don’t talk about it,” he said in a phone interview from Yale. One reason, he suggested, is that the shrinking media newsrooms of the last decade have produced a sharp drop in environmental coverage. Another reason, he said, is that climate change has been so politicized. “Many people feel constrained. It’s like religion or politics, you don’t want to bring it up at the Thanksgiving dinner because you don’t want to piss off Uncle Bob.”
The Yale Project has been doing regular polling on public attitudes toward the transforming environment since 2008. Often, the group serves up glum news. In their first survey in November 2008, some 71 percent of Americans said they believe global warming is happening. Little more than a year later, that number had plunged to 57 percent.
Even as the scientific evidence has overwhelmingly settled that question, by April 2013 still only 63 percent of Americans said they believe global warming is happening. It’s a majority, yes, but a depressingly small one for those of us in an occupation based on the premise that providing accurate information will result in a knowledgeable electorate. Not to mention how scientists must feel.
The latest analysis by the Yale Project has its share of depressing news, as well: nearly one in five Americans said no one could convince them to take action to reduce global warming. For many of the remainder, the survey—taken of 1,045 Americans in April-- confirms the general ineffectiveness of many social institutions to affect personal beliefs. We are, the study suggests, a stubborn people, impervious to outside challenges to our beliefs.
However, a sizeable minority-- 27 percent of those polled-- said if anyone could convince them to take action on climate change, it would be their significant other. And 21 percent said a son or daughter might have that influence. Some 17 percent said they could be influenced to action by a close friend.
Interestingly, about the only figure outside that close personal circle who might have such influence, according to the survey, would be an environmental leader. Still, the percentage of respondents who said they would be swayed to action by such a leader was only 13 percent. The percentages dropped from there: parents 11 percent, sibling 7 percent, political leader 6 percent, religious leader 5 percent, community leader 4 percent. And apparently almost no one—or at least only 2 percent—would listen to a call for action from their neighbor.
Edward Maibach, a professor of communications at George Mason University in Virginia and one of the authors of the study, said he is encouraged by one finding of the poll. Of those surveyed, 14 percent said they “probably” or “definitely” would be willing to engage in a non-violent civil disobedience such as a sit-in or blockade against a global warming offenders.
“There is much more latent potential out there for Americans to engage in large, non-violent symbolic actions,” Maibach said from Fairfax, Va., drawing a comparison to the Civil Rights marches being celebrated in Washington this week.
Environmental organizers “have only scratched the surface,” he said. “There are many more Americans who could be mobilized.”
By Peter DeMarco
As Tom McNichol pilots his motor boat past Soldiers Field Road, Harvard, and MIT, you wonder whether he’s full of it. The Charles River, he’d boasted before the trip, is always a mess after the annual July Fourth fireworks spectacular. “I guarantee trash,” he’d proclaimed. But the river looks clean — really clean — with barely a bottle cap floating by.
McNichol, captain of the Charles River Clean Up Boat, has been at this for 10 years, though. As he putts up to the Hatch Memorial Shell, a vast array of garbage comes into view: soda cans, coffee cups, candy wrappers, tennis balls, energy drink bottles, Tupperware containers, wine corks, even shoes, all floating amid the thickets.
It’s just gross.
“This will take three or four days’ of work to clean,” says first mate David Solomon, as he bends over the side to snag a clump of trash with a swimming-pool net.
“I can tell tomorrow’s crew exactly where to go, and the trash will be here,” McNichol says. “I never have to worry about someone taking our trash.”
‘He’s just very, very passionate about the river, and that’s what gets things done.’
McNichol, a retired Compaq engineer from Framingham, is the Charles River’s unofficial garbage man. His nonprofit cleanup boat patrols the waterway from Watertown to the Zakim Bridge four days a week, May through Columbus Day, sifting out every piece of trash in sight. In the beginning it was just McNichol, his family, and a few friends who did all the work. This summer, more than 200 volunteers will take shifts on the water.
Thanks to their diligence, you can go miles along the river before spotting a single coffee cup or plastic bag.
