Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Slow Down, Save the Planet

Imagine how much gasoline use—and climate-changing fumes—would be reduced if speed demons slowed down to the speed limit. "’Jack-rabbit’ starts and hard braking can increase fuel consumption by as much as 40 percent,” says Eartheasy.com. “Tests show that ‘jackrabbit’ starts and hard braking reduces travel time by only four percent, while toxic emissions were more than five times higher.”

I drove like that, when I was young and in a hurry. Now that I’m much older and more inclined to live at a slower pace, I notice how many other people still drive like maniacs. Given the growing warnings about climate change, drivers should accept a share of responsibility for the fate of the planet and not rush to put the pedal to the metal.

Slowing down is also patriotic. It can help improve what the US government calls “our national energy security,” as well as help ease the demand for gasoline that’s a factor in pushing up prices at the pump. That’s because so much of the oil used for gasoline comes from the Middle East, where we’re waging a costly war in Iraq to keep the overheated oil flow flowing to millions of homes, businesses, and drivers.

And then there’s the planetary security issue. “Increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases (GHGs) are trapping more of the sun's energy in the Earth's atmosphere, causing global climate change,” says the US departments of energy and environmental protection on the web site fueleconomy.gov. “Carbon dioxide (CO2) from burning fossil fuels is the most important human-made GHG. Highway vehicles account for 26% of our CO2 emissions (1.7 billion tons each year).”

What’s that mean to me? “Each gallon of gasoline you burn creates 20 pounds of CO2. The average vehicle emits around 6 to 9 tons of CO2 each year,” the EPA/DOE web site notes. The bottom line is that the way we drive, the kind of vehicles we drive and how much we drive is how this situation became a global problem too big for government to handle without a great change in people’s driving habits.

So what’s the alternative to fast driving on boring highway trips? I like to see the miles fly by as quickly as anyone. But the fuel consumption rate can zoom up as much as 20 percent higher at 75 mph than at 55 mph, according to Eartheasy’s research. I make long trips fun while doing about 55 mph by taking older scenic state roadways, instead of an interstate highway, for long stretches in the countryside.

I take older side roads in built-up areas as well where there are frequent traffic jams on crowded highways. Gas mileage and state of mind are both terrible when you’re creeping along bumper to bumper. Traffic where I live in New Jersey is often so jammed up, it’s faster to walk, bike or take a train wherever possible. Indeed, that’s what many people have been doing. And that saves a lot of gasoline.

For more information: Road test shows how driving style affects gas consumption—
MotorWeek Video (5.6 MB)Text Version

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

The Ultimate Scary Scenario

Whatever the worrisome projections for global warming may be, there is an even bigger threat to our well-being—nuclear war. Aging stockpiles of nuclear weapons are a potentially Earth-shattering, ticking time bomb, capable of going off accidentally or deliberately. The United States, Russia, China, Britain and France have thousands of nuclear missiles left over from the Cold War and still primed for waging World War III. India and Pakistan developed competing nuclear arsenals. Israel and North Korea also reportedly developed nuclear weapons. And now, with US-led wars raging on two of its borders, Iran may be trying to join the nuclear club, setting off saber-rattling and threats of military attacks by the US and Israel.

Here’s the problem: “In the 1980's, work conducted jointly by Western and Soviet scientists showed that for a full-scale nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union the climatic consequences, and indirect effects of the collapse of society, would be so severe that the ensuing nuclear winter would produce famine for billions of people far from the target zones,” says a recently update essay in the Encyclopedia of Earth, written by Alan Robock, a professor of climatology at Rutgers University.

That warning was based on computer models of the likely effect of massive radioactive clouds of dense smoke circling the Earth and blocking out sunlight for months, killing food crops and dropping temperatures to deep winter. More recent studies have found that the earlier research may have underestimated these effects, Robock adds: “Based on new work published in 2007 and 2008 by some of the pioneers of nuclear winter research who worked on the original studies, we now can say several things about this topic.

