Photo of Pacifica Pier.
earth, environment

A Coast Process

All of California may not one day fall into the ocean, but right now, parts of it do.

Erosion occurs all along the coast. Every ocean wave pounds on the bluffs and scours the beaches.

Pictured above is the Pacifica Municipal Pier.

It’s shaped like an “L” — you can see that it makes a right turn toward the end. It’s 1,140 feet long. When you’re on the pier, you can look far north or south, depending on the fog. Here’s a view to the north on a clear, windy day.


Along this stretch of Pacifica, there’s a seawall protecting the buildings along the coast. If not for this kind of coastal “armoring” as it’s generally called, the waves you see in this photo would tear up the cliff and the houses would fall in. The wall itself needs some protecting, which is why there are so many rocks—called riprap—piled at the base.

Something that’s missing here is a beach.

There’s a trade-off involved when you armor a coast, and what tends to be lost are things like beaches (by interrupting replenishment from sediments upstream) and coastal access. I learned much of this first-hand, and got a Pacifica tour in the process, from coastal experts Bob Battalio and David Revell at Philip Williams & Associates.

I interviewed them for a feature that’s just come out for Terrain Magazine. The story, A Rising Tide, looks at the potential effects of sea-level rise in Northern California. What’s in store? Increased erosion along some parts of the California coast–which will probably inspire even more armoring–and in some low-lying areas, increased flooding risk. The single hardest hit area? San Francisco Bay.

Here, for example, some of the new flooding risks by 2100 at predicted sea-level-rise rates along San Francisco’s Embarcadero, the baseball park, Mission Bay, and Treasure Island.


You can download the whole report on the Pacific Institute’s web site. If you want to see the technical report covering coastal erosion created by Revell, Battalio, and their colleagues, you can download it from the PWA site.

My thanks to all I talked to for this story. In particular, Battalio and Revell were articulate, enthusiastic, and knowledgeable—in other words, perfect sources. Revell drove a truck and Battalio a mini-van to our meeting in Pacifica; in back were more than enough surfboards to go around.

Story: A RISING TIDE: As sea level creeps higher, what’s next for California’s coasts?
Terrain Magazine
Summer 2009

China, environment, publictransport

The Beijing Underground; and Meltdown Live

Roving China correspondent Josh Chin has filed a brief video report with the Wall Street Journal on Beijing’s growing transit system. It’s done well, and for being just a few minutes long, feels awfully comprehensive. My favorite is this Chinese kid who grew up in Switzerland and in documenting the entire subway system online.

And if you’re online right now, and interested in such things, you can watch a live stream of Meltdown: The Impact of Climate Change on the Tibetan Plateau, hosted by the Asia Society and chinadiaologue, by visiting the society’s main webpage. Here is the day’s schedule, all times Eastern Standard:

8:00 am: Registration and Coffee

8:45 am: Welcome (Webcast begins)

9:00 am: Tibet on Film

* Michael Zhao, Center on US-China Relations
* David Breashears, Arcturus Pictures

10:00 am: Himalayan Meltdown

* Lonnie Thompson, School of Earth Sciences, Ohio State University
* Yao Tandon, Chinese Academy of Sciences

11:30 am: Plateau Survival

* Emily Yeh, University of Colorado, Boulder
* Daniel Miller, US Agency for International Development, New Delhi
* Yonten Nyima, University of Colorado, Boulder
* Julia Klein, Colorado State University

1:00 – 1:45 pm: Break

1:45 pm: A Region at Risk

* Saleemul Huq, Climate Change Group, International Institute for Environment and Development
* Katherine Morton, Department of International Relations, Australian National University
* Lara Hansen, WWF Global Climate Change Program

3:00 pm: Organizer Remarks

* Robert Barnett, Modern Tibetan Studies, Columbia University
* Elizabeth Economy, Council on Foreign Relations
* Isabel Hilton, chinadialogue
* Orville Schell, Asia Society Center on US-China Relations

4:00 pm: Afternoon Keynote Address

* Rajendra Pachauri, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and Nobel Laureate

5:00 pm: Closing Reception

(If you have a Mac, you may need to install the latest version of the Flip4Mac plugin to watch the webcast. Check Flip4Mac in your system preferences to see if you need an update, or just click this link to download.)

