TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: March 10

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

1. How do we convince Americans that justice isn’t for sale — when in 39 states, it is?

By Sue Bell Cobb in Politico

2. It took pressure from customers and investors to make corporations environmentally sustainable. It’s time to do the same for gender equity.

By Marissa Wesely in Stanford Social Innovation Review

3. London’s congestion pricing plan is saving lives.

By Alex Davies in Wired

4. Libraries should be the next great start-up incubators.

By Emily Badger in CityLab

5. Annual replanting has a devastating impact. Could perennial rice be the solution?

By Winifred Bird in Yale Environment 360

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME climate change

Florida Reportedly Bans Environment Officials From Mentioning Climate Change

Climate Change Impacts South Florida Ecosystems
Joe Raedle—Getty Images Phillip Hughes, an ecologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, walks through an area of buttonwood trees killed by a saltwater incursion in Big Pine Key, Florida. Hughes says over the past 50 years, as sea levels rise, the Florida Keys upland vegetation has been dying off and replaced by salt-tolerant vegetation

An investigative report claims that global warming and sustainability are also prohibited terms

Underscoring the divisiveness of climate change in American politics, government officials at Florida’s main environment agency have reportedly been asked to refrain from mentioning it.

Officials from the state’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) were given an unwritten order not to use the words climate change or global warming in any official communication or reports, the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting (FCIR) claimed on Sunday.

“We were told not to use the terms climate change, global warming or sustainability,” Christopher Byrd, an attorney in DEP’s Office of General Counsel from 2008 to 2013, told FCIR in an interview. “That message was communicated to me and my colleagues by our superiors in the Office of General Counsel.”

Other former DEP employees claimed to FCIR that the unwritten rule was implemented after Rick Scott, who has repeatedly denied climate change is the result of human activity, became governor of Florida in 2011.

The DEP denies that it has a policy on the matter.

Read more at the FCIR.

TIME Environment

The First Solar-Powered Round-the-World Flight Has Begun

Solar Impulse 2, a solar-powered airplane, takes flight as it begins its historic round-the-world journey from Al Bateen Airport in Abu Dhabi on March 9, 2015.
Jean Revillard—Getty Images Solar Impulse 2, a solar-powered airplane, takes flight as it begins its historic round-the-world journey from Al Bateen Airport in Abu Dhabi on March 9, 2015.

The two pilots aim to circumnavigate the globe without using any conventional fuel

The world’s first round-the-world trip on a solar-powered plane got under way Monday with the initial leg from Abu Dhabi to the Omani capital, Muscat.

Swiss pilots Bertrand Piccard and André Borschberg will pursue a record-shattering five-month journey, spanning 21,750 miles across several continents and two oceans, while using zero conventional fuel.

The Solar Impulse-2’s lightweight construction — weighing a mere 4,600 lb. — combined with its 236-ft. wingspan lined with 17,000 solar cells, makes it the first solar-powered aircraft capable of flying during both day and night.

“I am confident we have a very special airplane, and it will have to be to get us across the big oceans,” Borschberg told the BBC.

The pilots have undergone rigorous preparation drills, and will forgo all sleep longer than 20 minutes while airborne, practicing yoga and self-hypnosis to cope with their airborne ordeal. (Some stints will involve flying continuously for five days.) Rest stops will be spent advocating for their clean-technology campaign.

“I had this dream 16 years ago of flying around the world without fuel, just on solar power,” said Piccard. “Now we’re about to do it.”

[BBC]

TIME Military

Climate Security Pits U.S. Military Against Congress

naval-station-norfolk-virginia
Getty Images

The results of a new study underscore the security threats that climate change can exacerbate

A new study concludes that climate change played a role in sparking the civil war in Syria, adding to the body of research showing a climate link to the unrest in the Middle East.

The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on March 2, finds that a multi-year drought between 2007 and 2010 led to “widespread crop failure,” forcing rural communities to migrate to urban centers en masse. As a result, Syrian cities became a tinderbox, and the subsequent political instability ignited into violence in 2011 at the onset of the Arab Spring. The Syrian civil war has raged since then.

Syria suffered through the worst drought on record leading up to the outbreak of violence, a drought that was made twice as likely because of climate change, the study says. Rising temperatures and increasingly dry weather will also make such conditions worse and more likely in the future.

