A state appeals court has ruled against a challenge to New York’s historic same-sex marriage law passed last year. New Yorkers for Constitutional Freedoms and several other opponents desperately claimed that Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg (R) violated the state’s “open meetings” law by speaking behind closed doors with senate Republicans, persuading enough of them to embrace the law in the process. But New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman successfully argued the open meetings law did not apply in the case of the Republican caucus meeting with invited guests. Defeated in the legislature and now in the courts, New York’s anti-gay groups must finally face reality: marriage equality is here to stay.
Historically supplying the majority of America’s electricity, the coal industry has long been called “King Coal.” But this king’s throne is now under threat.
For the first time in U.S. history, natural gas electricity generation equaled coal generation, according to preliminary April figures from the Energy Information Administration:
EIA provides more context to the preliminary data (which is subject to change):
Recently published electric power data show that, for the first time since EIA began collecting the data, generation from natural gas-fired plants is virtually equal to generation from coal-fired plants, with each fuel providing 32% of total generation. In April 2012, preliminary data show net electric generation from natural gas was 95.9 million megawatthours, only slightly below generation from coal, at 96.0 million megawatthours.
As shown in the chart above, there are strong seasonal trends in the overall demand for electric power. In April 2012, demand was low due to the mild spring weather. Also in April, natural gas prices as delivered to power plants were at a ten-year low. With warmer summer weather and increased electric demand for air conditioning, demand will increase, requiring increased output from both coal- and natural gas-fired generators.
As the agency points out, there are a variety of factors that contribute to the changes in generation such as seasonal variability, changes in prices, age of infrastructure, and rising or falling inventories. But looking at the chart above, we can see a clear longer-term trend: use of coal is declining steadily and natural gas is filling in the gap.
In fact, recent data from the EIA showed that generation from coal dropped 19 percent between the first quarter of 2011 and first quarter of 2012 — moving from 44.6 percent to 36 percent. If this preliminary data is correct, that means that coal generation fell another 4 percent between March and April of this year.
This is a mixed blessing from an emissions perspective. The fall in coal generation means we’ll likely see a decline in CO2 emissions from the fossil fuel sector by 3 percent this year, according to EIA. That will add to the 1.9 percent drop seen in 2011.
However, a large-scale switch to gas is no environmental panacea. Along with local air and water-quality concerns from natural gas fracking, scientists and environmental regulators are increasingly warning about lifeycle methane emissions from gas. Methane is a greenhouse gas 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide over a 100-year period. While there is still no definitive study on the methane intensity of natural gas, recent research suggests that leakages in the drilling and transport of gas could make it more harmful than coal.
Reacting to the concerns about methane leakages, a group of investors worth $20 trillion in assets recently penned a letter to the oil and gas industry calling on companies to proactively address the problem. Craig McKenzie, Head of Sustainability for the Scottish Widows Investment Partnership, told Climate Progress that his organization believes natural gas does play a role in the current energy transition — but not without controls on methane:
“Many climate hawks are skeptical that the shale gas revolution has any role to play in tackling climate change. We disagree – there’s a narrow window of a decade or two where it could help significantly. It may just be the fastest way to eliminate coal from the power sector in the US, and may be China. This isn’t just theoretical. US coal power generation has fallen a massive 20% in one year largely, due to switching to cheap shale gas. But, as we’ve argued, even this defense of gas falls apart if the industry doesn’t eliminate fugitive methane emissions, which cancel out the climate benefit of a coal-gas switch for the first few decades. This major new investor initiative calling for best practice methane control technology and better regulation – globally – is intended to help make shale gas serve its climate purpose.”
Scottish Widows Investment Partnership, a major investor in fossil fuel projects, recently released a report concluding that that fugitive methane emissions from natural gas wipe out any climate benefits from a shift away from coal. The International Energy Agency has also warned that a massive global switch to natural gas could result in more than 6 degree F warming — resulting in out-of-control desertification, water shortages, and continued sea level rise.
Clearly, natural gas is playing a central role as the U.S. transitions away from its dirtiest resource, coal. And that’s a good thing for carbon emissions in the short term. The question is, will unchecked growth and improper proper pollution controls negate any positive impact that natural gas may offer?
