By Doug Struck
Students at Tufts University unfurled protest banners over the library roof last month and have urged alumni to stop writing checks as they continue to protest the university’s refusal to sell its fossil fuel stocks.
“Getting a ‘no’ was one of the best things that happened,” said Evan Bell, 21, a junior physics major, and one of the leaders of the Tufts divestment campaign. “We are no longer waiting for them, no longer asking politely. Now we can organize the alumni and faculty to really push this forward.”
The students say they were invigorated-- rather that discouraged-- by the announcement last month from University President Tony Monaco that Tufts would not shed the oil, coal and gas stocks in its portfolio. Such divestment could cost the university $75 million in lost income, he said.
Monaco’s statement came after 10 months of consideration by a trustee-led committee that included administrators, faculty and students. The committee last month recommended against divestment, and instead proposed the university take steps toward sustainable operations and establish a “sustainability fund.” Such a fund would allow Tufts to invest some of its endowment in companies that do not increase greenhouse gas emissions. It would be “a statement of the direction in which we would like to see the university move eventually and to test the feasibility of this kind of investment,” according to Monaco.
Bell and others say they were not particularly surprised by the committee’s outcome. “It was pretty clear from the outcome that most of the people involved in the committee were against divestment,” Bell said.
“I think we were hopeful the committee would be thorough and open to divestment,” said Shira Rascoe, 22, an environmental studies and political science major, and another member of the campaign. “But in the end it was pretty clear that Tufts divestment wasn’t really being considered.”
The students say they were restrained while the committee was meeting, but no longer. The Tufts campaign mirrors those at Harvard, Boston College, Boston University, Brandeis University, MIT, Northeastern University, and
other colleges in the state and around the country. No large universities in Massachusetts have agreed to cut the fossil fuel companies, which are often enormously profitable, from their investment portfolios.
Rascoe said the students do not accept the conclusion that Tufts would suffer from divestment. There are many funds in which the university could invest that already direct investments to sustainable corporations. And Rascoe said other financial experts believe there are ways to invest in companies that do not produce carbon pollution without losing profits.
On Feb. 27, students unfurled large banners from the roof of Tisch Library saying “Rejection Denied.” Now the campaigners are asking for support from the faculty and are pursuing a campaign to persuade alumni not to contribute to the university until it divests from stocks of companies that are aggravating climate change.
“We are going to escalate,” said Rascoe. “The Board of Trustees has failed the climate test. We were ashamed, honestly.”
Monaco drew a cost distinction between the divestment of carbon-holding companies and the university’s 1989 decision to divest its holdings in South Africa. “The financial impact on the endowment was small,” he said of the Tufts South Africa move, then proclaimed as a moral line drawn against apartheid.
Kim Thurler, director of public relations at Tufts, said, “We know this is an issue that people feel strongly about and have various opinions about. We expect our students to be actively engaged in things they care about. So it’s not a surprise or concern. But we hope the community will engage on things we are moving forward on, like the sustainability fund.”
She added, referring to Monaco’s statement, “Tufts right now will not move forward with divestment. It did not make financial sense.”
(Photo: Tufts student Shira Rascoe. Photo by Doug Struck)
By Doug Struck
Where have we heard this before? The government announces regulations to cut a dangerous ingredient from gasoline, one that kills and incapacitates thousands of people. The oil industry cries foul. That would cost too much, they say.
The final success of that effort—a gradual reduction that by 1995 banned lead in gasoline—resulted in a dramatic decrease in the poisonous lead levels in the bodies of children.
It only took 1.1 million deaths worldwide to do it, according to a United Nations report.
The EPA moved Monday against sulfur additives as a major culprit in producing smog. Sulfurous tailpipe emissions are serious health hazards. The EPA said its rules will annually prevent between 770 and 2,000 premature deaths; 2,200 hospital admissions and asthma-related emergency room visits; 19,000 asthma attacks, 30,000 cases of symptoms of respiratory symptoms in children, and 1.4 million lost school and work days, according to the New York Times.
But wait, the rule will boost gasoline prices-- by less than a penny, the EPA says; by as much as 9 cents a gallon, the oil industry claims. And it may add $75 to the price of a new car.
So the oil industry is dead set against this rule, and the EPA—the Republicans' favorite whipping boy—will undoubtedly be castigated by those who believe big business should be left alone to look out for our health.
It’s “a threat to consumers, jobs and the economy,” Bob Greco, a lobbyist for the American Petroleum Institute, told The Washington Post.