“I’d say the river is like five times as clean now,” says Angelo Tilas, longtime Esplanade supervisor for the Department of Conservation and Recreation. “These guys just make a huge, huge difference, and everyone can see it. Stuff along the river banks get caught up in places that we can’t physically get to. But he’s out in the boat, able to.”
Charlie Zechel, executive director of Community Boating Inc., says McNichol’s boat never stops.
“It’s not hit or miss — you see them out there all the time,” Zechel says. “I’m looking out at the river right now, and there’s literally no trash.”
When McNichol launched his boat 10 years ago, the Charles was as dirty as the song proclaims: a junkyard of everything from construction barrels to shopping carts and wave after wave of plastic bottles and bags. Just below the surface, you might have discovered a living-room recliner or a portable toilet.
The thought that anyone could make even a dent in such waste seemed kind of laughable.
“I said to him, ‘Tom, how can you even think about cleaning up the Charles River?’,” remembers Solomon, a river advocate who met McNichol soon after he began fishing for flotsam in 2004. “I would have thought it impossible.”
Oddly, it wasn’t.
By the end of that first summer, McNichol and a cadre of 25 volunteers — his kids and grandkids included — had plucked thousands of trash bags’ worth of refuse from the water. They towed beer kegs and newspaper boxes to shore. At one point, they alerted police about a floating body.
McNichol’s cleanup boat returned for duty the following spring and has ever since. “We’re a maintenance operation,” he says.
The cleanup boat came about largely by chance. While coaching a high school sailing team on the Charles, McNichol noticed something peculiar about the river’s then-abundant trash.
“I had just started a race when these three items — a CVS plastic bag, a Dunkin’ Donuts coffee cup, and a condom — sailed by,” says McNichol. “Then the winds shifted and we had to rearrange the course. Son of a gun, these three items came sailing by again. That’s when I realized the dam was holding stuff back.”
His theory was that people weren’t throwing large amounts of trash into the Charles anymore: It just looked that way because the Charlestown dam blocked the trash from floating out to sea. With nowhere to go, the waste kept piling up.
If someone could make a clean sweep of the river’s trash, McNichol thought, they might be able to keep the Charles more or less flotsam free with routine cleanups. Turns out, he was right. Nowadays, a six-hour patrol is lucky to net two or three bags of garbage.
Other factors have helped. Nearly all of the Esplanade’s trash barrels have been replaced with solar-powered trash compactors that don’t tip over in the wind, can’t be plucked by birds, and can’t be heaved into the water by vandals. People, in general, seem to be littering less and recycling more, McNichol says. “We seldom see cans or bottles that have deposits.”
Hundreds of volunteers from the Charles River Watershed Association, the Charles River Conservancy, the Esplanade Association, and other nonprofit groups pitch in annually to clean the riverbank, Tilas says.
But without the Charles River Clean Up Boat, trash surely would start mounting again. After July 4, the boat hauled eight trash bags’ worth of cardboard scraps from the river — the remains of exploded fireworks canisters that fell from the sky.
Despite the success, McNichol still struggles to keep his boat afloat financially. He gets help every year from Solomon, a Wayland philanthropist who donated the vessel. The Watertown Yacht Club provides a free mooring, and the DCR hauls away all the trash. But McNichol has to raise the boat’s annual $45,000 operating cost by himself, requiring pleas to Boston Duck Tours, the Museum of Science, and dozens of businesses along the river.
Most who use the river, or jog or picnic along its banks, don’t know the Clean Up Boat exists.
“He’s never looking for someone to come up to him and say, ‘You did a great job’,” Tilas says. “He’s just very, very passionate about the river, and that’s what gets things done.”
McNichol says he couldn’t have accomplished anything without his longtime board of directors and boat captains, and his wife, Mary, the operation’s bookkeeper. But really, it’s his ship.
Join him on patrol and his blue eyes sparkle as he revels in stories about the Charles. At 75, he can still spot a bottle of SunnyD bobbing 100 feet away.
“Trash, 11 o’clock!” he barks.
Peter DeMarco can be reached at email@example.com.
