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EarthTalk®

by Roddy Scheer & Doug Moss


Dear EarthTalk: Now that his second term is winding down, what will President Barack Obama’s environmental legacy look like? -- Mary Danson, Littleton, NH

The environment may not have been one of candidate Barack Obama’s signature issues in the run-up to the 2008 election; nonetheless, environmentalists were pleased that he won. The non-partisan League of Conservation Voters (LCV) gave Obama an 86 percent rating back then for his Congressional voting track record on bills related to the environment. (His Republican opponent, John McCain, scored a paltry 24 percent according to LCV’s standards.) But even though Obama was talking the talk on emissions reductions, clean energy and other hot button green issues, environmentalists worried that other higher priority concerns could distract the well-meaning young president from focusing on saving the planet.

But cut to the present eight years later, and a much grayer Obama has not only walked the green walk, but will go down in history as one of the greatest environmental presidents of all time. Chief among his sustainability-oriented accomplishments is steering the nation toward a future with fewer greenhouse emissions. One major step was pushing through the Clean Power Plan, calling on electric utilities to reduce their carbon emissions by 32 percent of 2005 levels within 10 years. The plan, which will likely be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2017, is a key part of Obama’s efforts to fight global warming. Obama worked hard to finalize the plan in plenty of time for other countries participating in international climate talks to make similarly strong commitments in time for the December 2015 Paris climate accord, when 194 countries signed on the dotted line volunteering significant cuts to greenhouse gas emissions. 

Another point of environmental pride for President Obama is his designation of 29 new national monuments protecting some 553 million acres of naturally and/or culturally significant land and waters. Key adds to the U.S. conservation docket under Obama include the 257 million offshore acres in the Pacific west of Hawaii, 1.8 million acres in the California desert, and most recently another 1.5 million acres across two desert tracts in Nevada and Utah.

Environmentalists were critical of Obama at the end of his first term for his lack of attention to conservation: The Obama White House at that point had protected far fewer acres than any of his four predecessors. George W. Bush set aside just under four million acres, Bill Clinton protected some 27 million, George H.W. Bush conserved almost 18 million, and Ronald Reagan protected 12.5 million. But Obama came on strong during his second term and now can boast protecting at least three times as much federal land and water from development as any previous president. 

The Obama administration also made great strides on greasing the wheels of the clean energy transition by re-upping renewable energy financial incentives, rejecting the Keystone XL and DAPL pipeline projects, and establishing offshore drilling bans in the Arctic and Atlantic. But the $64,000 question remains: which of the environmental accomplishments of the last eight years will Donald Trump overturn. After all, Trump has stated his intent to overturn the Clean Power Plan, pull out of or ignore the Paris climate accord, gut the EPA, and open up significant amounts of federal land to oil and gas drilling. Only time will tell if Trump can tarnish Obama’s otherwise shining environmental track record.

CONTACTS: “A Historic Commitment to Protecting the Environment and Addressing the Impacts of Climate Change,” www.whitehouse.gov/the-record/climate; “Trump’s First 100 Days May Be Worst 100 Days for Environment,” www.emagazine.com/trumps-first-100-days-may-worst-100-days-environment/.


Dear EarthTalk: What are environmentalists doing to prepare for a Trump presidency? -- Robert Eckholm, Washington, DC

Many different interest groups are worried about what Donald Trump’s ascendancy to the White House will mean for their causes, but perhaps none are as concerned as environmental and climate activists. The new administration has vowed to gut the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), cancel the carbon-busting Clean Power Plan, and pull out of the landmark Paris climate accord. And environmentalists are bracing for attempts by the new White House to lift off-shore oil and gas drilling moratoria and re-start the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipeline projects across the nation’s heartland.

In the face of these likely assaults, what are plans to counteract Trump’s anti-green moves? The Sierra Club kicked things off in December by projecting a huge image of rising seas and the words “Don’t Trump the planet” onto the side of the Trump Building on Wall Street in New York City. The group has attracted more donors in the weeks since Trump’s election than in the previous four years, and is focusing in the short term on derailing Scott Pruitt as Trump’s pick to head the EPA.