That’s what they said about lead. Lead had been known to be dangerous to humans ever since Hippocrates’ time. Australia made the link between lead-based paint and childhood poisonings in the 1890s. By 1909, France, Belgium, and Austria had banned lead-based paint in houses. In 1917, a pediatrician at Johns Hopkins found a link between poisoned small children and the lead-based paint on the bars of their cribs. In 1922, the League of Nations argued for a worldwide ban on interior paint with lead.
But in the United States, the government bowed to industry calls, and recommended the increased used of lead-based paint in homes. When automakers found they could use tetraethyl lead to make auto engines run better (instead of the alcohol-based ethanol Henry Ford preferred), the government gave General Motors, DuPont and Standard Oil patents for the stuff.
They did so despite evidence of its danger. In 1924 exposure to the chemical in Standard Oil's lead processing plant in Bayway, New Jersey, led to five deaths and caused severe tremors, psychosis, hallucinations, and other symptoms of serious lead poisoning.
The government backed the auto and gas makers despite mounting evidence that lead coming from tailpipes of cars was getting in the bloodstream of children, causing severe neurological and physical damage. It affected the heart, bones, intestines, kidneys, and reproductive and nervous systems. In 1959 the U.S. Public Health Service approved a request to increase the lead content of gas.
Finally, in 1970, Congress passed the Clean Air Act, mainly to cut the smog choking cities, and the EPA started to restrict use of lead. The oil and auto industries fought and sued every step of the way, arguing it would create economic ruin. Vice President George H.W. Bush’s Task Force on Regulatory Relief pressured the EPA to back off in 1981.
The eminent muckraking columnist of the time, Jack Anderson, noted,
"Incredibly, the Reagan administration appears willing to risk the health of hundreds of thousands of anonymous preschoolers, just so the oil companies can make a few bucks."
When the 1990 amendments to the Clean Air Act finally spelled the end to leaded gasoline, the results were dramatic. The average blood lead level in the United States had dropped 78 percent by 1994.
And what about the predictions of economic catastrophe? Five of Fortune’s top six most profitable companies in the world are oil companies. These petroleum companies now claim removing sulfur will be too expensive.
After all, why let a couple of thousand premature deaths each year stand in the way of more profits?
By Doug Struck
North Americans use more energy per person than inhabitants of any other nation, and much of that energy is wasted. It leaks out of our buildings, is burned away in inefficient cars, and is squandered through the trap of cheap and plentiful energy.
But Massachusetts is in the forefront of states seeking to seal up our leaky buildings. The commonwealth ranked fourth among states in 2013 in the number of buildings certified as green, energy-efficient structures that help sustainability.
Those certifications are made under standards called LEED-- Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. Buildings that meet the standard get a plaque for their lobby or doorway and boasting rights. Last year 101 qualified in Massachusetts, bringing the total in the state to about 825. Only Illinois, Maryland and Virginia completed more, per capita, last year.
“We do have more architects—and more environmentally concerned architects-- per capita, some of the best architectural schools, and more of them than a lot of other cities,” said Gray Lee, executive director of the Massachusetts chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council, which administers LEED.
But the proliferation of LEED-certified buildings here also is proof of the power of government policy. Boston was the first city in the nation in 2007 to require that all new large-scale building projects meet LEED standards. It now has some prime exhibits: Boston’s Atlantic Wharf beside the Fort Point Channel is the first high-rise in New England to be “Platinum” certified, the highest LEED rating; the city has promoted LEED housing developments in Highland Park, Roxbury, Jamaica Plain and South Roxbury, has retrofit the Castle Square subsidized housing units to LEED standards and has built libraries and police stations to those standards, among other achievements.
The state government also is pushing developers, and in 2007 required that all new state buildings meet LEED standards to help meet the goal set by Gov. Deval Patrick for a 40 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from state operations by 2020.
The popularity is not just in the cache of “going green,” said Lee. “LEED is an indicator. People are looking at healthier buildings, more energy efficient buildings, more buildings that in the end have a higher return on investment because they hold their value better.”
The LEED standards lay out an agenda of 110 credits for sustainable buildings ranging from use of sustainable materials and resources, to energy and water efficiency, to public transportation access, to use of innovative technologies. Buildings that get at least 40 credit points meet minimum LEED certification; higher totals can earn a silver, gold or platinum rating.
Developers have, in the past, shied from undertaking this kind of construction, because it would cost more. But costs of sustainable technology and construction methods have come down considerably, Lee said, and that differential is easily repaid in lower energy bills.