The results of this study underscore the security threats that climate change can exacerbate. But climate denying politicians – who often position themselves as the biggest supporters of the military and guardians of America’s national security – are willfully ignoring these threats.

Read more: Can We Fix Climate Change With Technology?

“Democrats tell us they understand the world, but then they call climate change, not radical Islamic terrorism, the greatest threat to national security,” Republican Chairman Reince Priebus told a friendly audience at the Conservative Political Action Conference. “Look, I think we all care about our planet, but melting icebergs aren’t beheading Christians in the Middle East.” While Priebus’ comments won some plaudits, he is at odds with the assertions of the Pentagon.

The U.S. military has been acutely aware of the “climate security” threat for quite some time. Military planners have consistently referred to climate change as a “threat multiplier” – it can make existing problems worse, and can present new conflicts as well.

Admiral Samuel Locklear, head of the U.S. Pacific Command, told the Boston Globe in 2013 that climate change presented the biggest long-term national security threat. That earned him some pushback from Congress’ leading climate denier Senator James Inhofe during a committee hearing.

Jeff Goodell wrote an excellent article for Rolling Stone in February on how climate deniers undermine national security in multiple ways.

As he notes, it isn’t just foreign threats that will affect the military. Major military bases around the world are also at risk because of the effects of climate change. The Naval base in Norfolk, VA is dealing with frequent floods and hurricanes, and its ultimate long-term survival is in question because of rising sea levels. The same is true for the strategically important military base on the island of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean. Goodell reported that military officials are reluctant to discuss how they are dealing with the effects of climate change (even though they must) out in the open for fear that Congress will slash funding for climate-specific activities.

Read more: Anti-Fossil Fuel Movement Grows

And that fear is not unjustified. The Department of Defense has also prioritized reducing its demand for liquid fuels because of the human costs that stem from such a dependence. The need to refuel tanks, trucks, and planes puts soldiers at risk. When fuel convoys are sent out, soldiers must accompany those trucks to safeguard them, putting lives in danger. A 2009 Deloitte study found that one U.S. soldier was killed in Iraq and Afghanistan for every 24 fuel resupply convoys sent out. In response, the Pentagon has sought to develop biofuels to reduce its need for petroleum-based fuels, but climate deniers in Congress have repeatedly tried to ban such a pursuit. The fight is ostensibly over dollars, but no doubt the program has come under heightened scrutiny because it also fits neatly under the administration’s climate change agenda.

The threat of climate change will come from a variety of different directions, many of which will only grow worse with time. Droughts, floods, migration, disease, and severe storms will stretch the military’s resources, and strain its ability to deal with new missions.

The Pentagon continues to make the case however. The Navy’s Task Force on Energy posted the Rolling Stone article on its Facebook page, which no doubt irked the climate deniers in Congress.

This article originally appeared on Oilprice.com.

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TIME Environment

El Niño Arrival Too Late for California Drought

"Too little, too late and too weak to provide much relief for drought-stricken California"

El Niño has finally arrived, but the precipitation brought by the weather event is unlikely to alleviate California’s severe drought, officials said Thursday.

“After many months of watching, El Niño has formed,” said Mike Halpert, an official at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Climate Prediction Center. “Unfortunately, this El Niño is likely too little, too late and too weak to provide much relief for drought-stricken California as California’s rainy season is winding down.”

El Niño, a cyclical phenomenon that lasts several years, begins with warming in the middle of the Pacific Ocean and eventually affects weather around the world. In the United States, it can lead to storms along the West Coast and affect hurricanes and other tropical storms. Tropical storm activity could be reduced due to El Niño, but it’s too soon to know for certain, the NOAA said.

Forecasters have been waiting to declare the start of El Niño for nearly a year. The late arrival may make El Niño-related storms “weak in strength” with “fairly low influence on weather inclement,” Halpert said.

TIME Know Right Now

Know Right Now: Human Waste on Mount Everest Creates an Environmental Issue

Nature's call maybe not be good for nature

Climbers are leaving more than just their footprints when they traverse Mount Everest, especially when they need to “use the bathroom.” People leave behind large amounts of fecal matter and urine every year.

Watch the Know Right Now above to find out more, and read more here.

TIME europe

Huge Numbers of Europeans Will Die From Air Pollution in the Next 20 Years

Eiffel Tower in a thick smog in Paris, France on January 6, 2015.
Apaydin Alain—Sipa USA/AP Eiffel Tower in a thick smog in Paris, France on January 6, 2015.