‘Alif The Unseen’ Author G. Willow Wilson On Fantasy in Dictatorships, Cross-Cultural Understanding and the Arab Spring
My favorite novel of the summer is G. Willow Wilson’s Alif the Unseen, which follows the adventures of adventures of Alif, a young hacktivist in a repressive Emirate, who finds himself in trouble after the state censor, known as the Hand of God, appropriates a computer program he wrote and starts tracking down dissidents, and with a broken heart after the upper-class girl he’s in love with becomes betrothed to someone else. Alif flees his home one step ahead of the state security forces, with Dina, his neighbor, only to find that he’s stumbled into a version of his city where djinns exist, and where computer code and Arabic text have taken on unprecedented power. I spoke with Wilson, herself a convert to Islam, about the power of text, writing Arabic characters as a white author, and imagining the Arab Spring before it even took place. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
One of the things I really enjoyed about Alif was the novel’s sense of the power of language, whether to summon, reinvent, conceal or wound. Do you think there’s something particularly powerful or incantatory about Arabic? About computer code?
Those things have always been very present in my mind, particularly since moving to Egypt right out of college and having to wrestle with this language, which was so, so, so different from English. I’d studied French for about six years, and even though they’re two different languages, there are enough similarities that there are very few things you can say in French that are impossible to say in English. In Arabic, you’d need a bunch of different words to translate a single word. Some languages expand not only your ability to speak to different people, but what you’re able to think. That was a very interesting idea for me, and it certainly carried over to Alif in a big way. The way computer code carried over was from a conversation with a friend who writes computer code by day and comic books, mostly for the Indian market, by night. He was trying to explain to me in layman’s terms quantuum computers and how it’s different from computing we have today. He began to make allusions to monotheism and polytheism and our computers and quantuum computers, and I just said that’s really cool. I’m not a programmer myself, but I am a very, very picky end user of technology. I like my machines to work they way they’re supposed to, all the time. It made me really interested to learn more about how these machiens work, and how they talk.
Well and of course technology and social media are changing the way we speak in the real world, too. You’ve got all these abbreviations from texting that have crept into everyday language.
There’s a whole parallel universe of Arabic text-speak, which uses English letters but substitutes in numbers.
As someone who writes about the power of culture and stories to determine our worldview, I was really tickled by Alif’s conversation with Vikram the Vampire, a djinn, about how censors forget to crack down on fairy tales. Was that a detail that was drawn from your experiences?
It is absolutely drawn from truth. In many countries in the Middle East, and this is changing in the wake of the Arab Spring, but for a long time censorship of books and film was a very big deal. There were books you couldn’t buy, things with political content would be censored, but there were some genres of books and film that the censors just didn’t understand. They didn’t understand that below these fantasy themes which they thought to be very childish were these popwerful political messages. There were these English news journals and things you couldn’t get. Anything critical of religion, whether Islam or Christianity, you couldn’t find. No Christopher Hitchens. And yet you could walk into an english-language bookstore and find America Gods or the The Chronicles of Narnia. All they see is the surface metaphor. They don’t really get what these books are saying.
Do you think that inability to read subtext speaks to a larger poverty of imagination among dictatorial regimes?
The Hand of the King kind of reprsents this awful pragmatism that exists, not just in the minds of dictators themselves, but in the apparata that prop them up, including the people who live in these dictatorships and don’t want trouble, and don’t want the status quo to be disrupted in ways that are threatening. I sort of had this sad feeling that maybe the Hand was right, that freedom was kind of a dead, outdated contept, and people weren’t really willing to fight for those things, and if they had the right, would vote for these things to be taken away from them. And then we had the Arab Spring, and I thought my God, it’s not true, freedom is not dead. It sounds so cheesy. But that scene with the Hand, when he’s talking to Alif and said ‘you’re just a dreamer,’ part of me was afraid that would end up being the truth. He does represent that amoral pragmatism, that ‘this is the only way to run things. Yeah, torturing people is bad, but the other option is chaos. You don’t understand what you say when you say you want democracy, or more freedom.’ It is certainly a reflection of the complexity that exists around authoritarian regeimes, which was not something I expected when I went to live in one. We tend to think of tyranny as one-dimensional when some of these people who run these regimes are, in a very creepy way, very clever.
