Deciphering a(nother) bad news headline: US Withdrawal from the Paris Agreement

Our federal government won’t support our future. They won’t support our planet’s habitability, our economic stability, our health. Luckily, our nation isn’t just our federal government. Our nation is a conglomerate of CEOs and corporations, small business and non-profits, city governments and townships. At its core, our nation is comprised of people.

As President Trump takes America out of the Paris Climate Agreement, arguably one of the most meaningful approaches to climate change to date, the rest of America will need to step forward. Many have realized that today’s actions have taken America off its pedestal as a global leader. As the rest of the world embarks to build a better future, a stronger future, America will be taking a back seat, benefiting from and hindering the constructive actions of the global community.

However, there are two important things to note. One, is that when it comes to fighting climate change, the American government was never really driving this charge. Fields of wind turbines and renewable visibility is often associated with Germany and western Europe. Best practices for conservation are typically found in third world nations – African communities, Asia – those who depend on and interact with the world’s resources most directly (and side note, are impacted most directly by the effects of climate change).

The second note, is that while America loses touch with current progress and future generations, our businesses and communities have a unique opportunity to redefine what it means to be a global political leader. In a globalized world, local and corporate policy can make a sizable impact more than ever before. It’s not taboo to admit that our economy is contingent on our environment (along with our health, our food and water supply, the stability of our infrastructure). Smart companies know this and have acted on this. This was made evident by the 30 Fortune 50 companies that openly opposed withdrawing from the agreement just this month.

The evidence of climate change and the man-made impact on our planet is right outside our doors. Play a role in how we move forward: Advocate for sustainable strategies. Educate the next generation. Support a healthier future. Our government has never truly led this charge, and the actions of socially responsible organizations and our citizens are capable of implementing the policy that our current leadership has dismantled.

 

A Fear of Flame Retardants Spreads Like Wildfire

What’s in your couch?

You may not think the answer to that question is important, but to many it is. It’s so important that the Duke University Superfund Research Center, a research lab in Durham, NC, is dedicated to testing foam samples for their chemical composition.

The lab is answering the call of concerned consumers across the country: are we being exposed to flame retardants?

Flame retardants are chemical compounds that can withstand exposure to an open flame. The manufacturing of flame-retardants in our products is primarily driven by Technical Bulletin 117, the flammability standard for the state of California. TB-117 requires that the foam in furniture, and baby products, be able to withstand exposure to a small open flame for 12 seconds.

Flame retardants do not only exist in our couches. Manufacturers have added these chemicals to our office supplies, home furniture, and of most notable concern, our baby products. But is the fear of flame-retardants well merited?

Don’t be so quick to throw out your toys

Researchers at the Duke University Lab cite that studies have shown negative health effects associated with these chemicals. These health effects include disruptions of the neurological and endocrine systems, but it is hard to decipher if these affects are solely a consequence of flame-retardants.

TDCPP (chlorinated tris phospate) is a flame retardant that is under heavy scrutiny. Duke University researchers Gretchen Kroeger and Ellen Cooper say that there are likely health outcomes of TDCPP because it is closely related to a compound that contains carcinogenic properties. The cousin compound was removed from pajamas in the 1970s for this reason.

However, Kroeger and Cooper warn that directly attributing adverse health effects to flame-retardants can cause unwarranted chaos.

According to Kroeger, the media’s perception of flame-retardants has caused some to throw out brand new couches and car seats, an act she finds unnecessary based on the research available.

“We can never say absolutely that this level of TDCDP that we found in your furniture is going to cause this set of health impacts in you or your child,” Kroeger says. TDCPP may metabolize into a whole set of other chemicals that may be more toxic than the compound as a whole, but people’s bodies metabolize differently.

Cooper thinks that there is one word that has caused fear to spread so intensely: toxic. “A lot of times people will try to put words in our mouth but we never say that these are toxic. This is a fear inspiring word,” she said. “’Toxic’ brings impairment and fear. People stop working and people stop learning.”

The market is at work to keep your baby healthy

A lot of the hysteria regarding flame-retardants circulates around baby products. Researchers are working towards identifying flame-retardants in baby products in order to understand the levels of exposure babies receive through these products.

A study by Heather Stapleton based at Duke University found that 80% of baby products tested contained flame-retardants. The most common flame retardant found in the study was TDCPP, the aforementioned compound associated with negative health effects.