Europe is failing on a range of environmental indicators from air to water and biodiversity

Hundreds of thousands of people in the E.U. — perhaps millions, if present trends continue — will suffer premature death in the next two decades because of toxic air, a new report says.

Tuesday’s State of the Environment Report for 2015, from the European Environment Agency (EEA) blames governments for inaction and says that in 2011 alone — the most recent year for which there is a reliable tally — over 400,000 Europeans died prematurely from air pollution.

Europe’s environmental performance also lags behind in areas like urbanization, biodiversity loss, intensive farming and maintenance of inland freshwater systems, the Guardian reports.

“Our analysis shows that European policies have successfully tackled many environmental challenges over the years. But it also shows that we continue to harm the natural systems that sustain our prosperity,” EEA’s executive director Hans Bruyninckx told the Guardian.

[The Guardian]

TIME Environment

Can We Fix Climate Change With Technology?

ice-melting
Getty Images

Geoengineering could remain the only option to combat catastrophic effects of climate change

A report from the National Academy of Sciences concluded that experiments in blotting out the sun in order to reduce the amount of the sun’s rays that hit the Earth would be too risky.

Spraying aerosols into the atmosphere – one leading approaching to “geoengineering” – would be a massive science experiment that would have unknown environmental side effects. The fallout on precipitation patterns, agricultural productivity, and the global climate cannot be fully known until it is unleashed. If the United States seeded the atmosphere with aerosols that produced more drought in, say, sub-Saharan Africa, that would potentially raise indefensible ethical questions.

Lowering global temperatures by reducing sun exposure – euphemistically known as “albedo modification” – would also merely treat the symptom of climate change, rather than the cause. The concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere would remain unchanged. As such, sending aerosols up into the sky would be a process that would need to be maintained for many hundreds of years. It would also do nothing to address ocean acidification, another extraordinary problem facing humanity, which could lead to the collapse of fisheries around the world and alter global climate patterns.

Read more: The $17.6 Trillion Solution To Climate Change

“No reputable scientist I know thinks placing tiny reflecting particles in the stratosphere is a good idea, although some support studying it,” argues Philip Duffy, President the Woods Hole Research Center. Other geoengineering strategies include dumping iron into the oceans to suck up carbon.

The panel stated unequivocally that reducing carbon emissions was indeed the preferred method to address climate change. Transitioning to clean energy and replanting forests would offer much safer options, the latter of which is an age-old and well-understood method of carbon capture and storage.

Still, despite the National Academy concluding that albedo modification is unacceptably risky at this time, the panel called for more research into the subject.

What is disconcerting about such geoengineering schemes is that they could probably be attempted using today’s technology and not require significant breakthrough advances. They are likely to be significantly cheaper than carbon capture and sequestration, the other major approach to geoengineering explored by the National Academy report.

Moreover, unilateral “albedo modification” could spark geopolitical conflict, especially in the absence of international laws put in place. The Daily Mail reported that the CIA is possibly looking into how geoengineering might be used to “weaponize” the weather.

Read more: Strategic Thinking: How to Think About the Future

A separate study published in the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science found that people who are ideologically attracted to individualism and free markets are much more likely to accept climate change on its face if it is presented in conjunction with a geoengineering solution. However, if the problem of climate change is broached along with a call for strict limits on emissions instead of geoengineering, people with an individualistic outlook are more likely to reject the science of climate change altogether.

Such findings could boost momentum for geoengineering research to the detriment of carbon mitigation (although that is perhaps up for debate). And for climate-skeptic politicians, for whom denying climate change science is becoming a growing liability, geoengineering could provide a way out of their predicament. It offers the option of “having our cake and eating it too,” as Clive Hamilton, an Australian public ethics professor, phrased it in an interview with The Guardian.

Even worse, the longer the world waits to reduce the rate at which it burns fossil fuels, the more likely that governments will view geoengineering as the only option remaining to combat catastrophic effects of climate change.

This article originally appeared on Oilprice.com.

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TIME Innovation

Watch How Dust Makes an Amazing Journey From Africa to South America

This NASA footage shows show dust from the Sahara winds up in the Amazon rainforest

The Amazon rainforest might be a little less green if not for a massive plume of Saharan dust that drifts across the Atlantic Ocean each year, according to a new, multi-year study by NASA scientists.