Brian Swett, the chief of environment and energy for Boston, said the city has benefited from developers who are not just interested in building cheap and selling fast. “We have a lot of long-term owner-developers. When they are building their buildings they are thinking about the long-term value, not that they are going to sell it in three years.”
And building to these standards increases a building’s marketability to green-minded tenants and buyers, Swett said. “The real premium for the value of a building, for both rent and sale, is both green building and Energy Star” ratings, he said. “I can tell you many, many major tenants, when they come in, say ‘How green can you make it? We want gold or platinum.’”
That target is constantly moving, said Lee. The most cutting-edge buildings are “net zero” or “net positive” energy buildings, that use energy efficiency combined with solar or geothermal power to eliminate the need to buy power from the grid. And the newest challenge, called “Living Buildings,” would require that a structure has to both generate all of its energy on site, and treat all the waste from the building on site.
It is a high bar, Lee said, but he believes construction will continue to move in that direction. “We are looking at a total transformation of real estate,” he said. “Our mission is green buildings for all within a generation.”
(Photo: Atlantic Wharf on the Boston waterfront is the first LEED Platinum high-rise in New England. photo- Boston.com)
By Doug Struck
Fifteen of the 68 federally inspected levees in New England are in “unacceptable” condition, according to the Army Corps of Engineers.
But should those who live or work behind the levees be afraid? The answer is muddled.
Michael Bachand, the levee safety manager for the Army Corps’ New England District, said the rating does not mean the levees are on the verge of a dramatic collapse that would create widespread flooding. Many of New England’s levees were built after massive flooding from hurricanes in 1938 and 1955, and are extremely sturdy, he noted.
But the “unacceptable” rating means “we believe there is some major problem with the project that would lead it to not perform as intended,” Bachand said in an interview in the Corps’ Concord, Ma., office.
That problem could be plants and trees that have put roots into an earthen levee or rodents that have tunneled into it. Other problems include clogged drainage systems or broken pumps that would prevent water on the wrong side of the levee from being removed, he said.
“It could be as simple as maybe some of the interior drainage systems have not been operated or maintained,” he said. “You can get flooding a number of ways. It’s all designed to act as a system. Without one acting properly, you still could get flooding.”
Bachand’s boss at the Washington headquarters of the Corps is more cautious.
“Getting an ‘U’ on an inspection doesn’t mean you have to worry about a catastrophic failure,” said Eric Halpin, special assistant for dam and levee safety for the Corps, in a phone interview from Washington. “What that means is in just a visual inspection of the levee we found a number of issues, some minor and sometimes major, that the levee is not well operated or maintained.”
The Army Corps helped build 14,700 miles of levees in the nation, and regularly inspects them—although the maintenance is the responsibility of local officials. Private and locally built levees are not inspected by the Corps. The federal inspection results were pretty quiet until levee failures during Hurricane Katrina flooded New Orleans in 2005.
Under the heat of congressional criticism, the Corps stepped up the inspections and made public the results of those inspections on the web in the National Levee Database. The database was announced with much fanfare in October, 2011. It was a “state of the art tool” and “the authoritative database that describes the location and condition of the nation’s levees, and the potential consequence behind those levees,” according to the Corps’ press promotions.
Towns and municipalities responsible for maintaining the levees have been pressed to fix and repair deficiencies, often costing millions of dollars. While the Corps cannot require such repairs, an “unacceptable” rating means the federal government will not help fix any damages to the levee from a flood, and it may put at risk the flood insurance offered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency for those in the potential flood zone.
But Halpin, in Washington, says the ratings on the list are not what they seem. Are you saying an unacceptable rating does not reflect the risk, he was asked. “That’s exactly what I’m saying,” he replied.
Local jurisdictions are supposed to evaluate the risk, and the Army Corps is beginning to compile a more complete report on the risks of the levees, starting this year, he said.
Seven of the 37 federally inspected levees in Massachusetts are rated “unacceptable,” in Gardner, Canton, Lowell, Westfield, Quincy, Adams, and North Adams.
At least two in Torrington, Conn., earned that rating, as did levees in Ansonia, Waterbury and Watertown, Conn., Hartland Me., Lincoln NH, and Bennington, Vt.
(Photo via Associated Press: Many of New England's levees were built after the great 1938 hurricane. Workers struggled to create sandbag levees in Hartford after the storm.)