Mark Fellin is the Director of Public Affair and flame retardant expert at JPMA, the manufacturer for baby products at Toys R Us, Inc. “I would be the first to say that the level of flame retardants in these products is significantly less than the public opinion,” Fellin states. “But I do understand the concern.”

Whether merited or not, the heightened concern in consumers is affecting the market. Fellin states, “We don’t want these in our products because the consumers don’t want them.” Without the support of the consumer, costs are driven up and it adds an increased liability.

JPMA has been able to get 18 products exempt from TB117, meaning that these products no longer have to meet the flammability standard.

Like Kroeger and Cooper, Fellin warns consumers not to draw harsh conclusions about the effects of flame-retardants. Scientific studies contain a lot of variables that are difficult to separate.

The future of flame retardants in our baby products

For now, Kroeger says, “Dusting can do a lot to reduce our exposure.” The toxins move out into the air and settle in the dust. This is especially important for kids, who have a lot of hand to mouth contact with dirtier objects.

Researchers and various organizations are trying to generate databases of information for consumers who want to know more about flame-retardants.

“Do I think that they are going to be 100% accurate?” states Kroeger. “No.” In the meantime, we wait for more data to be collected to find the most plausible trends.

JPMA and other manufacturers hear from concerned consumers everyday, driving a new initiative to do alternative assessments of these potentially harmful chemicals.

Effective on October 1st of 2013, California enacted Safer Consumer Product regulations, which require manufacturers and distributors to use safer alternatives to harmful products. The State of California Department of Toxic Substances Control recently proposed TDCPP as a “priority product.” This means that manufacturers will have to find ways to reduce or remove TDCPP from their products.

Until this is enacted, Fellin tells concerned consumers to read the labels. If the label says that the product meets the TB-117 requirement, it has flame-retardants. The same product without this label probably doesn’t.

Like Kroeger and Cooper, Fellin warns consumers not to draw harsh conclusions about the effects of flame-retardants. Scientific studies contain a lot of variables that are difficult to separate.

“Let’s put it this way,” Fellin states. “If my wife were to buy baby products, she wouldn’t want flame retardants in the products. Being in the industry, I don’t think flame-retardants in juvenile products are necessary. However, I think flame retardants have an important purpose in certain settings.”

Solar Shines Light on Economy in Rural North Carolina

[originally published for UNC JOMC 565 class]

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The North Carolina sun peaks out from behind clouds | Photographer: Nathan Congleton

Farmland in North Carolina is vast and green. The hills roll with expanses of open fields, cultured to maximize sunlight. Rural North Carolinians tend to these farms, providing the state and the nation with their commodities.

Near Maple View Farm in Hillsborough, North Carolina, the farmland looks just like this. I park in the Maple View parking lot and trudge through the grass to get to my destination, a small plot of land about 50 meters away.

I never equated farms with money. In North Carolina, the majority of farms that were filled with tobacco have gone out of business. In response, these farms have shifted gears to harvest a different sort of crop: solar energy.

I climb up the fence as I arrive, finally close enough to see the object of my curiosity. Next to the farmhouse, surrounded by a few hundred cows, are about 20 rows of solar panels. Their silver bases stick out of the ground and they glisten in the sun.

Many North Carolinians have misconceptions about what this influx of solar farms means. Residents and politicians alike have classified solar farms as a disruptive technology, which triggers debate on the impact solar farms will have on communities. Some argue that the most important aspect of solar farms is the economic benefits they provide to the rural communities that host them.

An industrial justice for the community

Markus Wilhelm is the founder of Strata Solar, North Carolina’s leading solar farm developers. Wilhelm firmly believes that hosting a solar farm can be economically beneficial for rural communities.

Unlike coal plants, Wilhelm says adding a solar farm to a poverty-stricken or rural region is an “industrial justice.” To build the farm alone, approximately 80 local residents will be trained and hired in solar construction, he says. Additionally, solar companies purchase their supplies from local companies because it is more efficient and requires less transportation.

Randy Wheeless, who works in corporate communications for Duke Energy, sees potential in a change from tobacco to solar farming. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics found that there have been over 12,000 job losses in the NC Tobacco Industry between 1992 and 2012.

“A lot of areas were hit hard during the recession,” Wheeless states. “Solar is definitely a positive thing for these areas.”