NASA used light pulses from its CALIPSO satellite to measure the transatlantic dust cloud in three dimensions. They found that wind carries roughly 182 million tons of Saharan dust out to sea each year. The cloud sheds roughly 50 million en route to South America, but the remainder fans out over the Amazonian basin and the Caribbean Sea, dusting the soil with 22,000 tons of phosphorus, a nutrient commonly found in commercial grade fertilizer.

Amazingly, the special delivery of plant food almost perfectly matches the amount of phosphorous the Amazonian jungle loses through heavy rains and run-off water.

“This is a small world,” said study author Hongbin Yu, “and we’re all connected together.”

 

TIME

Inside the World’s Largest Solar Power Plant

Desert oasis: The plant’s 8 million solar panels power about 160,000 California homes
Jamey Stillings for TIME Desert oasis: The plant’s 8 million solar panels power about 160,000 California homes

The Desert Sunlight Solar Farm is a burst of energy in the Mojave Desert

At the edge of the Mojave Desert, about 80 miles (130 km) east of Palm Springs, Calif., millions of midnight blue solar panels stretch to the horizon, angled toward the sky like reclining sunbathers. Here, the sun has few enemies. It shines at least 300 days of the year, bathing the more than 8 million photovoltaic (PV) panels at the Desert Sunlight Solar Farm in daylong streams of rays. All that free sunlight is converted into electricity that flows into California’s thirsty power grid, eventually helping charge iPhones in Los Angeles and switch on TVs in Sacramento.

The possibility of solar power on such a massive scale seemed remote just a decade ago. Solar was seen as a small solution to small problems, a novel way for your environmentally minded neighbor to show off his green credentials, yet too expensive to ever be economical. But that’s changed as a dramatic increase in solar-panel production–brought about by a global expansion in manufacturing capacity–has sent costs plummeting. Increasingly efficient second-generation solar technology can squeeze more energy from the sun’s rays at a lower cost, and the federal government has opened vast tracts of public land to massive for-profit ventures like Desert Sunlight.

As a result, solar power in America has officially grown up. The two largest solar power plants in the world—Desert Sunlight and Topaz Solar Farm, about 400 miles (640 km) to the west in central California—have come online in the past three months. While the first U.S. solar plant, built in 1982, generated 1 megawatt of electricity, Desert Sunlight generates 550 megawatts. Topaz produces the same amount. Together their impact on carbon emissions is equivalent to taking 130,000 cars off the road while providing 340,000 homes with clean energy. “These projects [are] the first utility-scale projects that are really on the scale of a conventional coal or nuclear power plant,” says Harry Atwater, a professor of applied physics at the California Institute of Technology.

Utility-scale solar plants were nowhere to be found on public lands just a few years ago, in part because it was too costly to build them. Desert Sunlight, which was officially dedicated Feb. 9 on 3,800 acres (1,540 hectares) of land administered by the Bureau of Land Management, is now the sixth operational solar plant on federal property. Twenty-nine other solar projects have been approved for public lands, and eight are currently under construction in California and Nevada. And there’s room for more. The federal government administers almost 250 million acres (101 million hectares) of U.S. territory, roughly one-ninth of the country, most of it in the West and much of it desert with abundant sunlight—perfect for millions of photon-hungry solar panels.

“When the [Obama] Administration came on board, it was clear that clean energy was a priority,” says Ray Brady, manager of the National Renewable Energy Office for the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), who notes that the Department of the Interior met its target of generating 10,000 megawatts of solar energy in 2012, three years ahead of schedule. (The department has approved more than 16,000 solar megawatts.) “Desert Sunlight was very important in meeting that goal.”

But getting the location right was critical. Utility-scale solar plants need to be somewhere with year-round sun, in a space large enough to hold hundreds of thousands of solar modules but close enough to civilization to easily connect to the energy grid. Desert Sunlight sits just outside Desert Center (pop. 204), a tiny town southeast of Joshua Tree National Park. Average high temperature in July: 104°F (40°C). In January: 65°F (18°C). Average annual rainfall: 4 in. (10 cm). “It’d be safe to say just about every day you’re going to get some sunlight,” says Steve Krum, a spokesman for First Solar, which built and operates the plant.