New Science:

A minor nuclear war (such as between India and Pakistan or in the Middle East), with each country using 50 Hiroshima-sized atom bombs as airbursts on urban areas, could produce climate change unprecedented in recorded human history. This is only 0.03% of the explosive power of the current global arsenal.

This same scenario would produce global ozone depletion, because the heating of the stratosphere would enhance the chemical reactions that destroy ozone.

A nuclear war between the United States and Russia today could produce nuclear winter, with temperatures plunging below freezing in the summer in major agricultural regions, threatening the food supply for most of the planet.”

Looking for a comparison to such a scary scenario, Robock points to one of the most devastating climate changes on Earth: “65,000,000 years ago an asteroid or comet smashed into the Earth in southern Mexico. The resulting dust cloud, mixed with smoke from fires, blocked out the Sun, killing the dinosaurs, and starting the age of mammals. This Cretaceous-Tertiary (K-T) extinction may have been exacerbated by massive volcanism in India at the same time. This teaches us that large amounts of aerosols in Earth's atmosphere have caused massive climate change and extinction of species. The difference with nuclear winter is that the K-T extinction could not have been prevented.”

Robock argues that the only way to be sure nuclear winter never happens is to dismantle the nuclear arsenals. Among a growing list of supporters of abolishing atomic bombs and missile warheads are several former US government officials, led by former secretaries of state Henry Kissinger and George Schultz, who signed a joint statement published in the Wall Street Journal last year to endorse “setting the goal of a world free of nuclear weapons and working energetically on the actions required to achieve that goal.”

The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) was launched in 2007 by the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, which received the 1985 Nobel Peace Prize for its public education campaign on the dangers of nuclear war during a tense standoff in US-Soviet relations. The ICAN campaign is based in Australia. The Campaign for a Nuclear Free World was launched in Washington, DC, last year by a number of American peace organizations.

For more information: http://www.eoearth.org/article/Nuclear_winter; http://www.icanw.org/; http://www.nuclearweaponsfree.org/

Saturday, August 2, 2008

So What's the Problem?

Lots of posts on the Internet state that global warming is a scam or a joke. But a group of generals and admirals is not laughing. “Global climate change is and will be a significant threat to our national security and, in a larger sense, to life on earth as we know it to be,” General Gordon R. Sullivan, a retired US Army chief of staff, told a Congressional committee last September.

Sullivan headed a military advisory board to a defense contractor that took a close look at the controversial issue and then sent a report to the Pentagon titled National Security and the Threat of Climate Change. “The path to mitigating the worst security consequences of climate change involves reducing global greenhouse gas emissions,” Sullivan added. “There is a relationship between carbon emissions and our national security. I think that the evidence is there that would suggest that we have to start paying attention.”

The retired general did not come to this conclusion as a tree-hugger activist. The only thing green about Sullivan is his uniform. “The retired officers who made up the CNA panel are hardly environmentalists, and many said they came to the report skeptical of climate change,” Time Magazine reported on its website in conjunction with a special environmental issue in April. “That was then. ‘It's now a mainstream security issue, not a fringe movement for tree-huggers and Birkenstock wearers,’ says Sherri Goodman, who chaired the CNA report and served as deputy Undersecretary of Defense for environmental security in the Clinton Administration — a position that does not exist today. ‘It's affecting the lives of billions and so we've got to understand what those threats are, and how to plan for them and reduce them.’”

What was it that got these retired military commanders’ attention? Having served in the military during the Cold War, when the top priority was preventing a nuclear war with the Soviet Union, they knew that some human activities could have devastating global effects—such as thousands of nuclear missile explosions blanketing the sky with smoke that might block out sunlight and trigger a “nuclear winter.”

