July 28, 2009

US Postal Service Green Roof

The US Postal Service has unveiled the largest green roof in New York City, which will help the facility reduce its energy usage by 30 percent and pollution runoff between 35 to 75 percent, depending on the season.

Environmental Leader reports that the green roof’s approximate 50-year lifespan is twice that of the roof it replaced (which was built in 1933). The green roof will, like its non-green predecessor, span 2.2 million square feet (nearly 2.5 acres). It will also support 200 pounds-per-square-foot of soil, vegetation, and other green roofing components. The roof nourishes a number of native plants and is furnished with certified-sustainable wood benches.

This notice reminded me of the green roof on the LDS convention center in Salt Lake City. I had the opportunity to spend an hour on the roof about 3 years ago. It was a beautful and quiet respite from the noise and heat of the city, not to mention the fabulous view. The roof was planted with vegetation native to the surrounding area. We met a gentleman who was enjoying the roof. He said that he often ate his lunch on the roof.

Health Care Reform

I've been getting a lot of email from folks who are concerned about the proposed health care reform package.

When I hear people's emotional appeals about how bad our health care is going to be under the new plan, I can't help thinking that while that may be true, our current health care system is broken. So staying the course really doesn’t seem to be a very good option. We need a change. Therein lies the problem.

When the current health care system is costing us something like 18 to 20% of GDP, there will be a lot of people and corporations with vested interests who will oppose any effort to change the system.

As our health care system affects each and everyone of us so personally, there will be a lot of people who will oppose any change from the status quo for fear of losing something they think they have.

So if vested interests and individuals are averse to changing the system, I’m not sure how we’ll get any reform passed.

On top of that, the performance of our health care system seems so entangled with so many other mega trends in our society that I wonder if even the best legislation will have any measurable affect.

Here are a few of the factors I'd suggest would need to be addressed for effective reform. (Let me know if you have others.)


We live in a litigious society. More and more doctors are consulting their lawyers before prescribing a course of action.

* When the doctor says “Why don’t you have a $3000 MRI just to be safe?” many times that safety is about his economic well being, not yours.

* Who pays for unnecessary MRIs?

* Who pays for the cost of malpractice insurance?


We live in an advertising culture. When drug companies can generate billions of dollars of demand just by saying “Ask your doctor about the purple pill”. There really is something wrong. These drugs have side effects. Then there is a drug we can take to manage the side effects of the purple pill.

* Who pays for advertising generated drug costs?


A major part of our soaring health care costs is related to our lousy diet of junk food. You are what you eat.

* High fat diets are directly linked to high rates of cancer, heart disease, and diabetes.

* Who pays the cost of our junk food diet?


Another major increase in our soaring health care costs is related to pollution, toxic chemicals from coal plants, smog from our cars.

* We have skyrocketing rates of lung disease that is related to the quality of the air we breathe.

* Who pays for the health care costs of coal plant pollution and inefficient cars?


We live in an age of specialization. (Maybe this is a good thing.) There are even specialists within specialization areas. They are really expensive and don’t tend to see the whole picture. (I’m a knee doctor, you’ll have to talk to someone else about your hip.) It seems that the primary purpose of our primary care physician is to refer us to specialists. Were we a lot worse off when we had a family doctor who actually provided most of our care? (Maybe we were, I really don’t know.)

Lack of Individual Power

Most folks can’t change health insurance without changing jobs. And when you change jobs, you have to change health insurance… So the health insurance companies know that the individual has no say, no power over them. I can switch my car insurance or house insurance anytime I want if I don’t like how they are performing. Why am I locked in to the plan chosen by the HR department? I have very different health needs from my co-workers.

FDA Monopolies

The FDA effectively protects the health care industry from price competition. Why do drugs cost so much less in Canada?

* Hint: It isn’t related to costs.

Our Choices

Finally, there is our behavior, our choices. If an x-ray can provide 95% confidence in a diagnosis, but an MRI can provide 98% confidence and both cost you the same amount out of pocket, of course you go for the MRI. But one procedure costs the insurance company 5 times as much the other.

* Would you make the same decision if the MRI cost you 5 times as much as the x-ray? Maybe, maybe not.

Are any of these topics effectively addressed as part of the proposed health care reform plan? Let me know your thoughts.

July 26, 2009

Climate Change Answers for Doubters

How to talk to a Climate Change Doubter

This is an excerpt from The Climate Challenge: 101 Solutions to Global Warming by Guy Dauncey.