By Doug Struck
It was February, north of Yellowknife. I was reporting on the gritty truckers who ply roads made of ice to supply mines and villages in the Northwest Territories. In the winter dark, my headlights suddenly lit up a majestic white bird.
She had dropped onto the middle of a side road cleared of snow, and she glared back at my headlights with haughty defiance. I looked around, worried that one of the 30-wheeled trailers lumbering off the ice road would not be able to stop.
When I turned back, the road was empty. A fleeting white ghost. A snowy owl. Did she even exist, or was it my imagination in the cold?
Hundreds of people in much warmer climes now have seen that visage, as the snowy owl, a visitor from the Arctic, has invaded southern territory. Excited reports of sightings from Bermuda to Florida to Louisiana have crackled across bird-watching networks.
Snowy owls are regular, if occasional, visitors to Logan Airport. It is a flat, open expanse surrounded by water, and looking—except for the terminal and runways—very tundra-like. Smith typically gets called to capture six to ten owls there each winter. He bands them, takes them further on their migratory path, and lets them go. Already this winter, he has captured 85.
Smith, very likely the world’s ace of snowy owl naturalists, has caught and released more than 500 owls since 1981, and has enlisted his daughter and granddaughter to help. He has fitted the birds with small Teflon harnesses carrying satellite transmitters to follow their long-distance sojourns—and has tracked down the corpses of three owls illegally shot in Massachusetts.
“They are spectacular birds,” Smith says. “Here’s a bird that comes from someplace way up in the Arctic tundra, white, majestic, at the top of the food chain, an incredible predator. It can fly 7,000 miles in a year, and we know from Air Canada pilots it goes as high as 8,000 feet.”
And fearless. Smith has watched the owls snatch mice, rats, rodents, small birds, a blue heron, and even the world’s fastest peregrine falcon, surprising the fellow raptor as the falcon was intent on catching a starling.
No one is quite sure why so many snowy owls are so far south this year. The theory used to be that owls migrated toward the south in the winter because there was little food in the Arctic in the winter. Smith’s research turned that theory on its head. He proved there is a greater abundance of owls in southern areas when the breeding season is particularly productive in the Arctic tundra.
He theorizes a swollen population of the birds push more of them further south to find hunting territory. It is possible that climate change, which has warmed the Arctic at twice the global rate, may be providing a smorgasbord of new meals to the owls. Smith says there’s no proof of that theory, yet: “It’s all speculation,” he acknowledges. But he says the soaring numbers of owls may be a sign of something.
(Photos: Top- Bostonglobe.com Bottom- Norman Smith, grandaughter Carmella Nihill and a snowy owl. Courtesy Norman Smith)
By Doug Struck
Maybe another Rosie could help us fight climate change. That’s the message behind “Green Patriot Posters,” a collection of posters that echo the style of wartime propaganda posters to warn of the current threat to our planet.
An exhibit of the posters, which came from a project begun in Syracuse, N.Y, is now mounted by the Design Museum Boston in the lobby of a new, environmentally friendly apartment building at Fort Point.
“They were inspired by another time when we were all called to action. They said, ‘could we do the same thing now?’” said Sam Aquillano, co-founder of the Design Museum.
The display includes 30 printed posters of a project that has more than 500 designs; a projector offers images of many more. The posters range from the heavy-handed—an American Eagle covered in oil—to the thoughtful: a simple list of the seasons, scrambled by climate change.
Canary Project, the group of artists who began the poster effort in New York, says the Green Patriot posters are intended to “display an image of strength, optimism and unity… The overrid¬ing message is that our individual actions do matter.” Started by contributions from professional designers, the project now includes contributions from students and amateur artists.
Aquillano, whose museum is all about putting art and design in front of the public, sees the posters in that spirit. “It’s not enough to have a poster, it has to be a call to action,” he said on the floor of the display recently. “It has to call people to make a change.” Aquillano plans to challenge area students to design their own posters, and will take three winners along with the exhibit when it moves in June to Portland, Ore., San Francisco and Chicago.
The exhibit opened in the lobby of 315 on A, a new 202-unit apartment complex at that address developed by Gerding Edlen, a Portland, Ore., company specializing in sustainable buildings. The apartments are designed to meet LEED gold standard, the national benchmark for energy efficient building design. They include such touches as solar panels, co-generated heat and hot-water, a bike repair shop and thermostats that track your behavior and adjust the heat to save energy.