“The CNA Report likens the threat of climate change to that of the strategic threats we endured during the Cold War, that is: while the probability of disastrous climate change cannot be determined with certainty, the effects of climate change (if current trends continue) on international security are so great that one must prepare to deal with severe security consequences,” retired Vice Admiral Paul G. Gaffney II testified in Congressional hearings in June. “First principle: whether one believes climate change will happen or not, the effects if it does happen are dangerous enough that security forces must plan for it.”

Speaking before another Congressional committee in June, Goodman, the former Pentagon official overseeing environmental security, said: “In the last year, the debate on climate change in the United States has shifted from ‘Whether it is happening’ to ‘What should we do about it?’” The first thing, Goodman and the retired military officers emphasized, is to make this issue a top national priority.

For further information: http://securityandclimate.cna.org/

Friday, August 1, 2008

What's Happening?

Adding polar bears as a “threatened” species due to shrinking ice near the North Pole, the US Department of Interior in May released satellite data showing sea ice receded dramatically since 1979. Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne said this decision was separate, however, from determining if the ice melted due to global warming. On that score, he seemed to say, figure it out for yourselves.

Finding out what's going on ain't easy. We live in a world of rumors, speculation, gossip, political spin, advertisements, tall tales, little white lies, fibs, scams, whoppers, dreams, nightmares, visions, vows, text messages, web postings, talk radio, comedy shows, song lyrics, supermarket tabloid headlines, he said/she said disputes, religious pronouncements, government reports, consumer reports, eyewitness accounts, sworn testimony, news items and conflicting commentaries. So, what really happened?

That’s the dilemma of journalists on deadline, juries, judges and everyone else who wants to know the God’s honest truth. Whether it was an event in the neighborhood or ice sheets melting in the Arctic Ocean that might portend global warming, getting the full story is often tough to do. But environmental issues generally have a clear cut element—something observably changed. Hospital syringes washed up on a swimming beach, for instance. Environmental issues are issues because people noticed a drastic change in their surroundings and complained about it. The outstanding questions usually are: What’s going to be done about it? Who’s responsible? Who’s going to pay for it?

Global warming, or climate change, is a projection by scientists as to what might happen in the future if we continue burning fossil fuels in the same pattern as in the past and today. Some people say it’s sheer speculation. And how are ordinary people to know? This is a tough one. Common sense, however, suggests some ways to test this theory. Compare the temperatures in a large city on a hot day with temperatures in the nearest countryside. Any commuter knows that a city street in summer is much hotter than a forest path just a few miles away. The big question is whether global temperatures can be drastically affected by the cumulative effect of human activity.

Al Gore says yes. Others say no. If Gore is wrong, we may spend a lot of money on windmills and battery-powered cars. If the nay-sayers are wrong, we might end up like the dinosaurs, unable to survive on a drastically changed planet. Big stakes. In this case, finding out what’s going on, and what to do about it, may be vital to our future.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Learning to See the Problem

When I was a youngster, I wanted to be a famous military commander and wage historic battles around the world. The first war I participated in was so questionable, however, I decided to get out of the war-making business and take up a more socially useful line of work. Like Mark Twain and other authors I admired, I decided to wage war on outrageous behavior, by shining light in dark corners of daily life.

It took me awhile, however, to master the craft of writing anything worth reading. A big step was becoming a newspaper reporter and recording other people’s concerns. That’s how I happened to start writing about environmental issues. One of the most outrageous issues I heard about, while still learning how to be a journalist, was a worry by many Vietnam veterans that Agent Orange and other chemical herbicides used in war zones to kill jungle vegetation may have endangered their health and that of their children.

Agent Orange is a now classic example of unintended consequences—how using a toxic substance as a weapon in a distant war can boomerang as a danger at home. But in the 1970s, when I first encountered it, it was a daunting issue. I had no idea where to find out the truth of the matter. I didn’t recall anything about the spraying operations when I was in Vietnam. But I remembered reading Silent Spring while at a stateside training base and wondering if the herbicides and insecticides Rachel Carson warned about were the same chemicals listed in military chemical warfare manuals. What I learned from investigating the Agent Orange issue years later was to carefully listen to people with personal concerns for their health and dig for answers to their questions.