By Doug Struck
The changing climate in New England brings the risk of more power failures as hotter weather will stress aging power plants, heat up their cooling water, and add higher demands to the power system, according to the Department of Energy.
“It’s not a perfect system now, and climate change will exacerbate the vulnerabilities,” said Jonathan Pershing, who oversaw a recent report by the department looking at the risks to the nation’s power supply from our rapidly changing environment.
The report detailed threats to other U.S. regions that New England will largely escape: severe drought, shrinking water supply for crops, disappearing river flows. But New England can brace for more severe storms, longer hot weather, and rising sea levels, the report notes.
The Northeast has seen a higher rate of air temperature change since 1901-- an average rate of 2 to 4 degrees per century-- than any region in the United States except the extreme Southwest and Alaska.
That warmer air puts New England in the bull’s eye of severe storms. For every rise of 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit, the air can hold about 7 percent more humidity. That water eventually drops in harder deluges. Since 1958, the amount of precipitation falling in very heavy events has increased 67 percent in the Northeast, far more than in any other region, according to the report.
That means more downpours, more flooding and more heavy winter storms. Hurricane Irene two years ago deluged the East Coast and caused massive power outages, Hurricane Sandy left millions without power in 17 states in October, and a blizzard in February buried New England and brought down power lines.
In addition, the storms can combine with sea level rise to bring “perfect storm” events, such as Hurricane Sandy’s marriage to high tides that devastated parts of coastal New York and New Jersey, and would have caused massive flooding in Boston had it hit five hours earlier at high tide.
“Most regions have something to worry about. In New England, the main concerns are with things like storms and the effects of temperature changes on ways of life, patterns of life,” said Thomas Wilbanks, a fellow at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee and one of the principal authors of the report.
As Boston’s weather becomes more like that of Philadelphia or Washington, the power systems of the aging infrastructure of the region will be tested, Pershing said in a telephone interview.
“I was in Cape Cod last week, and I was struck by the number of people installing air conditioners,” he said. “When I was there as a youth, you had a few hot days, and that was it.”
The electrical grid is hit by a triple threat: hotter weather sends demand soaring, but also saps the efficiency of transmission lines and cuts into generating capacity, the report noted.
Power plants that depend on water for cooling along the Connecticut River may see their supplies drop, and plants may have to shut down if intake water is too warm. Power plants along the coast may be vulnerable to flooding. And all may be asked to operate flat-out in hotter weather.
“Systems just work harder, not just for a day but for a week,” he said. “At that point things that are a little old and a little stressed don’t work properly.”
The report is among the growing efforts to look at the prospects for calamity in our society as changes from a warming climate become inevitable. “It’s more about managing risks,” said Pershing, who is deputy assistant deputy for climate change policy. “It’s less about avoiding the problem than about rapid recovery—prepositioning the fuel, where the pumps are, what kinds of emergency communications there are.”
“Things are changing,” Wilbanks said. “We may still have arguments about the policy, but the impacts are real and they have to be figured into the economic equations.”
In many cases, Wilbanks said, the strategies must be tailored to the individual circumstances of cities and towns.
“It’ s hard to do ‘one size fits all,’” he said. “This should not be seen as federal government problem, but a national problem. There are things the federal government can do. But in many cases the impacts and the adaptations are very localized.”
By Doug Struck
Jim Laurie figures he’s heard the solution to climate change: bring on the cows. Or sheep. Or just about any grazing animals.
Laurie is a proponent of a method of restoring exhausted land that is causing a stir—if not yet an avalanche—of interest among ranchers, farmers and environmentalists. It involves bringing livestock onto spent and unproductive land for a short tour of munching—maybe a day, a few days, or a week. If there’s not enough to eat, bring feed to them, he says.
What the animals leave behind in droppings in a relatively short time can dramatically restore land that modern agriculture had given up for dead. And in the process, the new grasses that sprout on the land can suck up carbon dioxide from our greenhouse gas-saturated atmosphere.
