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May 28, 2004

The Day Before The Day After Tomorrow

Further to our commentary on this spring's strange weather and its possible relation to climate change (here, here, here, here, here, and here), yesterday (the day before today's release of the climate-apocalypse fantasy film The Day After Tomorrow) saw the fourth and fifth twister to hit Washington this year -- already double the average annual occurence.

The PI reports:

Washington averages 1.8 tornadoes a year, but Thursday's were the fourth and fifth to touch down in the state in the past four weeks.

The usual caveats apply: no individual weather event can ever be demonstrably tied to climate change. Still . . .

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Even More Unexpected Gas Taxers

As we keep pointing out, ever more of the political right keeps coming round to the wisdom of higher fuel taxes.

What about the left?

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May 27, 2004

SUVs: Somewhat Unhealthful Vehicles

Looking for something else, I ran across this fact about SUVs:

In 2001, the death rate for people in SUVs was 3.5 percent higher than for people in cars, say figures released Tuesday by the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers.
This runs counter to the intuition of many SUV buyers, who think their massive vehicles are safer than shorter, squatter roadsters. Apparently, the benefits of size--namely, "winning" in a collision with a smaller vehicle--are more than offset by the risks. SUVs have more rollovers, less maneuverability, and longer stopping distances. And they apparently lull drivers into relying on the "passive safety" of vehicle size, rather than the "active safety" of attentive and responsive driving.

And this isn't the first time that large vehicles have been linked with increased highway risks. A study of recent accident records (here, in .pdf form) found that drivers of SUVs and pickups would be just as safe if they switched to midsized cars, while everyone who shares the road with them would be two to three times safer. Even some compacts and subcompacts are as safe as SUVs--again, not based only on crash tests (where many small cars do well) but on the actual accident records on the road, which are the ultimate litmus tests of safety.

Recognizing the safety problems of SUVs, the insurance industry in the late 1990s considered charging higher rates for SUVs because they were responsible for higher insurance losses. That would have been a good step--it would have internalized some of the health costs of SUV driving. Too bad the idea is still stuck in park.

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The Food More Traveled

The decline in local farming and the rise of the long-distance tomato are familiar stories. But a new report on the western Montana “foodshed” adds compelling new data on the local impacts of our increasingly outsourced food production.

Using a community-driven research method, University of Montana graduate students and faculty gathered census and public-record data and used it to track patterns in the local food and farming system. They found that total farm acreage, and number of farms and food manufacturers in Missoula County have dropped significantly since 1950, even as area population has exploded; most farm operators make most of their income in non-farm jobs; the average age of farmers is rising; and residents are becoming more reliant on food that's shipped over 1,500 miles or more. The good news: The number of small farms and farmers markets is increasing—as they have in other parts of the Northwest.

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Weight Watch

This fascinating article in Harvard Magazine summarizes some of the latest research on obesity and inactivity—one of the most important health trends of the decade in Cascadia. (Check if you're too heavy on the calculator here.)

Some snippets to convince you to read it:

Two-thirds of American adults are overweight, and half of these are obese. . . [and] up to 80 percent of American adults should weigh less than they do. [Note: Obesity rates are slightly lower in the Northwest states and substantially lower in BC.]
The best single behavioral predictor of obesity in children and adults is the amount of television viewing.
Never in human experience has food been available in the staggering profusion seen in North America today. We are awash in edibles shipped in from around the planet; seasonality has largely disappeared. Food obtrudes itself constantly, seductively, into our lives—on sidewalks, in airplanes, at gas stations and movie theaters. Caloric intake is directly related to gross national product per capita.
We no longer live like hunter-gatherers, but we still have hunter-gatherer genes. Humans evolved in a state of ceaseless physical activity; they ate seasonally, since there was no other choice; and frequently there was nothing to eat at all. To get through hard winters and famines, the human body evolved a brilliant mechanism of storing energy in fat cells. The problem, for most of humanity's time on Earth, has been a scarcity of calories, not a surfeit. Our fat-storage mechanism worked beautifully until 50 to 100 years ago.
[Harvard professor of pediatrics] David Ludwig questions farm subsidies of "billions to the lowest-quality foods"—for example, grains like corn ("for corn sweeteners and animal feed to make Big Macs") and wheat ("refined carbohydrates.") Meanwhile, the government does not subsidize far healthier items like fruits, vegetables, beans, and nuts. "It's a perverse situation," he says. "The foods that are the worst for us have an artificially low price, and the best foods cost more.”

Subsidies to wasteful consumption that’s bad for our bodies, bank accounts, and planet, matched with obstacles to efficient, healthful alternatives--it sounds a lot like the Northwest’s land use patterns, energy policies, tax policies, auto insurance rules, and so on and so on.