Wilhem agrees, stating that farmers see solar as a better use of their land. It is not taxing on their bodies, brings home a steady income, and doesn’t require maintenance for up to 40 years.

It is this economic benefit that sparked the idea for the nation-wide non-profit, Grid Alternatives, which provides rooftop solar panels to communities that would otherwise not be able to afford access to solar energy. Although the solar installation type varies (farm to roof), the idea is the same. Its solar installation process provides hands-on experience and workforce development to the local community and job-training organizations.

Julian Foley, the communications manager for Grid Alternatives, discusses the financial freedom that the access to solar provides to low-income communities, which bear the brunt of pollution.  “On top of this, low-income families pay up to four times as much as the average consumer on energy due to poorly insulated homes,” she said.  Access to clean-air technology saves them enough to liberate them from many financial burdens.

Wilhelm said that these residential rooftop solar models are not economically ideal in North Carolina, and that rooftop installations are too expensive right now. Rather, small-scale utility solar farms are the most beneficial in North Carolina because they are faster and cheaper to build.

This difference in opinion about whether residential rooftop installations are financially beneficial was discussed in a recently release report titled “How Much Do Local Regulations Matter.” The report found that solar panel pricing varies based on local permitting and other regulations.

The price of building

Recently released reports from the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory have determined that the price of solar panel installations is decreasing rapidly. Specifically, the price of electricity sold to utilities by solar farms has fallen from $200/MWh in 2007 to $50/Mwhr today. This means that it is becoming more economical for energy companies like Duke Energy to turn to solar as an energy source.

On top of this, the price to install solar panels has also fallen. Between 2012 and 2013 the price dropped about 15%, according to the Berkeley report. This means a lot for solar companies, who can now pay less to provide more solar energy to utility companies.

But for solar farms in rural North Carolina there is a different price to bear: crime.  With unemployment rates up to 40%, some local residents have been convicted of breaking into solar farms to remove the expensive copper materials from the machinery.

Additionally, there is the cost of educating local residents on the topic of solar energy. Many residents express concerns for their health under the misconception that the solar farm releases toxic substances. Wilhelm said that there is no evidence linking health hazards and solar energy.

Politics and money: the role of legislation

Brian Lips is the Energy Policy Project Coordinator at the NC Clean Energy Technology Center.  He found a common misconception to be that solar energy is over-subsidized by the government. “People forget that energy in general is very subsidized in the US,” he claims. “The subsidies for renewable actually pale in comparison to fossil fuels.”

In fact, Lips believes that legislation is not always friendly to maximizing the economic benefits, but that it has improved. “We have a state tax credit that dates back to the Carter administration, but it was underutilized until about three decades ago” he said. Solar farms also provide a big increase to the tax base of a county, Lips says.

Legislation like the Renewable Energy Portfolio Standard supports the influx of solar. With the standard in place, utilities will be required to meet up to 12.5% of their energy needs with renewable sources by 2021.

Some argue that policy is not favorable enough. Wilhelm recounts multiple locations where local zoning regulations required up to $300,000 in tree coverage so the panels would remain obscure. Other industrial plants have not been subjected to these regulations.

Wilhelm credits these regulations to the notion that politicians want to make sure this disruptive technology doesn’t interfere with the economy or investments.

The future of solar farms in rural NC

North Carolina has recently become a leader in solar energy, specifically the eastern part of the state. If this trend continues, rural North Carolina is only beginning to see the effects of solar energy.

With many projects underway, these economies will be impacted. Those in the business have been quick to argue that the impact is a positive one.

“We still believe we need a diverse energy mix in North Carolina,” Wheeless says. “There’s no reason solar can’t be a part of that mix.” Over the years, North Carolina will have to either modernize or retire their coal-fired plants, since the majority of them were built in the 1940s. And like traditional power plants, solar farms are a welcome addition to any counties tax.

One example is the solar farm in Davie County, NC. Strata Solar reported that over $250,000 was spent in direct expenditures in Davie County for wages, lodging and supplies.  Additionally, the property tax base of Davie County increased by approximately $15 million.

Wilhelm says that as solar is actually out-competing coal in affordability.

“I’m not a tree-hugger,” he said. “I’m a business guy.”  Solar energy could prove that it is possible to achieve both a healthy economy and a healthy environment.

It is evident that harvesting the sun means a lot for the economy. As I stand on the fence, I think that the farm itself doesn’t seem all that special. The cows seem unbothered by the presence of these large glass sheets. On top of this, not a single human has passed by since I arrived.

