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Jeanne Roberts's articles

Biofuels: Hope or Hype?

By Jeanne Roberts

Dec 2, 2009

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency indicated this week that it is increasing the biofuel "blend wall," the amount of ethanol allowed to be added to gasoline.

It's still running tests, and it delayed a final decision until summer, but the agency said Tuesday that initial data indicate newer engines can handle more ethanol than the current 10 percent limit.

"It is vitally important that the country increase the use of renewable fuels," EPA Assistant Administrator Gina McCarthy wrote to retired Gen. Wesley Clark, co-chairman of the ethanol trade association Growth Energy, which requested the blend wall be bumped from 10 to 15 percent.

Biofuels have been widely pitched as developed nations’ best hope to cut greenhouse gas emissions and provide energy security. However, as their use has grown, unintended consequences have surfaced, raising questions about just how large a role some biofuels should play.

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By Cell Phone, Scientists Assist African Farmers Facing Effects of Climate Change

By Jeanne Roberts

Nov 27, 2009

For much of the last 200 years, levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide hovered around 275 parts per million. In this century, with atmospheric carbon dioxide nearing 390 ppm, and climbing annually by about , we are already beyond what many scientists see as a critical threshold in climate change.

Farmers around the world are already feeling the impact.

In India, the since 1972 threatens the 60 percent of cropland that relies on rain; many fields weren’t even planted this year. In China, a drought that started in the north in the spring (leading some to suggest moving the capital, Beijing) now extends to the central and southern portions of the nation, and is being touted as the .

The same situation is repeating itself in the Middle East, with serious impacts in Iraq, parts of Turkey, Jordan and Syria as the Tigris and Euphrates rivers run dry. The , tapped to grow Russian cotton in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, has lost 80 percent of its water since 2006.

In Africa, nations like Ethiopia, Somalia and Kenya are experiencing severe drought. Where once the every nine or 10 years, they now fail every two to three years. In Kenya’s Kamba region, where many crops have withered, residents live on a meagre government dole and try to dig wells, but a subsurface rock layer stymies them. Dying livestock add to the turmoil, forcing cattle raids within and across borders that further threaten the stability of governments and facilitate the work of rebels, who leave behind their own trail of dead and dying.

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Closing America's Climate Gap Between Rich and Poor

By Jeanne Roberts

Nov 26, 2009

The gap between rich and poor as a result of mitigating climate change could become overwhelming if policymakers aren’t careful to evaluate the steps needed to ensure both effectiveness and social justice, a new report from the University of Southern California warns.

The analysis by USC’s Program for Environmental and Regional Equality () essentially tries to identify the impact that climate change — and its remedies — will have on people at the lower end of the socioeconomic scale.

Think of it as seeing trees in an attempt to define a forest.

The Climate Gap report focuses on human rights, public health and social justice from a climate change and climate change amelioration perspective, defining those areas most likely to impact the poor, beginning with extreme heat and ending with biofuel production.

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Disaster Displacement Driving Millions into Exile

By Jeanne Roberts

Oct 16, 2009

In 2008 alone, at least 36 million people were displaced by sudden-onset natural disasters, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, . Of those disasters, more than 55 percent were climate related.

In human terms, what these figures tell us is that one out of every 335 individuals living on earth in 2008 was displaced, either temporarily or permanently, by the unpredictable and sometimes catastrophic reaction of Earth’s ecosystems to increasing levels of greenhouse gases.

These displacements, sometimes of Biblical proportions, as in the case of the late August flooding of India's Kosi River that left 2 million people homeless, strain the resources of the global agencies appointed to help.

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San Francisco’s Composting Ordinance Turns Waste into Wine

By Jeanne Roberts

Oct 12, 2009

Starting next week, food-waste recycling will be mandatory in San Francisco. No more banana peels and uneaten Brussels sprouts entombed in plastic in a landfill — they'll now be headed to a more useful place.

Under the city's new Universal Recycling and Composting Ordinance that takes effect Oct. 21, all residents must carefully sort their trash into recyclables (cans, bottles and paper), trash, and compostables, meaning food waste, plant trimmings, soiled paper and other items that can be converted to compost.

In keeping with the city's ultra-green image, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted 9-2 earlier this year to pass the ordinance in an attempt to do away with landfills and incinerators entirely — and, in the process, to cut emissions of greenhouse gases. Landfills produce , a global warming gas that is 23 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

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Solving Kenya’s Food Crisis, One Indigenous Crop at a Time

By Jeanne Roberts

Sep 2, 2009

In Kenya, persistent drought is threatening food security for some 31.5 million people, and more than one million face .

Kenya’s government, looking for about $525 million in from an already inflation-impacted budget, faces the prospect of feeding its people at the expense of a number of other projects that could improve food security for the future.

It’s a perilous tradeoff — survival now at the expense of future survival.

At the same time, the Kenya Food Security Steering Group (KFSSG) reports that the 2009 maize crop will be 28 percent below normal. This is extraordinarily bad news because maize is the for 96 percent of Kenya’s people.

And therein lies the problem, says Professor Mary Abukutsa-Onyango, a horticultural scientist, teacher and researcher with Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture & Technology in Nairobi.

