Saturday, July 31, 2010

A Hopefully Growing Awareness to the (Very Real) Climate Problems in Africa

Here's my latest weekly column from NetGreen News.

It is crucial that we begin to take "climate change" out of the abstract future and find cures for the Earth's ills now rather than sometime in our grandchildren's grandchildren's generation.

Perhaps the worse-than-dirty-toilet-like toxic stews brewing in the Gulf, in China, and in the Chesapeake Bay are not enough to stir developed-country citizens into action. But, even still, we've got nothing on the problems faced by "global weirding" (a more apt term than the poorly descriptive "global warming") for most Africans.

Increasingly unpredictable and extreme weather events in the backyards of Africans are destroying their abilities to depend on natural economic harvests from their land, lakes, and oceans. While the U.S. and other supposedly advanced nations argue over public opinion and political inaction, Africans are beyond tipping points and need to take real measures. The main problem is their lack of relevant, useful information that speaks directly to them.

Hopefully this changes a bit with a major report just released by the BBC World Service Trust and the British Council at the Africa Talks Climate Conference. The current mindset, the report authors found, from their interviews with more than 200 opinion leaders throughout the continent, is that Africans have a wealth of perceptions about the voluminous cases of extreme weather patterns, but very few connect it to the outside world's discussions of climate change.

Most, notably women and people in rural areas, attribute the impacts to the "will of God." Many attribute it to a form of divine punishment, which sounds eerily like public opinion in Africa at the onset of the HIV/AIDS catastrophe.

Terminologies about climate change have not translated well from the global stage to local areas in the 10 countries studied thoughout Africa. Most consider tree cutting and bush burning as greater causes to their troubles than the rest of the world's addiction to the harvesting of coal on land and water and the burning of it into our global and shared air.

There is real chance for politicians, global assemblies like the United Nations, artists, environmental non-profits, militaries, development organizations, and others working on the ground in Africa to begin speaking to Africans about ways to alter their daily activities in order to adapt to the ever-growing climate catastrophe.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Teenbeat Records Blasts DC

The Teenbeat Records 26th Anniversary Show at DC's Black Cat was a fabulous tribute to one of the world's truly underrated (and arguably DC's finest ever) record labels.

Mark Robinson is the label chief. While his albums with bands Unrest, Flin Flon, and Air Miami have mostly been outstanding, his performance on this night (July 10) was the same but surprisingly less jangly and more rocking than on record.
He played with all three versions of Unrest (the high school, college, and professional ones). Despite how geat the other label-mate bands were earlier in the evening, it was clear why Unrest was and always will be the head honchos of Teenbeat (although I've always had a very soft spot for Aden and Eggs as well).
There were many highlights to this DIY show, with a band called The Ronettes having a blast with songs they claimed to have not played or practiced in 15 years. They had a pair of jokey girls on bass and guitar and a big-haired male standing up while playing drums. A bald former high-school teacher of (I think) Robinson sang about his troubles a capella between band sets. And Versus was melodic and loud. And cool.
For more, check out my friend Fran's photos and article on DCist here. I attended the show with him, Meg, Jason, and Nicky.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Despite Setback, the Senate Should Press Forward to Pass Climate Bill this Year

The lack of blog posts recently is somewhat the result of starting a new job at The Nature Conservancy. It could also be the result of - it's just too darn hot to blog in DC in the summer! Anyway, here is the first writing I've had the pleasure to help draft at the Conservancy. It also appeared at the National Journal's website. Unfortunately, it's about how climate legislation failed to be enacted by the U.S. Senate last week.

It is now clear that the Senate will not act on climate change before it adjourns in August for its end-of-summer recess. This is deeply disappointing for the many of us who have been working long hours over the last year-and-a-half to help design legislation that would greatly improve the lives of all the world’s citizens.

There will be lots of time for reflection, re-examination and, regrettably, some recrimination, but let me take this moment to make the case that the Senate can find a way to press forward. A bill may not be ready for Senate debate next week, but with the active engagement of the president, the deep reserve of talent in his administration, and senators from both sides of the aisle, it can be done this year.