The site’s millions of 2-by-4-ft. (0.6 by 1.2 m) panels are each covered by a thin film of glass that absorbs sunlight and captures electrons, creating an electrical current that flows into wires in the back of each module. That energy is converted from DC power into usable AC power by inverters and is sent to the electrical grid via a nearby substation. Each panel generates approximately 90 to 100 watts.

Desert Sunlight originated at a time when engineers were just figuring out how to produce solar panels on a mass scale. In the past, panels were often made using silicon, which tended to yield more energy but were expensive and difficult to mass-produce. But First Solar, which is based in Tempe, Ariz., and bought the rights to Desert Sunlight in 2010, has shied away from silicon and instead produces “thin-film” panels made with cadmium telluride, which can be cheaper than silicon but less efficient in converting sunlight into energy.

The favorable economics of thin-film PV work only if silicon remains expensive. In 2011, the price of silicon began falling rapidly, as cheap, government-subsidized Chinese PV panels flooded the market. Solyndra, a solar-energy company championing what it believed were innovative and more efficient panels made of cylindrical tubes, became a punching bag for conservatives after cheap silicon forced the company to declare bankruptcy in 2011 despite a $500 million loan guarantee from the federal government. But First Solar, which makes its solar modules in the U.S. and Malaysia, is betting on its automated, in-house production and less-expensive components to insulate it from fluctuations in the market. The company also successfully increased its panels’ energy output, recording the highest efficiency standards so far for any thin-film technology.

A New Model

Judging by its scale and location on thousands of acres of public land, Desert Sunlight seems like other sprawling, ambitious government projects before it, a Hoover Dam for the age of climate change. But the development of the plant says a lot about the new way many public-works projects are built in the U.S. today.

Desert Sunlight was the brainchild of private firm OptiSolar (later acquired by First Solar), which saw a market opportunity in helping California’s utility companies meet tough state mandates to produce a third of their energy from renewable sources by 2020. (The state currently gets 20% of its energy from renewables.) Desert Sunlight was supported by a loan guarantee from the Department of Energy worth $1.5 billion, but the plant is owned by NextEra Energy Resources, GE Energy Financial Services and Sumitomo Corporation of America, while the actual facility was built by First Solar. That means the world’s largest solar farm was conceived by private business that profited from tighter state environmental regulations, with their costs underwritten in part by a federal incentive program.

It’s a model that appears to be paying off. Solar is now a $15 billion business in the U.S., employing more people than coal mining, even as costs continue to decrease. Solar panels, for example, are twice as cheap as they were four years ago. In 2014, solar energy accounted for 36% of the country’s installed new energy capacity, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association. “It’s hard to convey how this industry has gone from being like a small jewelry business to a bricks-and-mortar paving business,” Atwater says. “And when Desert Sunlight was conceived, I think people thought it was this ambitious California thing to do and wasn’t very economical. But now it’s economical.”

The Future of Solar

The big question is whether projects this large are sustainable. As the price of oil and natural gas continues to drop, solar energy looks less desirable as other sources become more affordable in the short term. First Solar’s stock, for example, has dipped as oil prices have decreased. The BLM’s Brady says that while there are a number of solar projects in the works, applications for large projects on federal lands have fallen significantly.

Federal support is also drying up. A 30% federal investment tax credit will decrease to 10% by 2016. California, meanwhile, is on track to meet the state-mandated standards of 33% renewable energy by 2020. But once it does, that could reduce the incentive to continue producing solar in the state unless a tighter goal is mandated.

The energy business itself is also changing. As photovoltaic technology has gotten cheaper and energy meters have gotten smarter, it’s now possible to build a more distributed grid where electricity is generated on a smaller scale, house by house. SolarCity, for example, which designs and installs residential solar panels, has allowed individuals to drastically lower their electric bills through PV panels attached to their roofs–and often at prices that are next to nothing.

All of which means that solar power may succeed without more utility-scale projects like Desert Sunlight coming online. First Solar has plans to build a 750-megawatt plant in Riverside, Calif., even bigger than Desert Sunlight or Topaz. But so far, only 200 megawatts of energy have been purchased. First Solar’s Krum says that he doesn’t expect many more large solar stations to come online anytime soon. Future plants may end up being half the size of these new behemoths.

Desert Sunlight is undoubtedly a wonder, a glittering oasis in the desert that is the first of its kind. And as it turns out, it may also be the last.


This appears in the March 09, 2015 issue of TIME.

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