Your portrait of the convert who helps Alif, Dina and Vikram is really warm, but also somewhat critical, particularly your observations about the inflexibility of Westerners, and sex and exhaustion in literature. Do you think these are sort of long-term civilizational flaws that are coming to a head?
I’m not sure it’s at the end of its usefulness. This sort of practicality and need for facts and need to have open debates in which things are criticized and in theory the person with the best argument wins has served us very well. When you try to lift that out of our own culture wholesale and replicate it somewhere else, the results tend to go from funny to disastrous. When I was writing the book, I was conscious of the fact that even though I live in the Middle East and have relatives there through my in-laws, I’m still writing as an outsider. If I was going to set a book in this place and uses these characters from this place, I had to show I was able to take that laser beam of authorial insight and turn it on myself. I thought there should be someone there who was from the other side, and I could poke fun at her and unpack her in the same way I was doing with these Eastern characters, because I felt like that was fair. I get asked a lot, is the convert you? And the answer is not really. She’s a person that I tried hard not to be for a long time, in terms of that inflexibility and earnestness, that wanting to make peace but going about it in a bumbling way and exhausting yourself. The place she ends up in the book is where I have ended up. But the place she started out is not a place I connect with, but she embodies the pitfalls of Westerners, expecially converts to Islam who come to the Middle East and expect one thing and find another.
That’s a novel approach to what seems to be a particularly pernicious problem: white writers who get so paralyzed about not making mistakes that they refuse to write characters of color, or who write characters of color with a confidence they haven’t really earned.
I’m writing in English, I’m writing for a Western audience, but the people I’m surrounded by in my daily life are mostly non-white. A lot of people either tend to go totally one way or another. Either they try to be so PC and so careful that nothing ends up being communicated, or they speak with this false authority. But for years, I have tried to be what I try to call a cultural passenger. We’ve become obsessed with eeryoner being a leader, that’s the way you become a fully realized human being and all that good stuff. What is the car company that says ‘On the road of life there are passengers and there are drivers’? When I saw it for the first time, it stuck in my mind because in a cheesy, consumerist way, it’s how we see ourselves. We need more passengers. We need more people who, when they live in or enter other cultures, are willing to just look and have a sense of humor about themselves and the mistakes they’ll make, and be willing to reflect on the good and bad in the culture they see. When we criticize America or American pop culture, people don’t assume we’re passing judgement on the entire culture. It’s tricky to get to that point with a culture that’s not your birth culture. It’s assumed you’re criticizing the entire culture or making a generalization, and if you complement, it’s taken to be PC.
Well, I think we’re often very reluctant, or ill-equipped, to take criticism of things we say on race or about other cultures, that turn out to be misguided.
I think you’ve hit on something very crucial. When we hear these criticism of books we love or movies we love, and someone says this portrayal of a character or of people, we think ‘Oh, that makes me a racist.”’It’s difficult to realize that the work is not over. People think we’ve got a black president, the civil rights movement was 50 years ago, so we’re good. I think that’s a dangerous assumption, and it’s made people complacent, but also a little bit prickly. Whenever someone points out that a particular portion or character of a book or movie is racist or racially biased, that disturbs their whole worldview. This is something that’s supposed to be over, and it’s not. They see it as a comment on thmselves, which in a way it is. We don’t realize how much even the most liberal sides of our media pick into other people with whom we have no direct contact. We see it as looking out at the world and picking apart what works and what doesn’t. And we have to let other people do the same thing without shutting down or having it put our entire worldview into crisis. We do not stand apart from that. We do not stand apart from the rest of the world. And having a healthy sense of humor about it is good. You can look back at yourself and realize how strange you must look to someone who is radically different from you.
Now, you said when you were writing the novel, you didn’t think something like the Arab Spring could happen. Did you rewrite the ending of the novel in response to those events, or was this the original ending?