“We thought it was a great fit,” Aquillano said. The Design Museum Boston has no museum building, but instead uses public spaces that have included Logan Airport, City Hall and the Prudential Tower to put on exhibits designed to provoke thought. The museum’s biggest project was creation of 18 unique benches around the Fort Point Channel last year. The Green Patriot Posters display is open to the public and free.
(Illustrations permission of Design Museum Boston. Images from top: “Global Warming” by Frederic Tacer, “Golab Waminrg” by Mathilde Fallot, “Bald Eagle in Oil” by Ty Baker, “Lumberjack” by Geoff McFetridge.)
By Doug Struck
Massachusetts is moving toward a future in which you know the cost of electricity before turning on your air conditioner, and you may let the utility company decide to turn the air conditioner off.
Those possibilities are part of a modernization of the state’s electricity distribution lines to create a “smart grid.” The Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities late last month approved a proposal that would, if adopted as written, give utilities three years to come up with smart metering or some equivalent technology.
The heart of a smart grid is instant two-way communication between the grid operator and your home, and meters that can give homeowners information about electricity prices that rise or fall with demand.
“An Energy Star refrigerator has a chip in it that can be programmed when you buy it, if you want it to be, so you can say to the utility, ‘when the power gets to be ten times more expensive than the minimum, you can cycle my refrigerator on or off.’ Or ‘change my air conditioning system so it doesn’t go below 78,’” said Ann Berwick, chair of the department.
“Smart meters” and a technologically modern distribution grid for electricity have other benefits, Berwick said in an interview: utilities could reroute power around downed transmission lines automatically, limiting widespread blackouts. A smart grid could more easily accept power from a household’s solar panels or a wind turbine. A utility could connect or disconnect power from a remote office, instead of sending a technician to the site.
“Utilities don’t have very good visibility as to what’s happening either on the gird or in the home,” she said. “It’s a system that Thomas Edison would recognize.”
Massachusetts is among a leading handful of states that are moving to modernize their electricity distribution grids. They are doing so to be less wasteful with power and to accommodate the increase in homes and businesses producing their own power. Grids, designed to be one-way suppliers of electricity, often have difficulty handling power put back into the system by solar arrays or small wind turbines.
But the biggest visible benefit to customers would give them more control and decision-making over their power consumption.
“Currently, the grid is a one-way approach. It’s not very consumer- interactive” said Abigail Anthony, a grid specialist for the non-profit group Environment Northeast. She was on a working group that helped develop the proposal.
She said she envisions a smart grid in which “your home or your business is the center of the energy system. In our homes we will improve energy efficiency, install smart appliances, connect to community wind or solar cogeneration, plug in our electric cars, and get incentives” for using electricity during cheaper off-peak hours.
The commission’s proposal was ballyhooed just before Christmas by Gov. Deval Patrick, but largely lost in the Christmas rush. In a press release from the governor’s office, public utilities Commissioner David Cash said, “with this order, we require the electric utilities to adopt a new business model that is more forward thinking.”
That is a bit premature. Berwick said the commission’s order is a “straw proposal” that may be modified before a final order is issued.
Anthony said the commission is moving in the right direction, but has not adequately set the plate for a smart grid. The regulatory system for utilities must be revised to encourage them to spend the money on the innovative technology that is needed for a smart grid, she said.
“Right now it’s too risky for a utility,” she said. “If they invest in a new technology there is no certainty they can recapture their costs.”
By Doug Struck
If anything could puncture the myth of overregulation, it should have been the plight last week of a third-of-a-million thirsty West Virginians. The Jan. 9 spill from a plant that sells chemicals for coal processing poisoned the water supply near Charleston and exposed the lie that the government is vigilant about public safety.
Bostonians got a small taste of life without clean water in 2010, when a major pipe burst and residents in the metro area were advised to boil water for three days. In West Virginia, people were told not to even touch it—not to bathe, cook or clean with it, let alone drink it— for nine days while getting precious little information from safety regulators.
It turned out the tank that leaked had not been inspected since 1991. The Charleston Gazette, led by a renowned environmental reporter, Ken Ward Jr., was all over the story. But each time they turned to the federal or state agencies responsible for oversight of the plant—the state environmental agency, the EPA that enforces the Clean Water Act and other federal laws, and Centers for Disease Control, called in for help with chemical safety standards—they were met with silence. The officials had nothing to say about the matter and had little advice for the residents—more than 400 of whom were sickened and hospitalized.
