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Hot and Cool



In the very second episode of this column (Sept. 7, 2006), we took note of some puzzling statements made by former Humboldt State University President Alistair McCrone in the letters page of the Times-Standard. McCrone's topic was global warming, and specifically the idea that human activity could somehow influence the Earth's climate. Nonsense, said the former university president, a scientist by training. If the Earth is hotter than it used to be, then it's likely due to the fact that the sun is hotter than it used to be. This according to an unnamed Russian astronomer, whose work apparently impressed McCrone more than the overwhelming consensus of his scientific peers. We noted the fact that McCrone was a sitting member of the board of directors of the California State Automobile Association at the time his letter to the editor was written, and we left readers to draw their own conclusions.

What a difference a year and a quarter has made. Back when McCrone was writing, it's plausible that he would have found a sympathetic ear in some influential quarters. Nowadays, he would be laughed out of town. No one except the radical ear-plugging lunatic fringe denies that we're messing up the world in a potentially cataclysmic fashion. Arnold Schwarzeneggerdoesn't deny it. George Bush doesn't even deny it (though he does waffle on the question mightily). The question is whether we'll have the intelligence and fortitude to do anything about it. And though we're just a tiny little county situated on the unimportant end of California, with not much influence anywhere to speak of, we have reason to be proud.

This week, the North Coast Journal is participating in a project sponsored by the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, a trade association to which we belong. We're running a smattering of stories commissioned by other papers in the association — most notably, the Sacramento News & Review — that look at the 10 years that have followed the first international convention designed to tackle the problem of global warming. In addition, our own Heidi Walters has contributed a piece on Fieldbrook's van Eck Forest, a test case in the use of forestry to mitigate the obscene amount of carbon dioxide humankind is pumping into the air.

The van Eck represents the first efforts of a new and exciting front in the battle against global warming — one of the toughest battles imaginable, because it's a battle against ourselves. But the van Eck is only one of several interesting and potentially groundbreaking things going on here in Humboldt County.

Serendipitously, right as we were going to press Humboldt County government decided to join the city of Arcata in becoming a member of ICLEI, an international organization of local governments who pledge to commit to reducing their carbon footprints. The action was sparked, in part, by California's new mandate to reduce greenhouse gas emissions throughout the state (see the story by the News & Review's Cosmo Garvin elsewhere in this issue). Many people spoke at Tuesday's meeting of the Board of Supervisors and all supported joining ICLEI (though some had concerns). Tom Mattson, the county's public works director, told the supervisors that the organization would provide much-needed technical assistance in bringing his department up to snuff.

Ironically, Community Development Services Director Kirk Girard noted that one of the prime effects of global warming on Humboldt County — apart from the inundation of much of its low-lying land — would be to make Humboldt County an immensely more desirable place to live, climatologically. Our own Don Garlick made the same point in his science column last week ("Garlick's Notebook," Nov. 29). Small consolation, given the devastation that would occur elsewhere in the world.

Girard also pointed out that some local businesses and, especially, Humboldt State University's Schatz Energy Research Center are way out in front when it comes to tackling the challenges of climate change. One very important Schatz project involves the capturing of methane from landfills. Methane gas is far more destructive than plain carbon dioxide; if Schatz can move forward with its pilot project to capture methane from Humboldt County's defunct landfill and use that methane for power, the technology could theoretically be copied worldwide.

Methane capture is only one piece of the puzzle. The Redwood Coast Energy Authority, a countywide joint powers agency, is looking at all types of interesting projects that could give us a steady supply — even an abundance — of renewable power. Of these, the most interesting is probably a still-untested idea to harvest electricity from the tidal power of the ocean. Pacific Gas and Electric is looking at the Humboldt coast as a place to test this experimental technology, which has the potential of providing clean power on a whole new scale.

If all else fails, sue the bastards. The city of Arcata is currently rebuilding some of its dikes, and it's building them higher than they'd otherwise need to be. Why? Because the city knows well what rising sea levels could do to the town. Since 2002, the city has been one of four municipalities throughout the state to sue the federal government in an effort to get it to take climate change seriously (see "Global Warming? Not in Our Town," Sept. 1, 2005). In particular, it charges that the government should have taken into consideration overseas oil exploration projects it has funded through two public agencies — the Overseas Private Investment Corporation and the Export/Import Bank of the United States. Oil from these projects accounts for an astonishing seven percent of the world's total greenhouse gas emissions, annually. Yet the agencies involved were subjected to no environmental review. And its actions will inevitably affect the city of Arcata — see the map elsewhere in this issue — along, of course, with the rest of the world.

The case has been languishing in the federal court system for the last five years. But according to Rick Shems, the Vermont-based attorney who is leading the case, it is moving forward. And the plaintiffs managed to win a groundbreaking decision from the judge overseeing the case — an affirmation that contra federal policy, global warming is real.

"The specific position the government is taking here is that the link between climate change and human emissions has not been established," Shems said Tuesday. "They wrote that a couple of years ago, and they haven't changed that position. The judge said no — climate change and greenhouse gas emissions are a big deal."

Fired up? If you're interested in taking action, the very best advice we can give is to contact the Redwood Alliance's Climate Action Project. The group carries out numerous educational campaigns relating to greenhouse gas reduction and related matters. (It was one of the groups that urged the county to join up with ICLEI.) In January, it will be leading Humboldt County's participation in "Focus the Nation," a nationwide teach-in on climate change solutions. The group meets twice a month. For more information, visit redwoodalliance.org, or call organizer Jennifer Berman at 822-6171.

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