As I wrote in a newspaper opinion piece summarizing what was known and still unknown about this issue (“Troubling Questions About Dioxin,” New York Times, 6/11/83): “When health questions about Agent Orange first arose in the late 1960s, the focus was on new laboratory studies showing increased rates of cancer, birth defects and deaths among test animals exposed to ingredients of the herbicide. This news appeared after reports of birth defects, serious illnesses and deaths among Vietnamese … exposed to herbicide spray.

“Incredibly, no one at the time—not in the Federal Government, not from the environmental groups, not from the press—asked about the possible health consequences for G.I.’s. Nearly a decade passed before Vietnam veterans began to discover that question for themselves.” And that was largely because a Veterans Administration caseworker in Chicago noticed a pattern of illness among many veterans who served in Vietnam and questioned whether they might have been poisoned by herbicides used in the war. When she took her concerns to the news media in 1978, it hit home for a lot of veterans who had been diagnosed with cancer or rare skin disorders.

While VA officials were telling veterans there was nothing to worry about, citing government reports, the US Environmental Protection Agency issued an emergency ban on almost all domestic uses of the Agent Orange component that contained dioxin. These herbicides had been used for decades to kill weeds in farm fields, along utility lines and in people’s lawns. EPA pointed to lab studies that linked dioxin to higher levels of cancer and birth defects in test animals. Frustrated veterans did their own research and found reports in industrial medical journals of workers at plants that made ingredients of Agent Orange getting a distinctive skin rash called chloracne. So did they have the same skin condition, they demanded to know. Veterans and their families compared health notes and found that many of their children had a birth defect called spina bifida. Was this caused by exposure to dioxin?

The newspaper I worked for at the time, the Morristown (NJ) Daily Record, ran a series of articles I wrote with another reporter, Igor Bobrowsky, that profiled local veterans or their widows, examined their health problems and what was known about a wide array of hazardous chemicals used in Vietnam, interviewed veterans’ advocates across the country, and pressed government officials for answers. “Did Agent Orange poison Vietnam veterans?” was a typical way we posed the questions. “Nearly three years after the federal government announced a massive effort to find out, the answer seems as elusive as ever,” is how we reported what was happening. Quoting various scientists, our reporting pointed to the specific studies that needed to be done.

To help get answers, New Jersey created an Agent Orange study commission, which found that—contrary to federal government assertions—dioxin could be found in many Vietnam veterans’ bodies years after they returned from the war. Other studies by various agencies and independent researchers focused on answering the questions about cancer and birth defects. As results of studies in the US and previous studies in Europe piled up, Congress in the early 1990s mandated that the VA treat or pay compensation to Vietnam veterans for a number of cancers—and their children with spina bifida.

But it was already too late for many veterans. As I reported in 1980 from my research, Vietnam veterans in suburban Morris County, NJ, were dying of cancer at a rate nearly three times the national average for young men in their 20s and early 30s. It was a sobering spot check, as no agency at the time was keeping track of the cause of veterans’ deaths on a national level. Across the nation, these deaths hit hard in unexpected places. “Elmo R. Zumwalt 3d, son of the admiral who ordered the spraying of Agent Orange in Vietnam, and who was exposed to the defoliant himself, died of cancer today at his home. He was 42 years old,” The New York Times reported in August 1988.

“In an article published in The New York Times Magazine on Aug. 24, 1986,” the obituary added, “the younger Mr. Zumwalt said: 'I am a lawyer and I don't think I could prove in court, by the weight of the existing scientific evidence, that Agent Orange is the cause of all the medical problems - nervous disorders, cancer and skin problems - reported by Vietnam veterans, or of their children's severe birth defects. But I am convinced that it is.’”