As I step down off the fence I realize I’ve somehow become covered in mud. Solar farms may provide a different commodity than the old tobacco farm, but the farm itself is pretty much the same.

What Earth Thinks of the Election Results

This month we received some interesting, yet in my opinion not very surprising, results. The GOP is now primarily Republican, and both the Speaker of the House and the Majority Leader are claiming that they are not scientists. 

Lecturing at UNC Chapel Hill, White House Correspondent Juliet Eilperin let us know what these results mean for addressing issues like climate change and the environment. Bottom line: it’s not pretty, but there’s still hope.

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A big issue with the Republican leadership is their general consensus that global warming can be beneficial to mankind. Apparently, global warming can provide both economic and social benefits. And because of this they would like to challenge the EPA’s carbon rules.

Background: In June, 2014, the EPA began to act on section 111(d) of the Clean Air Act in order to cut carbon pollution by 30% by 2020. Section 111(d) allows the EPA to set pollution standards, and mandates the states to figure out how to meet these standards. (In other words, big coal-reliant states like Kentucky [home state to our new Majority leader] are not happy).

In fact, let’s zero in on Mitch McConnell, our new Majority Leader. Eilperin predicted that one of the first votes McConnell will call be on the Keystone XL. And sure enough, within the first weeks of his placement that’s exactly what happened.

McConnell has crusaded against the EPA for years, according to Eilperin. “He sees these carbon rules as something that is very important to challenge.” If there’s a way that Republicans can slow down implementation in a way that doesn’t hurt them in the next election, EPA’s rules could be cut.

Eilperin finds that luckily, for a president who has rarely issued vetoes, the environment is one area in which Obama is willing to fight.

And it’s true. Nearing the tail-end of his presidency, Obama has called out Congress time and time again with no regard for the usual political decorum. They are wrong, and he knows it, so he says it. Eilperin has found that historically, it is surprising how rarely politicians are willing to take risks and stand on principles.

Eilperin thinks “the discussions the president has had with his own daughters about climate change have influenced him.”

And that’s because his daughters are the ones who are going to feel the repercussions. When thinking about the ethics behind climate change, it really comes down to the value of our lives. The generation after us, my generation even, are going to be the ones whose lives are completely altered because of our government’s actions, specifically the actions of the GOP if they allow carbon to continue to pollute our atmosphere at the present rate. It is this generation whose drinking water will be affected if the Keystone pipeline is faulty or not regulated properly.

Until people realize the unfairness of this situation, or the gravity of failing to act now, the EPA’s goal will equate to trying to fit a square peg in a round hole. And we will still be electing leaders who claim global warming must not be real because they themselves are not scientists.

Drowning in Water and Wrapped in Excessive CO2

Grandkids are the last thing on my mind. I’m sure they are for many of us entering the workforce.

Grandkids are what those older folk are thinking about. Grandkids are what Lord Nicolas Stern was thinking about when he gave this TED Talk. And they’re what members of the IPCC were thinking about when they released this report. It’s what Obama was thinking about when he declared the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument. These are the people thinking about the future in the sense of what we are going to leave behind.

So if we don’t care about the future after we die, if we’re not invested in the future of our non-existent grandchildren, why do we care? Why have I, about to graduate college, dedicated over 4 years of my life to protecting and advocating for the environment?

It’s because, today, I don’t want the negative fate of the planet to be on my hands. We all want to be immortal, and as far as science has gotten today, the only part of us that remains immortal is our legacy. So what is the state of the planet whose fate is in our hands? So what is the legacy we are leaving behind? According to the IPCC’s most recently release report, as well as other expert understanding, it’s not one that I want to hold myself accountable for.

  • increased temperature changes in the climate system are causing intense climate fluctuations
  • climate change caused by human activity is negatively affecting the global food production for our increasing population
  • sea level rise precipitates a loss of aesthetically and economically valuable beaches
  • the budget to minimize global warming will be exhausted in 30 years at the current rate
  • the demand for energy is going to rise by 40% in the next to decades

This is what we’ve been handed. We can’t change it, it is what we’ve been willed by those who came before us. But we can start to be better. And since when has anyone ever wanted to turn away an opportunity to do that?

You can’t make a peace treaty with the planet. You can’t negotiate with the laws of physics. You’re in there. You’re stuck. Those are the stakes we’re playing for, and that’s why we have to make this second transformation, the climate transformation, and move to a low-carbon economy.