When state regulators and the CDC finally said last Friday they had determined the water was safe to drink, reporters asked how they calculated that. The chemical, MCHM, isn’t even regulated by the federal government; there are no set safety standards. The CDC said it had looked at an unpublished 1990 study of rat deaths from the chemical, but would not explain how that study led to conclusions for humans.
Frustrated by six days of silence, Gazette reporter David Gutman tracked down the chief of the CDC at his home, but the official, Tom Frieden, would not even talk about the emergency. In a world of true public accountability, that dereliction of duty should have led to a humiliated resignation or prompt dismissal.
But we are not in such a world. Forty-four years ago, as Peter Dykstra of the Environmental Health News pointed out this week, the president of the United States declared that “restoring nature to its natural state is a cause beyond party and beyond factions. It has become a common cause of all of the people of this country.” That was a Republican, Richard M. Nixon, who created the EPA, signed into law the Clean Air Act, and—when he got cold feet and vetoed the Clean Water Act—was overridden by a Congress of united Republicans and Democrats.
Today, virtually any move to protect the environment or environmental public safety sets off a howling protest in Congress that evil bureaucracy is throttling beleaguered business. The EPA has become a punching bag, assailed by Republicans at every turn, and under constant siege by lawmakers who want to throw open the door to unrestrained business. In West Virginia, long beholden to coal companies and suspicious of government, pressures on local regulators must be even greater. One day before the spill, W. Va. Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin was railing against the EPA’s “misguided policies on coal." The next day, he was asking for federal help to clean up the emergency.
Why should the public trust business with their health and safety? Business owners have no responsibility to protect the public —their legal fiduciary responsibility is to get as much profits as possible, regardless of public good. Freedom Industries, which owns the plant and was founded by a two-time felon, proved that: the company promptly went bankrupt to try to sidestep fines, liability lawsuits, and a bill for $2.4 million in unpaid taxes.
The cry of overregulation is simply overblown. The Toxic Substances Control Act, the 1976 law that is supposed to protect us from dangerous chemicals, is hopelessly overwhelmed by today’s burgeoning chemical use. It covers only a relative handful of the thousands of chemicals being used today.
And when health, safety and environmental regulations are imposed, businesses typically benefit: they upgrade, modernize, become more efficient and more profitable.
One would have expected the events in West Virginia to generate a swell of protests, and demands for more and better regulation. There were a few such outcries, but mostly the events were greeted by the same response as that from regulators: the sound of silence.
By Doug Struck
Buried in rows and columns of meticulous notations of 160 years ago, clues left by Henry David Thoreau point to a war of woods in the changing climate that may leave New England forests looking far different than today.
Thoreau’s frenetic notes made as he “sauntered” around Walden Woods already have demonstrated that plants are flowering much earlier than in the mid-1800s.
But now researchers at Boston University have pored through other overlooked records from the Concord naturalist. They have used the handwritten data to show that native trees are the underdogs in a struggle with invasive species as the climate warms.
“The forests will be different,” said Richard Primack, a professor of biology at Boston University. “As the climate begins to warm, and we get ever-milder winters and earlier springs, invasive shrubs and trees are poised to take advantage of the situation.
“Within a half a century-- certainly by end of the century-- we will see a lot of die-offs of our native species,” he said.
Primack and a changing cast of students have been comparing the observations in Thoreau’s diaries with the present conditions at Walden Woods for seven years. They have demonstrated that common flowers now bloom earlier, many species have disappeared, and the shift in plant cycles is disrupting bird migration rhythms.
But just as the scientists thought the research was playing out, Thoreau scholars mentioned yet another trove of his observations were being kept at the Morgan Library and Museum in New York, a collection that started with the private library of tycoon J.P. Morgan and now keeps priceless original manuscripts.
Caroline Polgar, then a doctoral candidate working with Primack, went to Manhattan and found what she describes as “basically an Excel spreadsheet,” in bad handwriting, written on surveyor’s sheets. Thoreau worked occasionally as a surveyor, and apparently extracted data from his journals to be arranged in comprehensive tables on spare sheets, with columns covering 1852 to 1860.
“It was a little surreal handling such rare documents,” Polgar said. “It was really hard to read. His handwriting was not very good. Sometimes he used common names, and sometimes he used Latin names. We had to go back and figure out what species he was talking about.”
They found that species now go through “leaf out”—the moment when the blades poke from swollen buds—an average of 18 days earlier now than in Thoreau’s day. That confirmed their earlier work with flowers.