It is very discouraging to be speaking at a meeting and have someone stand up and say, "This is all nonsense. There are many climate scientists who dispute what you are saying. There has always been climate change. They were predicting global cooling back in the 1970s, and besides, the hockey stick graph has been proven wrong. Satellite measurements show that the lower atmosphere is cooling, not warming. Volcanoes produce far more CO2 than humans. The ice-core record from the past shows that the increase in CO2 follows the rise in temperature; it does not cause it. Why should we trust such flimsy science?"

Fortunately, Britain's New Scientist magazine has published a list of 28 climate myths that lay to rest the most common misunderstandings, and "How to Talk to Climate Skeptics" on the Gristmill refutes 61 contrary arguments. Here are just a few of the myths that the contrarians like to promote:

Many leading scientists question climate change

Not true. The handful of climate scientists who oppose the consensus stand against tens of thousands who have signed dozens of statements from scientific organizations all around the world supporting the consensus position. In a 2004 review of the abstracts of 928 peer-reviewed papers published from 1993 to 2003 that referenced global climate change, 100% supported the consensus position.1

Volcanoes produce more CO2 than humans

Not true. In the past, volcanoes sometimes produced enormous amounts of CO2, but the CO2 emissions from volcanoes on land today are only 1% of human emissions.

The "hockey stick" graph has been proven wrong

Not true. The hockey stick graph shows that temperatures were basically level during the past 1,000 years and then rose sharply in the late 20th century. In 2006 the US National Academy of Science endorsed its findings and showed that it has been supported by an array of evidence.

Global warming is being caused by the Sun and cosmic rays, not humans

Not true. A 2007 study showed that solar output has been falling since 1985, eliminating also the theory that cosmic rays that create cloud cover, cooling the Earth, are being blocked by the Sun's more intense heat. Most of the 20th century saw a steady decrease in solar output, not an increase.2

The cooling after 1940 shows that CO2 does not cause warming

Not true. The world did cool from 1940 to 1970, largely because the release of aerosols into the atmosphere, resulting from dirty industrial activities and warfare, scattered light from the Sun and reflected its heat back into space. There was also a large volcanic eruption at Mount Agung in 1963 that cooled things down by 0.5 ÂșC.

The lower atmosphere is cooling, not warming

Not true. The apparent cooling was caused by errors in the way satellite data was collected and inaccurate data from weather balloons. More recent data reveals that it is warming as expected.

Ice cores show that past increases in CO2 lagged behind temperature rises, disproving the link to global warming

The data is correct, but the conclusion is invalid. The initial warming when Earth emerges from an ice age is caused by variations in Earth's orbit, known as the Milankovitch cycles. After a lag of about 800 years, CO2 emissions from the warmer oceans increase, and CO2 and temperature rise together for about 4,200 years. The evidence that CO2 traps heat comes from physics, not from correlations with past temperature.

It was warmer during the medieval period, when there were vineyards in England

Not true. There were some warm periods in Europe from 900 to 1300 AD, but the accumulated evidence shows that the planet has been warmer in the past few decades than at any time during the medieval period, and maybe warmer than it has been for 125,000 years.3

Scientists were predicting global cooling in the 1970s

True. "They" were a handful of scientists who were concerned that increased air pollution might outweigh the influence of rising CO2 emissions, and they called for more research. Subsequent research by thousands of scientists has found that warming caused by greenhouse gases far outweighs the cooling caused by air pollution.

Mars and Pluto are warming too

Maybe true. Our knowledge about these planets is still very sketchy. If it is true, the warming is not being caused by increased solar activity, as the Sun's output has not increased since direct measurements began in 1978.

To many climate skeptics, no amount of debate will change their views. For these people, the alternative framing presented in Solution #65 may be more effective.

A Rundown of the Skeptics and Deniers: www.logicalscience.com/skeptics/skeptics.htm

Climate Change: A Guide for the Perplexed (New Scientist): www.tinyurl.com/3bl5e6

Desmogblog: www.desmogblog.com

Global Temperatures: www.tinyurl.com/3xmqhm

Great Global Warming Swindle: www.realclimate.org/index.php/archives/2007/03/swindled

Hockey stick graph: www.tinyurl.com/2f96hb

How to Talk to a Climate Skeptic: http://gristmill.grist.org/skeptics

Naomi Oreskes Study: www.tinyurl.com/ywtgpj

NASA/GISS Temperature animation: www.tinyurl.com/2onur8

The Consensus on Global Warming: www.logicalscience.com/consensus/consensus.htm

The Heat is Online: www.heatisonline.org

"A firm and ever-growing body of evidence points to a clear picture: the world is warming, this warming is due to human activity increasing levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, and if emissions continue unabated the warming will too, with increasingly serious consequences."

—Michael Le Page, New Scientist,

July 25, 2009

Benefits of Green Buildings

A new study shows that green buildings outperform their non-green peer buildings.