Admiral Zumwalt took a closer look at the available studies and concluded, in a 1990 report to the VA, that there was sufficient evidence to link various cancers and birth defects with dioxin. But, he added, this information had been deliberately concealed from Congress and the public. “Unfortunately, political interference in government sponsored studies associated with Agent orange has been the norm, not the exception. In fact, there appears to have been a systematic effort to suppress critical data or alter results to meet preconceived notions of what alleged scientific studies were meant to find,” Zumwalt noted.

Zumwalt put his finger on the problem stemming from a military tactic he and others had used to kill vegetation that could conceal enemy troops and heralded a larger danger that potentially affected anyone exposed to these chemicals. “The flawed scientific studies and manipulated conclusions are not only unduly denying justice to Vietnam veterans suffering from exposure to Agent Orange," Zumwalt said in a quote circulated in a US Veterans Dispatch report in November 1990. "They are now standing in the way of a full disclosure to the American people of the likely health effects of exposure to toxic dioxins."

Revelations about this secretive government program continue surfacing. “Years later, a sad and fitting epitaph for the Agent Orange saga would come from James Clary, an Air Force scientist and author of the official history of Operation Ranch Hand, in a statement to Senator Tom Daschle: ‘When we initiated the herbicide program in the 1960s we were well aware of the potential for damage due to dioxin contamination in the herbicide. We were even aware that the military formulation had a higher dioxin concentration than the civilian version, due to the lower cost and the speed of manufacture. However, because the material was to be used on the enemy, none of us were overly concerned,’” a Vietnam veteran’s son, Ben Quick, wrote in the March/April 2008 issue of Orion magazine (“Agent Orange: A Chapter from History that Just Won’t End”).

“My father returned to the Midwest after his tour in the jungles of Vietnam accompanied by a dehumanizing terror,” Quick wrote. “But along with the images and the guilt was something more tangible, a rash that covered his back, raised hivelike splotches that didn’t go away for five years—until I was nearly three. The name for this rash is chloracne; its cause, prolonged exposure to herbicides.”

Ben Quick was born with a deformed left hand. “I know how lucky I am—that things could be much worse,” he wrote. “I’ve seen the pictures of the Vietnamese tending the earth after the fire. The parents who cut and burned the trunks of leafless trees to keep their children warm in winter. The beautiful young girls with jet black hair and loose blouses trimming grass for baskets. The peasants planting saplings in barren ground.

“And I’ve seen the photos of jars filled with the stillborn at the Tu Du hospital in Ho Chi Minh City. Babies born with two faces and three ears. Dead babies with limbs like ropes, long, slender, twisted like pale pretzels in formaldehyde. Siamese twins with melting heads, gathered in a lovers’ tangle, the lips of one pressed to the neck of the other in the softest kiss. Shelves full of pickle jars holding the rawest fruit.

“And the living, the children of the damned.”

As the Agent Orange saga reveals, before there can be a solution, people first have to acknowledge the problem. There’s plenty for everyone to do, at every level of society, to ask questions, dig out and share facts, and press for appropriate actions.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Leaving a Future

If I had my life to do over, there are things I'd do differently. Let's start with the meadow in this photo, taken this summer behind my parents' place in upstate New York. The boy with two horses pulling a simple rig cutting wildflowers and grasses for hay would have been a familar sight to my grandparents and generations before them. When I was a boy, that field to me was a battleground, like something at Gettysburg or Normandy or Korea, where I played war with neighborhood kids. If a modern battle took place there, that meadow would be a dangerous place to farm, spiked with landmines, unexploded grenades, bombs, artillery rounds and toxic substances such as Agent Orange, napalm, depleted uranium.

That is not a legacy any responsible person would wish on their backyard or their nation. So, if I knew what I know now, I'd have given more thought to the future of that farm field and woods and refrained from dropping out of college to join the Army and charge off to war in Vietnam. The New York State College of Forestry, where I was so bored as a student, could have provided a good grounding for addressing what is now the greatest challenge of my lifetime--saving the world from the toxic waste of our throw-away age. But it's never too late to learn.