But the researchers took that finding a step further. They brought twigs from different species into a warm lab at different times of the winter, to see how quickly the wood awoke from winter dormancy and began to produce leaves. Some species native to New England require a long winter chill before reawakening in spring, and responded slowly.
“We saw there was a huge difference between species,” Primack said. “These invasive species have a minimal chilling requirement. They really didn’t have to go to sleep much in the winter. And they reacted very quickly to warm temperatures; they woke up very fast, within a week or two. Native trees-- maple, white oak, and native shrubs-- generally needed a very long winter time before they started to leaf out.”
That restless winter slumber and fast-start growth will give invasive species a big advantage in a warmer climate, concluded Primack, Polgar and her fellow grad student Amanda Gallinat, who co-authored the paper in the journal New Phytologist. Primack predicts fewer beech and ash trees and native sugar, red and silver maples, while non-native Norway Maples and hardy native oaks, which can withstand summer heat, will flourish.
These findings are particularly valuable, Primack said, because they can show the likely consequences of climate change elsewhere. Nationally, average temperatures have risen about 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit. But the burgeoning metropolitan area around Boston has caused an “urban heat island”-- more hot streets, roofs and parking lots, less green space—so temperatures even as far out as Concord have gone up more than 4 degrees Fahrenheit since 1860.
“Boston serves as a model system for how climate change will affect the rest of the United States,” he said. “Boston has had as much warming in the last 160 years as the rest of the country is expected to have in this century. Because we have had a huge change of temperature, you can see the effects of global warming.”
And, he noted, there are the prolific notes of Thoreau--and others-- to provide unique historical records.
“Boston has this incredible wealth of historical data that really hasn’t been found in the rest of the country,” Primack said. “Boston has an unusual density of naturalists who keep diaries, bird clubs, butterfly clubs, botanical clubs… We just keep discovering more data sets. We just keep finding interesting things.”
(Photo: New Black Oak leaves. courtesy of Boston University)
By Doug Struck
It has been too easy—and too true—to imagine that the worst consequences of climate change will not affect us much in the United States. When the changes in our climate begin to sort out winners from losers, we can feel smugly confident.
We are, after all, an immensely affluent nation, with inestimable resources and ingenuity that may cushion us—most of us—from harsh realities. It is the masses living on the borderline of sustenance who will suffer: the 160 million residents of Bangladesh whose productive land is fast surrendering to salty ocean encroachment, the 300,000 Maldivians who will lose their islands to the seas in a few decades, the subsistence farmers in tropical climes who will see their livelihoods and food wither away in dry heat, the thirsty poor in crowded slums whose very access to water will become more difficult as glaciers shrink and rivers dry.
In this country we have been pampered by natural abundance. And when it wasn’t there, we re-engineered nature to put it there, tunneling through mountains and diverting rivers to grow cities in the desert and make fertile valleys from dry land. Much of the hydrology of the western United States has been engineered by man.
But as the changes in our environment become more apparent, our comfort in abundance looks less secure. The New York Times took a broad look this week at a problem we have been loath to confront: the coming disappearance of the once-mighty Colorado River. After a century of abnormal wet years and booming population growth in the West, drier conditions have set in and the river is hurting. The proud symbol of the West is becoming a pitiful trickle unable to supply all of 40 million people in seven states, Phoenix, Las Vegas, Los Angeles as well as millions of acres of irrigated farming.
The plight of the Colorado suggests an unexpected threat to the United States from climate change: division within. The broad trends of our warming climate will be an intensification of the drought and heat in areas that are naturally dry and hot—our Southwest—and an increase in fierce precipitation in wet areas, such as the U.S. Northeast and Northwest.
We may become a country that more resembles a Tale of Two Cities: a parched dry south and middle, and overwatered edges. In New England, the consequence of climate change is expected to be more severe storms and rising tides. In the Southwest, the consequence will be longer droughts, disappearing aquifers and rivers trickling to naught.
But the “haves” and “have-nots” will not be so simply divided. More than 50 percent of the food sales in America come from irrigated lands, areas that cannot reliably produce such vast quantities without water pumps. How many Americans know that the giant Ogallala Aquifer, one of the world’s largest, which underlies the farm production in eight Great Plains states, already is running dry in places?
What strains in our national unity will this disparity cause? Will we have the resilience to confront these challenges, when part of our country needs to make preparations for more water while another part needs to gird for less? Can we find the common purpose for different strategies, especially in a poisoned political climate in which half of our congresspersons refuse even to admit the problem?