“If you can make soil, you can end global warming,” says Laurie, a Woburn, Ma., biologist and “restoration ecologist.” He notes if we put back a quarter of the carbon lost from the soil, we could reduce C02 levels in the atmosphere from the present 400 parts per million to 300 parts per million.*
"We’d be talking about going back to the Ice Age.”
This is the theory espoused by Allan Savory, a Rhodesian biologist who has become a TED Talk star with his vision of the future and his mea culpa. His regrets, Savory says in the lectures he gives around the world, are that as a game preserve biologist in what is now Zimbabwe he helped advocate the killing of 40,000 elephants in a government program to reduce destruction of farmlands from overgrazing.
Savory now says that culling was exactly the wrong approach. Without animals to disrupt the soil and fertilize it, farmlands, prairies and grasslands die. His “holistic management” approach is to let animals graze on land for short periods and then move them on, as they did naturally, before fences. Microbes, dung beetles and worms go to work, converting the animal manure to new soil—humus that holds water, loosens the ground and fosters natural grasses.
When Laurie heard this theory, it fit in well with his previous interests as a biologist and chemist who has worked in a half-dozen spots around the country to try to bring natural processes to bear on problems ranging from cleansing toxic water to growing redwoods.
Laurie now approaches the topic in talks around New England armed with slides of startling improvements—showing dry, cracked lands becoming fields of natural grass—that are the result of the method. The most dramatic improvement in the United States are in the grasslands of the West, he says.
“Grasslands need animals. And animals need grasslands,” he says. “Ruminants in the billions have lived on the planet for ages.” Now that we have removed and restricted those animals, we have produced swaths of brittle land, quickly becoming desertifed.
Like Savory, Laurie has found his message generates interest. Ranchers and farmers who are trying it are adding to a growing cadre of believers, he says. But Savory’s theories have critics, who say that his experimental trials are unscientific and the benefits unproven. And an age-old belief that grazing animals kill the ground is hard to put down. Laurie mostly shrugs them off; he has seen the proof with his own eyes, he says.
“There’s this idea that the soil will grow back if you take all the animals away,” he says. “But grasslands want to be grazed. Where you have a grazing plan, things get better.”
* A previous version of this article misstated a comparison of carbon in the soil and atmosphere. The story should have quoted biologist Jim Laurie saying that if we put back a quarter of the carbon lost from the soil, we could reduce C02 levels in the atmosphere from the present 400 parts per million to 300 parts per million.
By Doug Struck
Journalists love anniversaries, some more obscure than others. This year, we can celebrate the 100th anniversary of the first successful industrial use of the Haber-Bosch process.
We knew you had it circled in your datebook.
Little-known, granted, but important. The Haber-Bosch process of creating ammonia from air probably creates much of every meal you eat. It is by some calculations responsible for half of the protein in your body. It is the reason we can (more or less, depending on income) feed seven billion people on the earth. And, by some accounts, it is one of the big reasons our climate is rapidly changing for the worse.
Nitrogen is necessary for plants to grow, and it is everywhere around us in the air. But nitrogen is not easily gotten; nature has evolved a complex web of bacteria living at the roots of some plants to convert the nitrogen from atmosphere. This “fixed” nitrogen is then used by the plants use to create amino acids. Animals eat the plants, get the amino acids and create life-building proteins.
The scale of that process – and natural sources of nitrogen from saltpeter and guano-- is limited worldwide, and that limit would restrict our food production to an amount that would feed no more than 3 or 4 billion people, half our population now.
But Haber teamed up with Carl Bosch to figure out how to create ammonia from hydrogen and the nitrogen in air, using massive boilers to super-heat the air under very high pressure. Their process, first used at a German industrial plant in 1913, eventually created an explosion of ammonia-based fertilizer, leading to the “Green Revolution” and a dramatic increase in the world’s food production.
Haber and Bosch each received the Nobel Prize. But their work was not all altruistic. The ammonia that began flowing out of their factories was an essential ingredient for explosives for Germany, prolonging World War I and boosting World War II. Haber helped create chemical weapons and the poison gas used in Nazi extermination camps. The Nobel Prize for his contribution to agriculture may have saved him from being branded a war criminal after World War I.