–Lord Nicolas Stern

The need for a lot of luck looms larger and larger. Personally, I think it’s a slim reed to lean on for the fate of the planet.

–Michael Oppenheimer, Princeton University climate scientist

This is the fate of the planet. We can do nothing, and watch it wither before our eyes. Or we could listen to those who have investments in the future, as we one day will. We can prepare ourselves for the day when all we have to leave behind to those and that which we love is what we’ve done, our legacy, and our history.

Why would we ever leave that up to luck?

Environmental Policy A Step Behind

The old adage of “locking the gates after the horse is stolen” is one that could not be more applicable than when discussing Environmental Policy. Steve Wall, Project Director of the Environmental Resource Program at UNC, sees Environmental Policy as extremely “reactionary,” especially in North Carolina.

Here’s the issue with this when we’re dealing with climate change: there’s not always a lot to react to. Yes, increased storm abundance and severity is extremely likely, but other than that the effects of climate change are slow and steady and soon they will be too late to fix.

Sea-level rise in particular is one of these effects. And as a result, our coastal residences will be dealing with a lot of property damages.

Sea-level rise has led to an increased issue with “nuisance flooding,” NOAA reports.  But for many state legislatures, this isn’t enough to call for proper mitigation and policy.

In fact, North Carolina has been publicly ridiculed for how they handle sea-level rise. Specifically, its the state’s claim that one can not consider scenarios of accelerating sea-level rise as a result to climate change. States like North Carolina that disregard climate science have met environmentalists in the middle, and address sea level rise as an issue in itself apart from climate change.

While this may be effective, I think it is a short-term solution to a long-term problem. You can not treat climate change as a reactionary issue. In order to properly mitigate, the gate has to be locked before the horse is stolen. In this case, not only do we need to build resilience before residents are swept away in property loss (literally), but we need to find solutions that minimize the effects of climate change. Whether these solutions are finding effective means to limit our energy consumption or finding an alternative, renewable fuel source, these are the solutions that will protect our futures.

Whose Problem Is It Anyway?

The way government systems work makes sense. Everybody can’t be in control, so the majority picks a select few people to do all the controlling. We elect leaders, and put these people in charge of our futures, our lives, and our experiences. That’s how it’s been since the start of the Roman Empire. Governance.

What else has been since the Romans?

Not much, as far as I can see. Maybe some city infrastructures, a few architectural designs, the basis of math. But the world has changed a lot.

The government system works, but can we really rely solely on a handful of people to fix our problems? I don’t think there are large flaws in the way our government works, I am a strong supporter of democracy, of policy, and of institutions.  The only difference is that we now have technology, which expands our freedom of speech into freedom to communicate ideas quickly and effectively. So can we use this technology to pool ideas to fix a problem, rather than waiting for a Bill to pass the floor of Congress?

I’ve talked before about pooling knowledge and experience to create news, but can we pool this same knowledge and experience to create solutions? It’s the same way that citizen journalism would work, except that we would embrace the opinion of the individual rather than only seeing the hard facts.

I spend a large portion of my time on social media. The majority of my time, however, focuses less on the pictures, the events, and the big stories, and more on the comments and the individual ideas that stem from a few short sentences piled onto each other.

What I like so much about social media is that it opens up the table to discussion. Not just to officials, or to members of a single party, but to the world as a whole, no matter what your background. We are united through access to the internet. I realized this when my co-worker posted it point-blank. His Facebook status read: “I would be interested in recommendations or case studies others can provide to assist Detroit in this crises. Detroit will certainly not be the last city in the Midwest or the country that will be stressed by affordability and access to clean water. Thoughts?” and was accompanied by this NY Times article.

It’s not easy for the few on Capitol Hill to truly understand what they are governing when they aren’t necessarily experiencing the problems themselves. Lack of clean water may be a new problem to the US, but to many others around the world it is not. The goal of policies is to appease the masses, and more often than not, appeasement isn’t enough. In order for policy to work, the policies need to support and be geared directly towards the masses, and the masses need to understand the policy.

Maybe finding the right idea or the golden solution, is like finding a needle in a haystack. But amid all those comments under every big headline, I have the feeling it’s in there somewhere. I’m going to keep searching, and in doing so at the very least I’m learning a lot about those around me.