And that says nothing of a role of global leadership to confront this problem. Though in truth, America already has ceded that role.
Climate change will bring enormous challenges. We should not feel sanguine that we will escape in comfort. On a national level, our leadership has done little to prepare. That mistake may cost us dearly.
By Doug Struck
This is a time when journalists traditionally look back over the previous year. Let’s take a wider retrospective, say, 4,300 years.
The rise in sea level during the last century along the mid-Atlantic coast is faster than the seas have risen in the last 4.3 millennia, according to a geologic study published this month by five researchers from Rutgers University and Tufts University.
We have known the seas are rising, swollen like a warming balloon and fed by melting glaciers. And we have known that the waters of the east coast are rising faster than the global average, an anomaly of wind, currents and sinking land.
But the latest study, published in Earth’s Future, an open-source, online journal published by the American Geophysical Union, gives some perspective about how we should place the significance of these changes. Probably about 10 on a scale of 10.
“We are only beginning to glimpse the sea level change in comparison with what we know about temperature,” said Andrew C. Kemp, an assistant professor at Tufts’ Department of Earth and Ocean Sciences, one of the authors of the study. “What we are starting to see is this rate of rise [of the last 130 years] is really unusual.”
The other authors were Kenneth G. Miller, Robert E. Kopp, Benjamin P. Horton and James V. Browning of Rutgers University.
Their study looked at modern tide gauges and soil sediment samples from old and ancient salt marshes, and factored in soil subsidence to document historic sea rise. Melting glaciers more than 6000 years ago prompted rapid sea level rise-- as much as 16 inches a year. But in man’s modern history, the seas grew at a modest two-tenths inch per year, until the industrial age began spewing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere about 1880. Since then, the rate has increased sharply, and the acceleration is “poorly constrained,” the report says. In layman’s terms, that means a runaway train going downhill with no brakes.
The study predicts a sea-level rise in mid-Atlantic locations by 2050 ranging from 11 inches to 26 inches, accelerating by 2100 to a range of 26 inches to 66 inches. This is significantly higher than predictions of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which have been criticized as too conservative and did not, according to the authors of the study, contemplate accelerating melting in Greenland and the Antarctic.
The implications of this are sobering for Boston, which lives cheek-by-jowl with the sea. Although the study was based on geologic evidence in the mid-Atlantic states from New York to Virginia, the authors noted it carries warnings for other regions.
Flooding from a storm is dependent not only on the ferocity of the storm and the tides, but the level of the seas from which the storm waves rise. So higher sea levels mean widespread flooding will result from even moderate storms. The authors note that by 2100, a routine “ten year storm”—a storm that has a 10 percent chance of occurring in any year-- will produce as much flooding as today’s so-called “100-storm,” a muscular storm of a strength currently given a 1 percent chance of occurring in any year.
Sea level rise means that by 2100, “even a modest nor'easter… will exceed the current 100 year storm, and it would also exceed all historic storms at Atlantic City,” the authors warn.
In fact, the new flood-zone maps by the Federal Emergency Management Agency that are causing such consternation already are inadequate for future long-term planning, the authors contend. The study contends the storms rolling off higher seas will be crucial for property owners sooner rather than later.
“We are very guilty of an obsession with the year 2100,” said Kemp. “If you are renovating a house, that’s a long way away.” But a possible sea rise of up to two feet in the next 35 years might cause one to reconsider the investment.
“Planners should account for rising sea levels,” the authors note. And the more catastrophic the vulnerable area, the more imperative for those authorities to plan for the highest predicted sea levels.
(Photo credit: Boston.com)
Reports from the end of an era keep coming. This year alone, the Tennessee Valley Authority announced eight coal-fired power plants are closing. Georgia Power will shutter 10 units. Three more coal plants in Pennsylvania. Plant closings announced in Indiana. Ohio. Utah, the heart of coal country.
And, of course, the coal-fired Brayton Point (below), in Somerset, Mass., will shut down for good in 2017, its owners announced in October.
The Sierra Club counted 150 coal plant closure announcements since 2010. The Union of Concerned Scientists, in a report this month, puts the numbers at 138 coal plants closed since 2011, 150 more likely in the “near future,” and 329 additional plants it identified as “ripe for retirement.”
Whatever the exact number, the trend is clear. The lights of coal-powered electricity plants are flickering off around the country, victims of cheaper natural gas, growing renewable energy, conservation, and stricter demands to curb climate-changing pollution.
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.
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.