The Sierra Club has also kicked its Beyond Dirty Fuels campaign into high gear, given Trump’s hints that he would try to green light more oil and gas development projects. Sierra Club activists have helped organize and staff protest camps along the proposed route of the Sabal Trail Transmission, an oil and gas pipeline slated to cross through sensitive natural habitats in Alabama, Georgia and Florida.

Meanwhile, 350.org, an advocacy group committed to building a global grassroots climate movement, has pledged to spend January fighting to derail Trump’s anti-environment cabinet picks. The group organized a “national day of action” on January 9, targeting key Senators who say they recognize the threat of climate change, but haven’t yet come out against Trump’s EPA nominee Scott Pruitt and other climate change deniers in the cabinet. 350.org is also delivering petitions to the Trump transition team signed by tens of thousands of Americans opposing Pruitt as well as Exxon’s Rex Tillerson, Trump’s Secretary of State nominee. Come spring, 350.org hopes to turn out 500,000 or more sympathizers at the People’s Climate Mobilization, a march on Washington, DC scheduled for April 29, 2017.

Another way activists are rallying support for the environment is by ramping up efforts to get universities across the country to divest from fossil fuel investments. The Fossil Fuel Divestment Student Network is organizing student walkouts at college campuses across the country on January 23 “to resist and reject the climate denial” of the incoming Trump administration.

Indeed, Trump’s very antipathy towards environmental regulations might be just the kind of spur needed to get people excited about environmental and climate activism. Let’s not forget that memberships, funding and influence swelled for green groups when another conservative Republican, George W. Bush, moved into the White House in 2000; groups like the Sierra Club leveraged this backlash to successfully lead the charge against the development of dozens of new emissions-spewing coal-fired power plants at the time, sparing the nation a huge carbon burden down the line. Activists hope to build on this type strategy in leveraging the support of the vast majority of Americans for increased environmental protections and greenhouse gas emissions cuts to convince the Trump administration to do the right thing.

CONTACTS: Sierra Club, www.sierraclub.org; 350.org, www.350.org; Fossil Fuel Divestment Student Network, www.studentsdivest.org.


Dear EarthTalk: I’ve heard that one of the big hurdles to growth in renewables is energy storage. What’s new in the world of battery technologies? And will better forms of storage really accelerate the development of solar, wind and other alternative forms of energy?       -- Maxwell Jay, Erie, PA

It’s true that energy storage has been an Achilles heel in the emerging renewable energy sector, given the large environmental footprint required to produce and distribute our current crop of lithium ion and other types of batteries—and the fact that they do not hold nearly the capacity needed to make intermittent renewable sources (like solar and wind) viable as secure year-round sources of power. Whether or not renewables can replace fossil fuels in the future may well depend on our ability to drastically improve the way we store electricity.

But given the importance of solving this problem, a lot of great minds are working on it. Electric carmaker Tesla is close to finishing construction on a “Gigafactory” in the desert outside of Sparks, Nevada to produce lithium ion batteries for its signature electric cars and its new line of utility-grade and household energy storage appliances. By 2018, the new renewable energy-powered facility will reach full capacity with an annual battery production capacity of 35 gigawatt-hours—and will produce more lithium ion batteries annually than were produced worldwide in 2013. Tesla expects its Gigafactory to shave upwards of 30 percent off battery production costs, and serve as a model for how to mass produce green technology with a triple (social, environmental and financial) bottom line in mind. 

But critics point out that merely lowering the production costs for existing technologies by a third won’t provide the quantum leap in storage capacity needed to make intermittent renewables as reliable as traditional “baseload” (e.g., consistent generation) sources such as coal, natural gas or hydropower. 
“Many researchers believe energy storage will have to take an entirely new chemistry and new physical form, beyond the lithium-ion batteries that over the last decade have shoved aside competing technologies in consumer electronics, electric vehicles and grid-scale storage systems,” reports Richard Martin, senior editor for energy at MIT Technology Review.

Some of the most promising designs employ cheap and abundant natural materials (such as air, water, carbon, sodium, quinine, and even sand) as catalytic substrates. But Martin points out that there are so many competing technologies “from foam batteries to flow batteries to exotic chemistries, that no one clear winner is attracting most of the funding and research activity.” 