Why should the Senate act this year? There are many reasons, but here are three:

1) The science keeps getting stronger. And the risks are increasingly more clear. A report released last week by the National Academy of Sciences concluded that humans are changing the atmosphere and oceans to such an extent that we are entering a new geological epoch, called the Anthropocene. What does this mean for us? Today’s hottest summers will be the future norm. And, with only a 2 degree Fahrenheit increase in temperature, 3-5 times more forest land in parts of the American West will burn each year.

2) America’s place in the world is at stake. For more than 3 generations, the world has looked to the United States to lead on major international issues. As the country with the world’s largest economy, and the one that has produced more carbon emissions than any other, the rest of the planet anxiously awaits a commitment from us on climate change.

That may be changing though. Increasingly, developed countries are looking to China for partnership, trade and even leadership on climate. And ironically, the Chinese press just reported that the country is moving forward to impose a domestic carbon trading scheme in order to meet its 2020 commitments.

3) The economy needs it – in the short run and the long run. Clarifying the rules of the road on carbon will drive innovation and stimulate investment, helping the economy get back on track. These days, most business leaders realize that something will have to be done about climate and energy. The question is, what? Until that question is resolved, investment dollars will sit idle or, more likely, go to other countries.

Take a look at this recent quote from Lew Hay, CEO of NextEra (formerly FPL Group), one of America’s largest utilities:

“We need some certainty about the economics. Are we going to have a price on carbon and, if so, what’s it going to be?”

He argued that the current uncertainty “puts a lot of investment dollars on the sideline,” adding that while FPL Group is hoping to spend up to $18 billion on nuclear power plant development, it will be difficult to proceed with the investment without greater certainty over the legislative landscape.

These are 3 reasons for the Senate to press forward, and for ordinary citizens to demand that it do so. But can it?

Yes, and here’s why:

First, an unprecedented coalition of businesses, labor, conservation and faith-based organizations has been clamoring for action. This isn’t just about the environmental movement. Electric utility and other CEOs have been vociferously arguing for carbon limits, so they can begin investing rationally with a long-term orientation. These business leaders prefer a legislative solution to the regulatory approach rather than the continued uncertain trajectory under an abandoned policy.

And let’s not forget that the House has already completed its work – more than a year ago, in fact. Senate passage of a bill, even a scaled-back one, would allow Congress to move forward with a conference and reconcile the two bills later this year.

Two more ingredients could be helpful to keeping this effort going through the hot days of summer: a visibly engaged President Obama and a visibly engaged public reminding political leaders that their future is at stake.

(image: Climate protesters, by Flickr user Steve Rhodes. Used under a creative commons license.)

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

What Is Obama's Plan for Energy Independence?

Here is this week's column for NetGreen News. All my columns are here.

We hear the term "energy independence" all the time, but what would it really mean for the U.S. to rely less on the global economy for our prodigious energy appetite?

Unlike the isolationism and post-apocalyptic survivalism that seem to be the focus of the anti-government, anti-globalization crowds, there are some obviously fundamental common-sense positives to energy independence.

Federal and private money aimed at clean energy start-ups is one of the paths upon which Barack Obama has been most vocal. As with many climate- and energy-related issues, this direction will not see true reflections in new jobs and economic recovery for several years. So while that might not help the president's re-election chances, solar power, electric vehicles, and a recent $11 billion investment in smarter grids are the correct choices for him to be preaching.

Along with the grid funding, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009
will eventually provide more than $70 billion on tax credits and direct spending for programs involving clean energy and transportation. That includes $6.3 billion for state and local energy improvements, $5 billion to weatherize low-income homes, and $4.5 billion to make federal buildings more energy efficient.

Plus, the new National Fuel Efficiency Policy for cars produced between 2012 and 2016 will require an impressive average fuel efficiency of 35.5 mpg by 2016.

So Obama is introducing many welcome and important steps on the road to energy independence, especially in comparison to George W. Bush. His contributions included "thinking about energy independence" and exploring domestic natural-gas production.