Higher occupancy and rental rates, faster lease-up times, increased property value, and higher productivity for workers in those buildings.

One tenant reported 30% fewer sick days after moving to one of the green buildings.

A summary of the study written for the commercial real estate industry can be found here.

July 23, 2009

RFK Jr.'s thoughts on ending our coal addiction

How to end America’s deadly coal addiction

By Robert F. Kennedy Jr

Published: July 19 2009 19:36

Converting rapidly from coal-generated energy to gas is President Barack Obama’s most obvious first step towards saving our planet and jump-starting our economy. A revolution in natural gas production over the past two years has left America awash with natural gas and has made it possible to eliminate most of our dependence on deadly, destructive coal practically overnight – and without the expense of building new power plants.

Whatever the slick campaign financed by the powerful coal barons might claim, coal is neither cheap nor clean. Ozone and particulates from coal plants kill tens of thousands of Americans each year and cause widespread illnesses and disease. Acid rain has destroyed millions of acres of valuable forests and sterilised one in five Adirondack lakes. Neurotoxic mercury raining from these plants has contaminated fish in every state and poisons over a million American women and children annually. Coal industry strip mines have already destroyed 500 mountains in Appalachia, buried 2,000 miles of rivers and streams and will soon have flattened an area the size of Delaware. Finally, coal, which supplies 46 per cent of our electric power, is the most important source of America’s greenhouse gases.

America’s cornucopia of renewables and the recent maturation of solar, geothermal and wind technologies will allow us to meet most of our energy needs with clean, cheap, green power. In the short term, natural gas is an obvious bridge fuel to the “new” energy economy.

Since 2007, the discovery of vast supplies of deep shale gas in the US, along with advanced extraction methods, have created stable supply and predictably low prices for most of the next century. Of the 1,000 gigawatts of generating capacity currently needed to meet national energy demand, 336 are coal-fired. Surprisingly, America has more gas generation capacity – 450 gigawatts – than it does for coal.

However, public regulators generally require utilities to dispatch coal-generated power in preference to gas. For that reason, high-efficiency gas plants are in operation only 36 per cent of the time. By changing the dispatch rule nationally to require that whenever coal and gas plants are competing head-to-head, gas generation must be utilised first, we could quickly reduce coal generation and achieve massive emissions reductions.

In an instant, this simple change could eliminate three-quarters of America’s coal-burning generators and save a fortune in energy costs. Around 920 US coal plants – 78 per cent of the total – are small (generating less than half a gigawatt), antiquated and horrendously inefficient. Their average age is 45 years, with many over 75. They tend to be located amidst dense populations and in poor neighbourhoods to lethal effect.

These ancient plants burn 20 per cent more coal per megawatt hour than modern large coal units and are 60 to 75 per cent less fuel-efficient than combined cycle gas plants. They account for only 21 per cent of America’s electric power but almost half the sector’s emissions. Properly assessed, the costs of operation, maintenance, capital improvements and repair of these antiquated facilities make them far more expensive to run than natural gas plants. However, irrational energy sector pricing structures make it possible for many plant operators to pass those costs to the public and make choices based exclusively on fuel costs, which in the case of coal appear deceptively cheap because of massive subsidies.

Mothballing or throttling back these plants would mean huge savings to the public and eliminate the need for more than 350m tons of coal, including all 30m tons harvested through mountain-top removal. Their closure would reduce US mercury emissions by 20-25 per cent, dramatically cut deadly particulate matter and the pollutants that cause acid rain, and slash America’s CO2 from power plants by 20 per cent – an amount greater than the entire reduction envisaged in the first years of the pending climate change legislation at a fraction of the cost.

To quickly gain further economic and environmental advantages, the larger, newer coal plants that remain in operation should be required to co-fire with natural gas. Many of these plants are already connected to gas pipelines and can easily be adapted to burn gas as 15 to 20 per cent of their fuel. Such co-firing dramatically reduces forced outages and maintenance costs and can be the most cost effective way to reduce CO2 emissions.

Natural gas comes with its own set of environmental caveats. It is a carbon-based fuel and its extraction from shale, the most significant new source, if not managed carefully, can have serious water, land use and wildlife impacts, especially in the hands of irresponsible producers and lax regulators. But those impacts can be mitigated by careful regulation and are dwarfed by the disaster of coal.

The writer is president of Waterkeeper Alliance

July 18, 2009

NY Times Article on Building Codes

According to an article in the NY Times, climate scientists and architects say that no single policy change could do more to save energy over the long run — and reduce the nation's contribution to global warming — than building codes that make saving energy the law.

The article also talks about the importance of having an energy inspector...