This was my optimistic plea to the universe. The original impetus for writing the novel were always the amazing conversations I was seeing that were enabled by the internet. People from extremely different political and cultural camps were suddenly talking to each other from across the Middle East and across the world. You had dialgoue, suddenly, between secularists and traditionalists. And instead of being nasty and hostile and militant, peole were trying really hard to find common ground. And that was not supposed to be possible, according to the standard old media punditry. Change was going to be impossible in the Middle East because the camps of people who wanted change were too different. I saw for years, serious evidence that it was not true. They would be able to band together to at least make the old regimes very nervous. Even I could not have predicted that the revolution would come together in such spectacular fashion. To me, before the Arab Spring broke out, I was always very conscious of the pessimism of, especially the Western media, but even the media in the Middle East, of the ability of these dissident groups to form a coalition. I wanted Alif to be right. I had a terrible feeling the Hand was right. But I was going to write the happy ending anyway. I cannot tell you what a joy it was to have the happy ending turn out to be right in the real world.
Even though we did get the happy ending, some of the sexual assaults on women we’ve seen in places like Tahrir Square are sort of foreshadowed in a moment when Alif loses Dina in a crowd, and some boys strip of her of her headscarf.
Projecting forward, I thought, just given the nature of revolutions in the past, or mob actions of any kind anywhere in the world, there’s always the potential things will get ugly, no matter how noble the initial intent of the protestors was. I think especially in a place like the Middle East where there traditionally has been more gender segregation than in other places, to have an event that brings men and women together in a public space from a place of anger, it might be particularly dangerous. Two things emerged from that, one is the scene where he loses Dina in the crowd, and the second is when he thinks New Quarter [a fellow hacktivist] has been killed by vigilante violence…I didn’t particularly plot it out well, if you had the mob overthrowing this dictatorial regime, this this and this would happen. [Rather, Wilsons says she was thinking about the concerns she might have if she were caught up in a crowd] As a woman, am I safe? If I reprsent something that this mob is against, are they going to take it out on me even if I’m on their side? Crowds are dangerous. I have this theory that every time you add someone to a crowd, the collective IQ goes down by 10 points.You have a huge number of epople in a small space and no law. It was very important to me that the basic thrust be positive…That’s a weird thing about being human. Our highest ideals tend to go hand in hand with our worst actions.
A ban on food waste to landfill must be put into effect if anaerobic digestion (AD) is to reach its potential of powering 2.5 million homes by 2020.
This is the conclusion of a study released July 3rd from think tank CentreForum, which says that a key growth barrier for the sector is feedstock supply, particularly securing long-term food waste contracts.
According to one of the report’s co-authors, Quentin Maxwell-Jackson, the Government needs to phase out organic waste to landfill by 2020 to achieve a significant uptake in source-segregated food waste collections.
This should be done progressively with sufficient lead-in times to allow households, businesses, local authorities and waste companies to adapt.
The study claims that segregated food waste sent to AD has considerably lower gate fees than incineration and landfill and is better environmentally.
According to John Woodruff, chair of the National Association of Waste Disposal Officers (NAWDO), councils are very much minded to collect food waste from households and local businesses if it’s economically viable for them.
We’re interested to hear whether your council collects your food waste?
Speaking at the annual Anaerobic Digestion & Biogas Association (ADBA) exhibition and conference in Birmingham, Woodruff referred to the £250m funding pot set up by Eric Pickles under which councils can apply to set up weekly refuse rounds, including separate food waste collections.
“Over 400 applications have been submitted for this fund and a good proportion of that is for food waste collections,” he told delegates.
However of those councils that are operating food waste schemes, most are being sent to in-vessel composting facilities “because they are there”, Woodruff pointed out.
“We know AD is better, but we need the facilities. If there’s an AD plant handy and a good gate fee, why wouldn’t we?” he said.
But hesitation over the technology still persists according to Alan Lovell, chief executive of Tamar Energy, who said that waste firms were “being a bit awkward” in signing up to AD projects until a plant is built.
Tamar Energy has ambitious plans to build 44 AD plants over the next five years in the UK with a total output capacity of 100MW.
Maxwell-Jackson said that problems around financing AD facilities were “a fact of life” but that greater understanding around feedstock risks would help to overcome this.