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Today is Car-Free Day, and how easy it is for us to get along without a personal vehicle depends largely on where we live. Using Census Bureau data, Forbes has created a ranking of the cleanest-commuting metro areas. Areas earn points for having large percentages of workers who use public transit and carpool to their jobs, and lose points for having large percentages of workers driving alone.

There are a few surprises. I expected to see New York at the top of the list rather than at #5, given how massive and heavily used its transit system is, but perhaps the decision to separate the New York and Trenton metro areas is responsible. And Honolulu, which doesn’t come to mind when I think of cities with great transit systems, comes in at #2 due to an impressive rate of carpooling. DC earns the #3 spot – and as a daily DC bus rider, I particularly applaud our Metro system for having made several improvements to bus service over the past few years. Here’s the full list of the ten metro areas with the cleanest commutes:

1. San Francisco
2. Honolulu
3. Washington, DC
4. Seattle
5. New York
6. Trenton
7. Portland, OR (tie)
7. Boston (tie)
9. Chicago
10. Los Angeles

One of the most e-mailed articles on the New York Times website today is Dickson D. Despommier’s op-ed “A Farm on Every Floor.” He has an intriguing proposal: grow crops inside tall buildings, a practice known as vertical farming. Since climate disruption is altering rainfall patterns and causing more floods and droughts, farmers are finding it harder and harder to produce food for a growing population. And agriculture as practiced today is a major user of water, which is in short supply in regions throughout the world. 

Despommier has started a business to build vertical farms, so you can take his rosy picture with a grain of salt. But it sounds pretty appealing:

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The House is voting today on the American Clean Energy and Security Act (aka the Waxman-Markey bill); at 5:30pm, members of Congress are still taking the floor to speak for or against it. Head over to Grist’s site to check out climatebill@twitter feed, or watch it on C-SPAN.

The political compromises that Henry Waxman and Ed Markey made to attract sufficient votes have significantly watered down the legislation, but its mandated reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions — a 17% reduction from 2005 levels by 2020, and 83% by 2050 — is at least a step in the right direction.

If the bill passes the House, it will also take some doing to get it through the Senate. And then we’ll need to do a lot more beyond it to really address global climate disruption.

UPDATE: It passed, 219 – 212.

Last week, the House Energy and Commerce Committee passed the American Clean Energy and Security Act (aka the Waxman-Markey bill), which sets up a cap-and-trade system to cut greenhouse-gas emissions 17% below 2005 levels by 2020 and 83% by 2050. It also includes other provisions to promote renewable energy, energy efficiency, and green jobs.

As Paul Krugman noted in a recent NYT column, this isn’t the legislation we’d ideally want, but it’s the best we’re going to get right now – and this isn’t a problem that can wait. A bill with more ambitious targets and fewer giveaways to polluting industries just isn’t possible with the current Congressional makeup.

In the Washington Monthly, Charles Homans provides some interesting context for the bill with a profile of Energy and Commerce Committee Chair Henry Waxman. Since his election to the House in 1974, Waxman has been mastering the mechanisms of influence and waging multi-year campaigns to achieve progress on health and environmental issues. Homans explains Waxman’s approach:

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Remember when California tried to set tighter limits on vehicles’ CO2 emissions than what the federal government required? (They petitioned for a waiver to set their own pollution standards, which they’re allowed to do under the Clean Air Act if they get federal permission.)

The Bush administration EPA kept insisting that the Clean Air Act didn’t allow for regulating carbon dioxide as a pollutant – until the Supreme Court told them that, yes, the Clean Air Act does authorize EPA to regulate these climate-damaging emissions. Then EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson went ahead and denied California’s petition, anyway, claiming that a new energy bill would be sufficient. It was widely expected that the denial wouldn’t withstand a legal challenge, but it thwarted action for a while longer. 