China, environment, multimedia

China Green

The Asia Society’s Center on U.S.–China Relations recently published China Green, a multimedia site that will highlight stories of China’s environment. Its initial set of videos and images focus on how climate change is affecting the Tibetan Plateau and the Himalayas, which host the headwaters of most of Asia’s major rivers.

screenshot of China Green website

The Asia Society took its first leap into multimedia and China’s environment last year with its Clearing the Air website, which introduced viewers to the environmental challenges—especially regarding air pollution—that China faces. The most compelling feature of that site is the calendar showing Beijing’s shifting air quality, Room With A View. The calendar is continually updated, its most recent image being of a clear blue sky on Monday, January 12:

image of beijing air

While visiting China Green, be sure to try using the interactive timelines comparing photos of Himalayan glaciers several decades ago with glaciers today. You’ll see what I mean on the opening page of China Green, as it shows the time-lapse loss of the Rongbuk Glacier. And if you know that you’ll be in New York City on January 16th, check out the Asia Society symposium Meltdown: The Impact of Climate Change on the Tibetan Plateau. [Update] If you can’t make it, the Asia Society will stream a live webcast of the event on its site that day.

Disclosure: China Green was produced by people I consider friends and colleagues. I’d like to especially point out the work of Michael Zhao, who has done a great amount of work in both multimedia and China’s relationship with the environment. A notable example of the combination of those being his look at the importation and processing of electronic waste in China, the first coverage of any depth I’ve seen on the subject.


Carbon: Will That Be Credit or Debit?

Last week, the Guardian reported that the British government is creating a “radical plan to curb greenhouse gas emissions by rationing the carbon use of individuals.” The plan includes what sounds to be a debit card, in which every citizen is allocated an annual carbon allowance. Writes David Adam:

…Points would be deducted at point of sale for every purchase of non-renewable energy. People who did not use their full allocation, such as families who do not own a car, would be able to sell their surplus carbon points into a central bank.

High energy users could then buy them – motorists who had used their allocation would still be able to buy petrol, with the carbon points drawn from the bank and the cost added to their fuel bills. To reduce total UK emissions, the overall number of points would shrink each year.

When polluters–large-scale polluters–face regulations on emissions or effluent, they often try to pass any new compliance costs down to the consumers (raising electricity rates, for example). But a carbon card offers a different perspective on combating pollution, one that not only aims to decrease carbon emissions, but also emphasizes how individual choices can have a measurable effect on the environment.

The idea itself is not a new one (though the application is). The British government appears to be setting up a pollution trading regime for its citizens. Many companies engage in that now, trading things like sulfur dioxide allowances in the United States as part of the EPA’s “cap and trade” program, which sets a limit for emissions which are then divvied up into salable allowances–pollution credits. (One way to get those credits is by shutting down your coal-fired power plant or improving its emissions controls. You can then be awarded a number of allowances equivalent to what your old plant would have emitted; one allowance per ton, in the case of sulfur dioxide. You can then sell those credits–the reward for not polluting–to other polluters, such as older power plants who choose to pay for more allowances to keep polluting rather than upgrading their pollution controls. Or you can just buy a bunch of credits from the EPA with the aim of making money off of them in a kind of pollution commodities market, as Enron tried to do.)

Environmental groups like the Sierra Club oppose trading programs, contending that a market like this (it isn’t a truly “free” market by any stretch) isn’t the best solution. They point, for example, to the way trading creates “hotspots,” where pollution is concentrated because facilities buy more allowances, exposing area residents to more harmful emissions than if those plants were upgraded. (Sulfur dioxide, the pollutant that keeps popping up in this discussion, is an air toxic. It creates sulfurous and then sulfuric acid in the environment–remember acid rain?–and can cause a variety of respiratory ailments.) But the overall aim of a government-regulated trading regime is, ostensibly, to lower the cap and reduce the number of available allowances and total pollution.