He adds that these small start-ups lack the capitalization to get their products ready for the mass market. Setting up a small manufacturing line and testing various combinations of materials to optimize a new battery technology’s potential storage capacity and charge/discharge rates could cost as much as $500 million, but most start-ups in the space can expect investments averaging only about $5 million a year. “That huge investment gap is hard to overcome,” concludes Martin.

For now, Tesla is poised to dominate the world’s battery market with its Gigafactory coming online later this year. But analysts think we’ll have some new alternatives to the lithium ion battery standard within a decade or so, especially if venture capitalists and other investors begin to grasp how important better energy storage options may be to our future.

CONTACTS: Tesla Energy, www.tesla.com/energy; MIT Technology Review, www.technologyreview.com.


Dear EarthTalk: Do you have any recommendations for vegan health and beauty products?
  -- Janice T., Brooklyn, NY

The problem with many common personal care items is the toxic load they bear. According to researchers from the Environmental Working Group (EWG), one in eight of the 50,000+ ingredients used in many of our favorite lotions, lipsticks and lathers are industrial chemicals, including carcinogens, pesticides, reproductive toxins and hormone disruptors. Since the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) has no regulatory authority over cosmetics, consumers take their chances when they use personal care products.

One way to play it safe is to look for vegan health and beauty products, which are typically made from organic, all-natural ingredients, use earth-friendly packaging and don’t contribute to the harm of any animals. While vegan cosmetics tend to be a little pricier than their conventional counterparts, you get what you pay for with regard to your health and your conscience.

A perennial favorite of the eco-minded is Lush, a handmade green-friendly cosmetic company. Lush is famous for its all-natural, organic, vegetarian product line (80 percent of products are vegan-approved) including face and hair masks, cleansers, exfoliates, makeup and bath bombs. A few customer favorites from Lush include Ocean Salt exfoliating scrub and Cup O’ Coffee and Rosy Cheeks face masks.

Another vegan-friendly personal care products company is Mineral Fusion. Like Lush, Mineral Fusion has a full line and is also dedicated to using natural ingredients that make you feel healthy and beautiful. Mineral Fusion’s tinted moisturizer is elegant yet perfect for daily use with simple yet soft coverage.

Yet another great choice is Andalou, which uses all non-animal based ingredients in its shampoos, lotions, hair treatments, lip balms, masks and exfoliates—90 percent of its products are completely vegan. And unlike many of its competitors, Andalou discloses its full ingredients lists.  A few favorites include Andalou’s Sponge exfoliator, Vitamin C BB beauty balm and Instant Pure Pore facial mask.

Another great health and beauty product many vegans swear by is organic coconut oil. This all-natural “cruelty-free” product is inexpensive and widely available and can be used for a wide range of health and beauty applications. You can eat it, use it as lotion on your skin and face, put some in you hair to help nourish dead ends, use as a teeth whitener and even as an organic makeup remover. 

For more ideas, Vegan.com’s Makeup Guide is an exhaustive list of dozens of cruelty- and chemical-free face, hair, skin, nail and bath products. If you’re wondering whether or not a beloved product already taking up valuable real estate on your bathroom shelf contains ingredients that are unhealthy or bad for the environment, look it up on EWG’s Skin Deep, a searchable database of toxic ingredients in cosmetic and personal care products. Currently EWG rates more than 64,000 personal care products in Skin Deep.

Of course, there’s more to good health than what you put on the outside of your body. Eating fresh and organic ingredients, drinking plenty of water, getting enough sleep and exercising regularly all promote good health and hydration to the skin. Living a balanced lifestyle will keep you energized and feeling fresh everyday. 

CONTACTS: Lush, www.lushusa.com; Mineral Fusion, www.mineralfusion.com; Andalou, www.andalou.com; Vegan.com, www.vegan.com/guides/makeup; Skin Deep, www.ewg.org/skindeep/.

EarthTalk® is produced by Roddy Scheer & Doug Moss and is a registered trademark of the nonprofit Earth Action Network. To donate, visit WWW.EARTHTALK.ORG. Send questions to: question@earthtalk.org.

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