"Energy independence" is good goal, but also an obviously ridiculous one. We will never be 100 percent independent, and if we were, it would probably mean a lot of suffering and Glenn Beck-like apocalyptic scenarios. With the term hijacked in a "drill baby drill," all-or-nothing fashion, it is finally time to stop using the term altogether.

"Domestic energy reduction" is a lot less flashy, but it is much closer to what people are trying to say when they talk about energy independence. And since nobody wants to reduce our iPhone-loving energy use, it is great that governments at all levels throughout the U.S. are thinking about how to do it for us.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

The Passage: Can't Wait to Keep Turning These Pages

I had to buy my late-summer-fiction novel on Kindle because I was number 310 on Montgomery County's waiting list for it. No doubt this is a major smash, what with Ridley Scott already rumored to direct the film version.

The Passage: A Novel, by Justin Cronin (pictured), reminds me of Stephen King's masterpiece, The Stand, in its ability to bring many great characters together in an end-of-the-world scenario. Some of the clues to the world I'm entering include a New Orleans that has finally been wiped out by Hurricane Vanessa, the ascent of Jenna Bush as Texas governor, a gas-depot bombing in Secaucus, a subway attack in L.A., "that Minneapolis thing, and all the rest, and, of course, whatever happened in Iran or Iraq or whichever it was."

One storyline: Amy Harper Bellafonte goes from being just a little girl from Iowa to "the one who lived a thousand years." Amy's mom, Jeanette, ends up as a prostitute and shoots a frat boy who got a little too demanding one night. Jeanette finally realizes one day that she's not a good mother for Amy and leaves her with a nun named Lacey in a Memphis convent.

A second storyline: A guy named Lear is sending emails to a guy named Paul Kiernan from a scientific trek through the Bolivian forests, where most of the crew is being brutally murdered by bats and other inexplicable freakishness.

A third: A short African-American named Anthony Lloyd Carter sits on death row in East Texas for the murder of a Houston housewife and mother of two named Rachel Wood, whose lawn he was regularly hired to mow. Then FBI agents Brad Wolgast, older and tormented by his ex-wife's remarriage, and Doyle, a young former farmboy from Indiana, arrive to tell Carter they can get him out. Part of the deal to get him out has something to do with terminal cancer patients who went into the Bolivian jungle and grew back their hair while regained the energy of teenagers.

There is obviously some vampire or Noah-lived-for-950-years action going on here. Likewise, it will surely take me some time to finish this book, but when I do, I'll be back here with a full review. For now, I can't wait to keep turning pages of The Passage.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Novel, Part #13

The novel's two main characters, young Paul and rock star Rory, hatch a plan to work in cahoots. For the rest of the start of the book, go here.

Chapter 7

“This might be tricky so try and let me do most of the talking,” Rory said, as we walked up the front lawn of my family’s little house two blocks from the center of town, which consists of a tavern, a grocery store, and the diner we had left five minutes ago. The day after Rory’s concert at the record plant, we had met again for lunch to discuss a plan Rory had hatched, and which I was extremely excited to make happen.

When we walked into the house, it was the same as it ever was on a Sunday afternoon. Ernie Snimes was installed on the couch and my dad was at an awkwardly comfortable angle in his recliner. The Yankees’ game was on and the smell of cigarette smoke hung in the air. For some reason I was a little taken aback by the scene, even though I should have known better. Something didn’t look like it forebode well for Rory’s plan.

Introductions were made and my dad, thankfully, seemed somewhat pleased to have a celebrity in his living room, albeit a minor one in his eyes. Ernie just nodded to Rory and me and mostly kept his eyes on the tube. In those days, to befriend a strange older man didn’t seem as taboo as it would nowadays. Bringing him home to meet the parents was still a little unusual, but not necessarily suspect.

“Mr. Andrews, I got to talking with Paul down at the record plant and I was really impressed with his work ethic. He did a superior job making it the nicest factory lawn I’ve ever had the honor of playing. We talked some more down at the diner and I’m positive I’d like to bring him on to work for me some of the time when it’s possible for him to do so.”