The British carbon card plan does the same: sets allowances for carbon for each individual per year, with those allowances decreasing over time.

Could we do something like this in the United States? Technically, yes.

My California driver’s license has a magnetic strip. When I get carded at certain bars, the bouncer will swipe my card in a hand-held reader before letting me in (at Blue Light, for example, which, I believe, instituted the card-reader after getting busted for serving minors). According to a 2002 New York Times article by Jennifer 8. Lee, “Under current standards, the magnetic stripe and bar codes essentially contain the same information that is on the front of the driver’s licenses. In addition to name, address and birth date, the machine-readable data includes physical attributes like sex, height, weight, hair color, eye color and whether corrective lenses are required. Some states that put the driver’s Social Security number on the license also store it on the data strip.” The reporter notes that, “Already, about 40 states issue driver’s licenses with bar codes or magnetic stripes that carry standardized data, and most of the others plan to issue them within the next few years.”

However, that kind of technology may not be enough to track carbon allowance accounts if, say, a California driver happens to fill up at a Nevada gas station. Instead, a federal standard would be necessary to tap into a central database, identify individuals, and record their carbon usage. But wouldn’t that have the civil liberty and privacy advocates up in arms?

Of course. And, it turns out, they already are. A federal standard for identification is just over the horizon. In 2008, the Real ID Act takes effect. At that point, all drivers will have to get new licenses. To get them, each will need to provide at least three different documents–which must then be checked for veracity–to prove their identities. Proponents say the act will help in combating terrorism, and despite a great deal of opposition–many critics say this will effectively be a national identity card–it was slipped into a spending bill (tsunami relief, Iraq) and signed by the president last year. States can opt out of the program, but if they do, their citizens can’t use their license as identification for federal purposes, like entering government buildings or getting Social Security, or to get on airplanes.

An article by Kim Zetter in Wired last year says the card will contain standard identifying information, “[b]ut the Department of Homeland Security could add more data, such as digital fingerprints.”

Let’s forget, for a moment, the privacy issues associated with a program like this. (And those issues won’t go away, as business writer David Lazarus writes in his column today that the Department of Homeland Security’s “privacy czar” has no experience in that area. My colleague Phil, who alerted me to the Guardian article and once lived in London, says the British don’t get quite as worked up about the privacy issues when it comes to these things.) Look at the potential: a card that can be read nationwide, connected to a database, capable of holding any kind of information that its administrators wish. A carbon-concerned administration might decide that the card would be a convenient way for citizens to track their carbon use.

Technically, an American carbon allowance program could be just over the horizon. Politically, not as likely. But you never know. Function creep happens.

environment, politics

Feeling Uncertain? Searching for Answers? Maybe You’ve Got a Case of Politics.

The following is a dual entry on this blog and today’s Sierra Club Compass blog, for which I originally wrote it. I’m surprised they let me go on as long as I did (which is as long as I usually do)…

Here in San Francisco last December, at the annual conference of the American Geophysical Union, NASA scientist James Hansen told the assembled, “The Earth’s climate is nearing, but has not passed, a tipping point beyond which it will be impossible to avoid climate change with far-ranging undesirable consequences.”

Hansen, director of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies and a 39-year NASA veteran, is high on the list of credible voices on global warming, and no shrinking violet when it comes to sharing the conclusions of his research. He may have single-handedly made global warming a household issue when he told a Senate committee that “the greenhouse effect has been detected, and it is changing our climate now.” It helped that his testimony coincided with the hot, dry summer of 1988 when a severe drought settled in the Midwest and Yellowstone was on fire. (Though Hansen was then careful to point out, as scientists still are, that it’s not possible to blame any specific event like a severe drought or giant hurricane solely on global warming, just the increased likelihood of those events).