The hopeful news is that solving any of these systemic problems helps to solve the others: better energy policies, for example, mean more compact communities mean more walking means less obesity means longer lives. A vicious circle, if inverted, can become a virtuous one.


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Burning down the West

This summer, the American West is staring down the barrel of the fifth consecutive year of drought. It’s bad news for drinking water supplies, farmers, fish, and--as today’s New York Times points out--it’s especially bad for forests. Already stressed by a prolonged dry spell and pest infestations, the West’s forests are matchstick-dry:

The West… looks like a bull's-eye - a vast target of high-risk orange with swirling pockets of red where the fire danger ranges from severe to extreme. From Southern California to Montana, technical fire-risk indexes, which measure the energy in potentially combustible fuels like brush, fallen trees and ground litter, are at or near all-time highs.

What’s especially troubling is that the drought and the resulting forest fires may be just a sneak preview of what’s to come. In fact, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has worried since 1997 that global warming will induce forest fires in the West.

Of course, scientists can’t say for sure that global warming caused this drought--or any other weather event for that matter. But for years climate scientists have been predicting drought brought on by an array of climate change-related disturbances (everything from low snowpack to warmer spring temperatures). So even if the current drought is “natural,” it’s the kind of thing we may see more of in a warming climate.

This summer, you can monitor wildfires through the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise.

Posted by Eric de Place | Permalink | Comments (0)

May 26, 2004

Alien Invasion?

Biological pollution – the spread of invasive species of plants and animals – is one of the hardest problems to prevent, as this article illustrates. Zebra mussels may rank among the most important threats to Cascadia’s hydroelectric and freshwater ecological systems. These fast-breeding bivalves can spread with astonishing rapidity, encrusting pipes, gates, and other underwater hardware of the hydropower infrastructure. So far, the Northwest has avoided an introduction of the pesky mollusks.

Other invasive species -- green crabs, spartina grass, Scotch broom, and English ivy -- have long since established themselves. (Read a regional summary in NEW's State of the Northwest, which you can download here.) They're hard to get rid of. In the city of Seattle, English ivy has overrun more than a third of public-land forests. And the ivy is choking off forest succession, threatening to deforest these lands over the next 30 years, as the city's already mature trees die off. The city and Cascade Lands Conservancy have launched a program to uproot the ivy.

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Unhappy Trails

To many of us, climate change has long been an abstract issue, with distant impacts. Not anymore. As NEW's Eric de Place details in today's Seattle Weekly, the catastrophic damage wreaked by last October's floods on western Washington's hiking trails has brought climate change uncomfortably close to home. As the University of Washington's Philip Mote points out, no one can say for certain whether global warming caused October’s floods. Nevertheless, the floods are the kind that scientists have been predicting—and what they expect in the future. Flood casualties include the Kennedy Hot Springs, the Monte Cristo ghost town, Baker Lake, footbridges and campgrounds in Mt. Rainier National Park, and backcountry trails in the Olympic Peninsula. In a Washington CEO article last year, Eric also detailed potential economic impacts of global warming on Washington state.

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Think Globally, Tax Locally

Most northwesterners believe that governments pay for roadwork from gas tax revenue. And they’re right about the federal and state/provincial level. But they’re wrong about city and county road spending. That comes out of property and sales taxes. Regionwide, we spend several hundred million local, general-fund dollars a year on the infrastructure for cars and trucks. (Read details here.)

A citizen panel in Seattle has studied the city’s roads and bridges and found a maintenance crisis. Some of the bridges are in danger of falling down. They recommend local vehicle charges to pay for repairs, though they grudgingly admit that a property tax may be the only viable option in the short term.

The obstacle they have run into is among the most important but least noted near-term impediment to tax shifting and transportation finance reform in Cascadia.

States and provinces give localities exceedingly few revenue options. So localities, which are perhaps the most prone of any level of government to begin the switch to green fees and taxes, have little authority to do so.

In British Columbia, the Centre for Integral Economics is working with municipalities to pry open their range of choices. (Full disclosure: CIE used to be our organizational affiliate NEW BC.) And there's some momentum in Canada toward a transfer of federal hand off of gas tax money to cities: that may help cities balance their budgets but it won't reap the economic and environmental benefits of tax shifting.

The Sustainable Washington Advisory Panel made expanding local tax options one of its top recommendations. (Full disclosure: I serve on the panel.)

And NEW is contacted far more often by local elected officials than by their peers in senior levels of government for help crafting tax-shift policies.

So it’s encouraging that Seattle may organize other cities in Washington to collectively pressure the state legislature for more choices. The state should enthusiastically assent. It has nothing to lose and everything to gain from encouraging innovation among local jurisdictions.

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May 25, 2004

Unexpected Gas Taxers

More voices traditionally associated with the political right in America are standing up for--and even suggest raising--gas taxes.

The wisdom of tax shifting just keeps spreading: raise taxes on waste, lower taxes on work.

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