Still, the invention arguably forestalled a collapse of humanity from overpopulation, and is responsible for our cheap food today. But the legacy of their work has left two conundrums for mankind. First, many believe we have maxed out on the increased food production we can achieve from fertilization. That leaves the question of how we will continue to feed the world as it zooms toward 9 or 10 billion people. Some look to genetic modification to create the next Green Revolution in agriculture; others warn GMOs are a dangerous and unknown genie best left bottled.
Second, the fossil fuel used to create today’s annual use of 225 million tons of fertilizers inspired by Haber-Bosch, and to transport them and to apply them on agricultural fields, is immense. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, agriculture is responsible for at least 20 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. Overuse of nitrogen has chemically stripped our soils and left massive water pollution problems: it is the cause of the “dead zones” in rivers and seas.
When the world finally breaks its dependence on fossil fuels as the climate hurdles through now-inevitable tipping points, we will have to find other ways to grow our food. So as you eat your greenbeans tonight, a tip of the fork to Haber and Bosch. It was good while it lasted.
Newly confirmed US Environmental Protection Agency chief Gina McCarthy pledged Tuesday to let science drive her agency’s agenda as it begins to develop controversial rules to limit carbon pollution from existing power plants.
Speaking to an enthusiastic crowd at Harvard Law School -- which included many friends from McCarthy’s years as a top state environmental official under Mitt Romney and other governors -- the Massachusetts native known for her blunt talk and pronounced Boston accent said it was time to dispel the myth that environmental regulation hurts the economy.
“Can we stop talking about environmental regulations killing jobs?” she asked to loud applause from 310 attendees. “We need to cut carbon pollution to strengthen the economy; let's talk about this positively.”
McCarthy made no new policy announcements in her speech and in a question and answer period, but laid out a case that Environmental Protection Agency regulation in the last 43 years has helped, not hurt, the economy. One of the key arguments by Republicans in Congress against environmental regulation is that it will make the United States less competitive and eliminate jobs.
McCarthy waited almost five months to start her job after Republicans launched a concerted effort to stall her confirmation. Opponents eventually dropped efforts to block President Obama’s nominee and McCarthy was confirmed earlier this month.
“Getting confirmed two weeks ago, it really was an honor of a lifetime,” McCarthy said, adding to enormous laughter, “It took two lifetimes to get confirmed ... 1,000-plus questions, 70-plus Senate visits...”
McCarthy is perhaps best known in Massachusetts for her work in crafting tough air pollution rules that helped clean up some of the state’s dirtiest coal and oil-fired power plants. She later led the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection before moving to the EPA in 2009.
In addition to dealing with carbon regulations for power plants, McCarthy will face decisions on how to make fracking, the controversial drilling technique used to extract natural gas from shale, safer. Water allocation problems are also likely to confront the agency as droughts increase and competition grows for the resource.
McCarthy said the EPA, despite a partisan, fractured Washington, will let science drive the agenda.
“We are not going to stop looking at the science,’’ she said.
When asked by an audience member about the controversial Keystone pipeline that would bring tar sands oil from Canada to refineries in the United States, McCarthy first joked she was leaving the room, then saying “the department is looking at the environmental impacts associated with the Keystone pipeline. The best that EPA can do is continue to be an honest commentator.”
McCarthy’s daughter, Maggie McCarey, 27, a program coordinator at the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources, introduced her, saying her mother would go far in a partisan Washington because she was so skilled at breaking up battles between her and her two siblings.
“She has really perfected her mediating skills,’’ said McCarey.
About the green blog
Helping Boston live a greener, more environmentally friendly life.
Christopher Reidy covers business for the Globe.
Doug Struck covers environmental issues from Boston.
Glenn Yoder produces Boston.com's Lifestyle pages.
Eric Bauer is site architect of Boston.com.
Bennie DiNardo is the Boston Globe's deputy managing editor/multimedia.
Dara Olmsted is a local sustainability professional focusing on green living.