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a citizen’s journal by Thomas Nephew

Every day is Earth Day

Posted by Thomas Nephew on April 23rd, 2005

Check out South Knox Bubba for photos of the lovely Smoky Mountains on a “bad air day” and a good one. The bad ones are all too frequent — thanks in no small part to Bush administration policies making it easier to defer upgrading air pollution controls at power plants and other point sources of pollution in the region.

The good news: an EPA settlement with Environmental Defense is forcing the agency to work out by mid-June how to make nearby polluters reduce emissions under a “haze rule.” The bad news: it’s going to take 60 years. As Southknoxbubba points out, haze isn’t just unsightly — it means sulfur dioxide is affecting the park’s (and the state’s) water supplies.

But maybe Mother Nature has struck back. Bush’s photo-op visit to the Smokies today — to tout volunteerism as a cure for environmental problems, trumpet some short-term statistical improvements, and generally waste everyone’s time — was canceled due to thunderstorms delaying Air Force One’s landing at Knoxville.

Meanwhile, on page A9 of today’s Washington Post, I read that Study Says Antarctic Glaciers Are Shrinking, Sea Levels May Climb:

About 212 of the 244 glaciers surrounding the [Antarctic] peninsula, which stretches north from the southern polar continent toward South America, have retreated as temperatures have risen more than 4.5 degrees Fahrenheit since the 1950s, reported the study by Alison Cook and colleagues.

Get me a fiddle, Rome is drowning. Actually, get me a life jacket. Actually, get me a political system that gives a damn. I suppose these pictures — of giant ice floes banging around at ice shelfs — and similar reports may be more evidence of the same thing.

For a thorough report on global warming, see Elizabeth Kolbert’s “Five Minutes Past Midnight” in the April 25 New Yorker — sadly, unavailable online,+ although this interview with Kolbert gives you a flavor. What’s alarming to me are the several positive feedback loops she describes, including albedo loss and methane from thawing dead arctic vegetation. For details on the climate science of global warming, see the RealClimate blog. Sure enough, there’s a brief discussion of the Antarctic glacier study — by one of its authors.*

Some people are saying that Earth Day should be a more personal thing, and less of a day for politicians to grandstand. For some ideas on what to do today, this weekend, and beyond, check out “Earth Work,” by Janisse Ray (“Ecology of a Cracker Childhood”):

Here’s how we’ll celebrate: We won’t get into our cars, not at all. We won’t buy anything — no planet-shaped chocolates, no strands of green lights, no big blow-up replicas of Earth to tether in our front yards. We won’t buy so much as a cup of coffee. We’ll start our latter-day victory gardens and call them independence gardens. We won’t turn on the television all day. We will force ourselves to be still long enough to think about what our actions and our inactions are doing to the Earth. We’ll watch the songbirds leading spring northward.

Well, I’ll need my cup of coffee this Earth Day weekend as we run around, and fortunately there’s a sidebar to the article listing the usual kinds of Earth Day activities, for those of us in the DC area who like them. But I can’t argue with buying less useless junk — even Earth Day junk — and I leave the TV off most of the time anyway. Planting our vegetable garden this weekend is a good idea, too.

And Ms. Ray’s piece has convinced me to see if I can figure out which birds are singing a few of the songs outside our bedroom window, so I can know what to say thank you to.
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* To be scrupulous, David Vaughan points out “The retreat of these glaciers in itself will have a negligible effect on sea level, since most of the ice that has retreated was in the water already. However, if as a consequence of shortening, the glaciers are also flowing faster, then we would be seeing another (small) contribution to sea level rise.” He does see the pattern of glacier retreats as “broadly in line with what we would expect if this was a consequence of the warming that has been measured in this area.”
+ UPDATE, 5/3: WRONG! The New Yorker is putting Kolbert’s series online: The Climate of Man – I, II, III.

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