Now, four months into the Obama Administration, California’s proposed emissions standards won’t just be allowed for that state – they’ll apply to the whole country. Kate Sheppard at Gristmill explains:

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The first Earth Day was celebrated on April 22, 1970, and it heralded a new era in the US. The New Yorker’s Elizabeth Kolbert explains:

Among those who seemed unmoved was President Richard Nixon. He avoided the festivities and made no public comment on them. (One of his aides, John Whitaker, later acknowledged that the Administration had been “totally unprepared” for the wave of environmental activism “that was about to engulf us.”) Nevertheless, even Nixon seems to have got the message. Three months afterward, he created the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and five months after that he signed the Clean Air Act. The Clean Water Act, the Pesticide Control Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the Safe Drinking Water Act all became law by the end of 1974.

Ten months before that first Earth Day celebration, the heavily polluted Cuyahoga River caught fire, providing a vivid example of just how bad pollution had gotten and helping to galvanize a nascent environmental movement that pushed for new environmental legislation. Thanks to the Clean Water Act, researchers now count more than three dozen fish species in the segment of that river running between Akron and Cleveland.

It’s hard to think of a visual image of today’s environmental problems that has such a visceral impact. Many communities watch their river levels dropping, and animal lovers sigh over videos of polar bears struggling to stay afloat on melting Arctic ice. What will rally today’s crowds to demand the kind of groundbreaking legislation that followed the first Earth Day?

In today’s New York Times, Elisabeth Rosenthal highlights an intervention that can slow global warming while improving people’s respiratory health: cleaner-burning stoves. Primitive cooking stoves emit black carbon (or soot), which researchers now estimate is responsible for 18% of global warming. How does it work? Rosenthal explains:

Like tiny heat-absorbing black sweaters, soot particles warm the air and melt the ice by absorbing the sun’s heat when they settle on glaciers.

These black airborne particles aren’t good for the lungs of those who breathe them in, either. In fact, the World Health Organization reports that cooking with wood, dung, coal, and other solid fuels is a major risk for pneumonia and chronic respiratory disease and leads to 1.5 million deaths annually (most of them in Southeast Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa).

Replacing soot-belching stoves with cleaner models would be a simple way to improve users’ health and quality of life while slowing global warming — but only if people liked the new stoves. Rosenthal points out that traditional stoves’ open fires lend flavor to foods, and fragile models won’t last. New stoves will have to be as cheap or cheaper than the ones currently in use and easy to operate. People need to be excited about getting new stoves and use them continuously over time. Like any public health intervention, stove switching has to be sustainable.

by revere, cross-posted from Effect Measure

A little over a week ago the Environmental Protection Agency sent the White House its finding that global warming endangers public health and welfare. This doesn’t sound like news, and except for a minority of scientists out there it is very, very old news. But in the context of a 2007 Supreme Court ruling it is indeed big news:

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By Ruth Long

We, in the United States, generally feel safe when it comes to our water.  Most people turn on their faucets at home without so much as a thought to where the water comes from or whether it is safe to use (consume).  It would baffle us to no end if, for whatever reason, the water simply did not come out of the faucet when it was turned on. 

Yesterday, in the Washington Post, Kari Lydersen brought the topic of our water to the forefront.  It is a good article expressing concerns that we, even here in the United States, need to consider with the changes in our environment and how it will affect our health:

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American News Project has just posted a new video segment about how tactics used to defend tobacco are now staving off action on climate change. In “Smoke and CO2: How to Spin Global Warming,” Danielle Ivory gives an eight-minute overview of how we went from reassurances that tobacco isn’t really harmful to insistence that we don’t really need to worry about global warming. Our own David Michaels provides commentary.

Even if you already know all about how manufactured doubt has stalled progress on smoking cessation and greenhouse-gas reductions, it’s worth watching the piece for its collection of ads and speeches by those trying to prevent regulation of their products. My favorite: former Philip Morris CEO Joseph Cullman, when asked about smoking’s link to low-birthweight babies, saying “some women prefer having smaller babies.”

Watch it here.

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