AUSTIN, Tex. — Peering behind a bathtub in a newly built house, an inspector, John Umphress, spotted a big gap in the wall insulation. "Somebody took a lunch break!" he complained to the builder, who sheepishly agreed to patch the hole.

With the fix, the house, already a model of energy efficiency, will use even less energy and save its residents money — for decades.

But that small catch would not have been made in many American towns. Mr. Umphress is a particular kind of inspector, an energy auditor, and Austin, with one of the toughest building codes in the country, requires an energy inspection before a building can be occupied.

California reports that it has reduced energy consumption in new houses and commercial buildings by 75 percent over the three decades that codes have been in effect there. Likewise, a new home built today in Florida, a state that also has a strong energy code, is nearly 70 percent more energy-efficient than a home of the same size built when codes were first enacted in 1979, according to the Florida Solar Energy Center, a state-supported research institute.

"A national building code is the key for getting our greenhouse gas emissions and energy consumption under control," said Ed Mazria, executive director of Architecture 2030, an organization that researches building efficiency. "As you begin to level off emissions from buildings, you can begin to phase out coal plants as they age."

July 17, 2009

Harvard Study says there is a lot more wind power

Global wind energy potential is considerably higher than previous estimates by both wind industry groups and government agencies, according to a Harvard University study published last week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States.

Using data from thousands of meteorological stations, the Harvard team estimated that world wind power potential to be 40 times greater than total current power consumption. A previous study cited in teh paper put that multiple at about 7 times.

In the lower 48 states, the potential from wind power is 16 times more than total electricity demand in the United States, the researchers suggested – significantly greater than a 2008 Department of Energy study that projected wind could supply a fifth of all electricity in the country by 2030.

The authors based their calculations on the deployment of 2.5- to 3-megawatt wind turbines situated either in accessible rural areas that are neither frozen nor forested, or relatively shallow offshore locations. They also used a conservative 20 percent estimate for capacity factor, a measure of how much energy a given turbine actually produces.

In an example of how renewable energy potential can be a moving target, Mr. Goggin explained that the growth in the forecasts can be attributed to the increasingly common use of very large turbines that rise to almost 100 meters.

Wind speeds are greater at higher elevations. Previous wind studies were based on the deployment of 50- to 80-meter turbines.

"As turbines start to get taller," predicts Mr. Goggin, "we'll see a lot more capitalization of the resource."

Power from wind turbines increase as a factor of the cube of of wind velocity.

Yves Choinard Interview

According to an article in Fast Company, Chouinard, 70, defines the company's mission in purely eco-driven terms: "to use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis."

Since 1985, Patagonia has given at least 1% of its sales to environmental charities, and in 2001, Chouinard cofounded One Percent for the Planet, an alliance of mostly small companies that pledge to do the same. One Percent recently notched its 1,000th member; in total, its members have given $42 million to more than 1,700 groups.

Chouinard is a realist, a renegade and a totally different kind of businessman. His motivation stems from his own pessimistic view that the world and the human race itself are deteriorating. Through his travels he observes the ongoing destruction of Earth's natural resources first hand and believes that helping to solve environmental ills is just a part of doing business on this planet. After all, how will plants operate when coal is gone? What will paper mills use when the forest has been clear cut and not sufficiently replanted? How will factories survive when water becomes so scarce that it can only be used for drinking? How will we produce goods? These questions give more meaning to the quote etched on the front door of Patagonia's headquarters,"there is no business to be done on a dead planet."

July 11, 2009

Pope's Message on the Environment

Pope Benedict issued an Encyclical Letter "Caritas in Veritate" (Charity in Truth) where he addressed many critical issues facing humanity including hunger, economic systems and inter-generational justice. He made a called for strengthening the "covenant between human beings and the environment" as well as issuing a call for the creation of sustainable businesses.

The Pope's letter called for sustainable development in the broadest sense and addressed the human and environmental costs of continuing business as usual. He supported new businesses that "without rejecting profit, aim at a higher goal than the mere logic of the exchange of equivalents, of profit as an end in itself."

Here are some of his thoughts on the environment.

[We have] duties arising from our relationship to the natural environment. The environment is God's gift to everyone, and in our use of it we have a responsibility towards the poor, towards future generations and towards humanity as a whole.

At the same time we must recognize our grave duty to hand the earth on to future generations in such a condition that they too can worthily inhabit it and continue to cultivate it. This means being committed to making joint decisions "after pondering responsibly the road to be taken, decisions aimed at strengthening that covenant between human beings and the environment, which should mirror the creative love of God, from whom we come and towards whom we are journeying"

The Church has a responsibility towards creation and she must assert this responsibility in the public sphere. In so doing, she must defend not only earth, water and air as gifts of creation that belong to everyone. She must above all protect mankind from self-destruction.