My dad looked interested in the proposal and motioned him to go on. I couldn’t quite tell if Ernie was listening. In fact, I couldn’t tell if even the ballgame was registering with him. He looked, frankly, a little dumbfounded and I distinctly remember that I was kind of wishing he weren’t there.

“What did you have in mind?” my dad asked.

“I do a lot of touring around the northeast and he could help carry my equipment around and load it on and off the stages."

“He’s not even 14 yet! How is he going to help you while he’s in school?”

“I would pay to fly him to our shows on Friday nights. He could travel with us on the weekends, get his homework done on the bus, and I’d fly him back Sunday nights in time for bed and school the next morning.”

This got Ernie’s attention. He looked up and stared at Rory as if he were a ghost. It also looked like his mouth was about to form a “but …” I was looking at Ernie because I couldn’t bear to watch my dad’s reaction. At least my mom was out grocery shopping.

“Now look here …,” my dad started.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Michael Cera Tries to Be Superbad in Youth in Revolt

Michael Cera was arguably the highlight of a lot of great things in the TV series Arrested Development. He may not be as lovable in his film career as he was in the role of "George Michael," but he's had a pretty good start.

Superbad, Juno, and Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist were all top-notch offbeat comedies (I still have yet to see Paper Heart and Year One). And now Cera gets his largest lead role as Nick Twisp in Youth in Revolt.

Nick lives with his loser mom and her truck-driving boyfriend (played with surprising tameness by The Hangover's Zach Galifianakis). They escape a problematic situation with some angry navy officers by moving to a religious trailer park, where Nick meets a flirtatious girl named Sheeni, played excellently by lovely newcomer Portia Doubleday.

The supporting roles are a mixed bag in the movie. Steve Buscemi and Ray Liotta turn in less-than-usual performances. But Fred Willard is hilarious as a kooky next-door neighbor, Adhir Kalyan is good as Nick's friend, and Justin Long is solid as Sheeni's druggy brother. And the movie gets big props for featuring a great song ("Popular Mechanics for Lovers") by Beulah, one of the most underrated indie bands of the 1990s.

All in all, Youth in Revolt is a fairly minor film. But it's a cute love story and there is fun to be had in watching Cera try about as hard as possible to be the bad boy he'll never be.

***1/2 out of ***** stars

Friday, July 9, 2010

A Quick History of Public Relations

U.S. President Thomas Jefferson allegedly invented the term "public relations" in an 1807 address to Congress. But it wasn't until World War I that PR became an official profession.

This history is presented in Dierdre Breakenridge's book PR 2.0: New Media, New Tools, New Audiences, a good read on the basic fundamentals of the profession.

Ivy Lee, who worked with the Rockefellers and is regarded as the founder of crisis communications, created the first press release in the early 1900s. He envisioned it as a way for companies to be able to communicate to their important audiences and subsequently receive feedback based on the distributed content.

Edward Bernays, famous for his 1930s campaigns to convince the public that green was the most fashionable color and Dixie Cups were the only sanitary drinking option, is the other father of modern PR. Whereas Lee was more the practical-tools man, Bernays was the theorist. The nephew of Sigmund Freud, he was inspired by Freud's ideas about the "irrational, unconscious motives that shape human behavior. He viewed PR as an applied social science influenced by psychology, sociology, and other disciplines to scientifically manage and manipulate the thinking and behavior of an irrational and 'herdlike' public."

Bernays said, "PR is a management function which tabulates public attitudes, defines the policies, procedures, and interest of an organization followed by executing a program of action to earn public understanding and acceptance."

Breakenridge finds that Bernays' theories greatly influenced many companies on PR 1.0. She claims that the next wave of successful companies and other influencers will adapt to the PR 2.0 environment detailed in her book.