But there was a problem with Hansen’s San Francisco speech. The problem wasn’t one of science so much as it was one of politics. As the New York Times’s Andrew Revkin puts it, Hansen “said that significant emission cuts could be achieved with existing technologies, particularly in the case of motor vehicles, and that without leadership by the United States, climate change would eventually leave the Earth ‘a different planet’.” (Emphasis added.) Since making those remarks, Hansen claims the Bush administration has tried to interfere with his efforts to communicate with the press and to post data on his site.

Need an example? How about “NASA officials tried to discourage a reporter from interviewing Hansen for this article and later insisted he could speak on the record only if an agency spokeswoman listened in on the conversation.” So writes the Washington Post’s Juliet Eilperin in her article “Debate on Climate Shifts to Issue of Irreparable Change.

Or maybe: “George Deutsch, a recently appointed public affairs officer at NASA headquarters, rejected a request from a producer at National Public Radio to interview Dr. Hansen. . . ” A career public affairs officer tells Revkin that Deutsch “said his job was ‘to make the president look good’…” In a follow-up article, Revkin describes Deutsch as “a 24-year-old presidential appointee in the press office at NASA headquarters whose résumé says he was an intern in the ‘war room’ of the 2004 Bush-Cheney re-election campaign.” (Deutsch also ordered the word “theory” to be appended to every mention of the Big Bang in a Web presentation for middle-school students, adding, “This is more than a science issue, it is a religious issue.”)

In light of the controversy, the Philadelphia Inquirer on Sunday published an editorial calling on the Bush administration and Congress to stop the muzzling of experts and ensure politics does not interfere with scientific integrity. It ends by noting, “As long as government scientists are under siege, they’ll be tempted by better-paying private-sector jobs or early retirement. The country is better served with unmuzzled Jim Hansens, sharing knowledge freely.” Or, as the Washington Post’s Joel Achenbach writes, “I don’t know what the truth is about climate change, but since my tax dollars are paying Hansen’s salary, and he’s one of the world’s experts on the subject, I’d like to hear his thoughts. The president’s science adviser says we’re spending $2 billion a year studying climate change. Does that include the resources spent trying to keep Hansen from speaking his mind?”

That might be a yes, if the government counts the salaries of people like Deutsch or Phil Cooney as part of those $2 billion. In the current issue of Sierra Magazine, Paul Rauber’s Decoder shows how Cooney, a former oil lobbyist, suppressed global warming science by editing scientific reports as chief of staff of the White House’s Council on Environmental Quality. “Red-lining,” is what climatologist Stephen Schneider calls it, in an interview I conducted with him for the Planet the week after Cooney’s interference was revealed. Schneider piled on Cooney and Exxon, which hired Cooney soon after his resgnation:

These are guys who I put in the incorrigible and untrainable category. And it’s because they’re not evidence-based, they’re ideology-based. [Phil Cooney] sure landed on his feet. Probably got a big salary raise. I can’t believe that Exxon, after all the money they’ve spent on greenwashing, came out within a week and hired this guy. Their PR people must have just gone nuts, like “We’ve worked so hard to show that we actually think there’s a problem! We’re acting responsibly! Now we hire the chief White House red-liner with no scientific credentials who distorted the science.” What does it make Exxon look like? I think they were stupid for doing that. But they don’t seem to care. They felt that he should be rewarded for his loyal service.

If you or your friends are feeling a little uncertain about global warming and want to know why, check out the Schneider interview here.

The whole issue of science and policy reminds me of something the physicist Freeman Dyson wryly told me in an interview a few years ago: “…I do advise the government. Occasionally they may take my advice, but you never know. If something good happens, then the whole point is you give them the credit for it. The ideal thing is to make the president believe that he thought of it himself.”

So that’s all we’ve got to do to change America’s climate policy for the better: make the president think it was his idea. Plus, it would make him look good.