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Raising the Prairie: The Nation’s First Organic Roof Farm Rises in Chicago

By Jeanne Roberts

Aug 12, 2009

In Chicago, where green-roof culture has gone from a fad to a standard, a restaurant roof on Chicago’s north side has acquired the nation’s first designation, by the Midwest Organic Services Association (M.O.S.A.), as an organic rooftop farm.

It started as a passion for sustainability on the part of restaurateurs Helen and Michael Cameron, who for 17 years built enduring relationships with regional organic farmers, and then – when scouting a new location for their restaurant in 2007 – decided to try organic farming themselves.

Their 2,500-square-foot rooftop farm, thirty feet above the pavement at 1401 W. Devon Ave., is ably managed by Farm Director Natalie Pfister, a graduate of Chicago’s Art Institute, where she obtained a degree in sculpture.

The career change, from art to farming, is not as big a leap as one might imagine, according to Pfister.

“In fact, they’re pretty darn close, in terms of creativity. I’m faced with problems every day in relation to the farm, and the solutions I devise require a kind of creativity that bridges very nicely.”

In addition to the rooftop farm, Uncommon Ground also has a roughly 400 square-foot, street-level garden and a parking lot where, on Fridays, a farmer’s market features eggs, produce and fruit from an organic farm in Wisconsin, certified organic lamb from Illinois-based Mint Creek Farms, and organic berries from pick-your-own Kismet Farm in southwestern Michigan. Oh, and did we mention the live entertainment, local artist’s displays, or the beer tastings?

Uncommon Ground sponsors the farmer’s market, but doesn’t sell its own produce. That is reserved for restaurant use, including not only the 17 varieties of tomato grown for summer menus, but the peas, beans, cantaloupe, watermelon, herbs and edible flowers used to garnish drinks, hors d'oeuvres and entrées.

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Climate Change Will Challenge Farmers as Crop Pests Spread

By Jeanne Roberts

Aug 3, 2009

The Midwest's cold winters play an important role for farmers: They prevent devastating crop pests such as corn earworms and corn borers from becoming established in their fields. pupae, for example, can't survive more than about five days at temperatures below 14 degrees Fahrenheit.

As global warming continues, however, the range of crop pests and their ability to survive the winter increases.

"Increases in temperatures, even summer temperatures, generally benefit these pests. An effectively longer season, or more days exceeding their minimum temperature range, provides them with additional time to feed, mate and reproduce," said Christian Krupke, who studies the impact of climate change on crops pests.

The corn earworm is just one clear threat. It's already established in the South and has resistance to many of the current pesticides, making it tough to manage.

Scientists expect climate change will similarly impact many types of crop production across the U.S. in the next several decades as deadly crop pests and fungi flourish in the warmer and, in some areas, wetter weather.

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Violent Crackdown on Amazon Oil Protest Reverberates Around the World

By Jeanne Roberts

Jul 13, 2009

There are dates that will live in infamy. June 5, 2009, has become one for the people of the Amazon.

That morning, a group of about from the Awajún and Wambis tribes stood at on the Fernando Belaunde Terry highway outside Bagua, near Petroperu’s oil pipeline pumping station No. 6.

They were peacefully protesting, as they had been since , against the opening of vast tracts of the Peruvian Amazon to oil drilling, logging and other forms of exploitation in order to fulfill a free trade agreement with America.

Some of it was land to which they held title under the Peruvian constitution, and they didn’t want it despoiled. At the very least, they wanted to be consulted before foreign firms ripped up the trees and the earth and poisoned the waters.

Nevertheless, Bagua’s police chief had been ordered on June 4 to open the road, so when morning came and the protesters were still there, 500 police, Special Forces and paramilitary opened fire with tear gas and live ammunition.

The government's violent response and the widespread international protests that it sparked forced the last week of Peruvian Prime Minister Yehude Simon, and on Saturday, President Alan Garcia seven more Cabinet ministers. The government repealed two of the land laws that had fueled the protests, but indigenous groups are demanding the repeal of seven more, plus the safe return of their leader, who fled the country.

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As Global Warming Makes Crops Impossible, a Shift to Camels

By Jeanne Roberts

Jun 24, 2009

As climate change alters the African landscape, making some parts of the continent unsuitable for agriculture, raising camels could supplant crops and other livestock in the hardest hit areas, a study from the International Livestock Research Institute suggests.

Environmental scientist Philip K. Thornton is serious about that recommendation.

In parts of the arid and semi-arid regions of West, East and southern Africa, increasingly inadequate rainfall already causes crops to fail one out of every six years – a rate that is increasing as global warming takes its toll.

By 2050, between 500,000 and 1 million square kilometers of Africa could fall below the crop threshold of 90 reliable of days of moisture, according to a series of computer models that take into account potential impacts from climate change.

Where impacts are most severe, switching from cropping to herding may be the only salvation.

Thornton’s suggests that raising drought-hardy camels could be a viable option for some 20 million to 35 million people living in scattered areas about the size of Egypt that will likely become so arid by 2050 that raising food will be virtually impossible. It could also be more lucrative than people realize.

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