Most of those 2.0 answers lie in the realm of social media, which facilitates "listening and, in turn, engaging people on their level. It forces PR to stop broadcasting and start connecting. Monologue has given way to dialog. No BS. No hype. It's an understanding of markets, the needs of people, and how to reach them at the street level without insulting everyone along the way. PR will become a hybrid of communications, evangelism, and Web marketing."

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Economists Need Insights Into Nature to Save the Plundered Planet

Here is this week's column for NetGreen News. All my columns are here.

I agree with a lot of what Paul Collier says in his new book, The Plundered Planet: Why We Must - And How We Can - Manage Nature for Global Prosperity. He proposes an alliance between economists and environmentalists that works to disregard and discredit "ostriches" who plunder the world and "romantics" who seek to preserve all the world's natural resources.

"A number of environmentalists in the developed world are wary of the spread of global prosperity, arguing that it would wreck the planet. Conversely, in the poorer countries of the world, many people are wary of environmentalism, seeing it as an attempt by rich countries" to get richer.

"The romantics are right that we are seriously mismanaging nature and that our practices are indefensible. The ostriches are right that much of what is said about nature is ridiculously pious, casting the rich world as the villains and the rest of the world as their victims. But they are also each half wrong. Both will take us to oblivion, albeit by different routes."

Collier, an adherent of economist Lord Nicholas Stern, believes any economic models should be deemed failures if they neglect to eradicate poverty with an ethical approach to the natural world. He claims to write The Plundered Planet for all the people who are neither ostriches nor romantics.

One major area of concern: the demand for raw materials has driven up the prices of natural resources and food, which has triggered a new scramble for Africa. China's arrival on the African scene has been largely welcomed by Africans who don't have a preconceived notion of the Chinese as colonizers. The rich countries, and former colonizers, view China's arrival there as an undermining of governance reforms of extractive industries.

"The opportunity that nature presents to the countries of the bottom billion [most impoverished people] is the enormous value of their natural assets." The sale of carbon rights is one path to create "new natural assets." Since Lord Stern's review was issued in 2006, global warming has "slammed into the economic mainstream." That said, economists still treat nature as they do any other asset, which is "to be exploited for the benefit of mankind."

For true success, the next economic models must introduce what has traditionally been a fundamental oversight: "nature is special. Our rights over the natural world are not the same as our rights over the man-made world. Economists need that insight."

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Oil Companies Supply the True Kings of Developing Nations

During the past 20 years, the price of oil has gone from $7 to $147 and the Gulf of Mexico, for one, has been transformed into a place that had been "classified as an area where inadequate technology prevented new oil from being found."

Along with dramatically rising oil prices and tech advances since 2003, mergers and acquisitions made by major players like Exxon CEO Lee Raymond and BP's Lord John Browne have "created a new arrogance and blindness toward the oil-producing countries, alienating their governments from granting the oil majors access to their reserves."

This topic is explored through an interesting overview of the landscape of corporate oil deal-making in Oil: Money, Politics, and Power in the 21st Century, by Tom Bower.

Rex Tillerson of Exxon was negotiating to acquire Yukos, which owns 20 percent of Russia's vast oil reserves. But while Tillerson and Raymond remained oblivious to Russian culture and sensitivities and "saw a greenfield site," Lord Browne of BP was well versed in Russian history and Vladamir Putin's ambition to use oil as a tool for reasserting Russia's role as a superpower.

Despite Exxon's ignorance, Putin has had no problem playing along with their game and bowing to every whim of oil leaders. He opened Moscow's Baptist church on a Saturday to allow Raymond's wife Charlene the chance to pray before they had to hurriedly return to the U.S. And when Charlene wanted to revisit a store to buy some wooden sculptures, the store was determined to be in a dangerous area and arrangements were made to set up merchandise in a comfortable private display area in a safer spot.

This kind of elaborate set-up for the comfort of oil leaders is replicated throughout the world. The impoverished nations in Africa, Asia, and South America have wealthy resources that are only realizable with Western marketing, organization, and technology. So company CEOs from BP, Exxon and other oil conglomerates are the true kings when they come to visit local leaders.