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Wednesday, Jul 30, 2014

New England editorial roundup

Published:   |   Updated: July 5, 2014 at 01:03 PM

The Brattleboro (Vt.) Reformer, July 2, 2014

Hardly a day goes by that we don't hear about the dire consequences of climate change and the impending doom it will bring on the planet and all of mankind. Heat trapping gases created by our reliance on and addiction to fossil-fuel energy sources are raising the temperatures in our oceans and our atmosphere, melting ice caps throughout the polar regions, and causing extreme weather patterns all over the globe.

Climate change is no longer a problem to be solved in some distant future. The negative results of carbon-based energy are here today, everywhere, and scientists are predicting even more devastation over the coming decades because of the lag effect. That means even more superstorms, severe drought, heat waves, oppressive smog, air poisoned by the release of methane gas from melting ice caps, and the potential extinction of up to half of all living species on the planet.

It's quite depressing when you think about it, but does that mean we should throw our hands up in despair and accept defeat, accept that the very survival of the human race is doomed?

Not at all, says Al Gore. Remember him, the first presidential candidate to bring the issue of climate change to the national stage? He warned us all 14 years ago that global warming is a real problem not some paranoid theory fabricated by fringe scientists and that drastic policy and regulatory changes are needed to head off the problem before it's too late. And then he was politically flogged for even suggesting ideas that the fossil fuel industry told us not only wouldn't work but would ruin our economy.

The effects of climate change are more prevalent now than they were back in 2000, and the predictions for the future even more dire, but Gore says the situation is not hopeless.

"In the struggle to solve the climate crisis, a powerful, largely unnoticed shift is taking place," he wrote in the latest issue of Rolling Stone magazine. "The forward journey for human civilization will be difficult and dangerous, but it is now clear that we will ultimately prevail."

That shift is taking place on several fronts, Gore explains. First and foremost is the technological advancements in renewable energy that have made solar and wind power much cheaper and more efficient far more rapidly than anyone had predicted. The cost of electricity from photovoltaic solar cells is now equal to or less than the cost of electricity from other sources powering electric grids in at least 79 countries. Gore predicts that by 2020 as the scale of deployments grows and the costs continue to decline more than 80 percent of the world's people will live in regions where solar will be competitive with electricity from other sources.

In fact, he wrote, in poorer countries, where most of the world's people live and most of the growth in energy use is occurring, photovoltaic electricity is not so much displacing carbon-based energy as leapfrogging it altogether. In other words, regions of developing nations that have never had access to electricity have skipped over traditional power grids and gone straight to solar. Bangladesh, for example, is installing nearly two new rooftop PV systems every hour.

Here in America, more states are adopting net metering laws that allow homeowners who install solar PV systems to sell electricity back into the grid when they generate more than they need. As more consumers install solar panels or buy into community solar projects like here in Windham County utilities will have to raise prices on their remaining customers to recover the lost revenue. Gore says those higher rates will, in turn, drive more consumers to leave the utility system and so on, leading to the so-called utility death spiral.

All of this is creating a noticeable shift in the energy business. The rapid technological advancements in renewable energy are stranding carbon investments; grassroots movements are building opposition to the holding of such assets; and new legal restrictions on collateral flows of pollution are further reducing the value of coal, tar sands, and oil and gas assets. As a result, more and more investors are diversifying their portfolios to include significant investments in renewables, Gore explains.

The final significant shift Gore discusses in his article is political. The forces fighting against renewable energy are formidable, well financed and carry considerable political power built up over the past century Gore specifically mentions brothers Charles and David Koch, who run Koch Industries, the second-largest privately owned corporation in the U.S. Gore says they have secretly donated at least $70 million to a number of opaque political organizations tasked with spreading disinformation about the climate crisis.

"But here is more good news: The Koch brothers are losing rather badly," Gore wrote.

In Kansas, their home state, a poll by North Star Opinion Research reported that 91 percent of registered voters support solar and wind. Three-quarters supported stronger policy encouragement of renewable energy, even if such policies raised their electricity bills. Gore says it's important for voters to keep the political momentum going.

"Now is the time to support candidates who accept the reality of the climate crisis and are genuinely working hard to solve it and to bluntly tell candidates who are not on board how much this issue matters to you," Gore wrote. "If you are willing to summon the resolve to communicate that blunt message forcefully with dignity and absolute sincerity you will be amazed at the political power an individual can still wield in America's diminished democracy."

The bottom line, Gore says, is that there is still time to avoid the catastrophes that most threaten our future: "Each of the trends described above technology, business, economics and politics represents a break from the past. Taken together, they add up to genuine and realistic hope that we are finally putting ourselves on a path to solve the climate crisis."

The Kennebec Journal of Augusta (Maine), June 30, 2014

Just what is the cost of cheap corn?

Looked at one way, there's an easy answer. In 2012, U.S. taxpayers paid about $2.7 billion to prop up the corn industry, in the form of direct payments and crop insurance subsidies.

The true cost, however, is actually much higher, as the billions in government aid have led to the proliferation of sugar-laden, heavily processed foods.

There are indications that the extreme amounts of added sugar in these foods, as much as an increase in caloric intake and a reduction in physical activity, are contributing to the high rates of obesity, as well as other chronic health problems.

A recent report details the mounting evidence linking excess sugar consumption with myriad health problems, and shows how the beverage and food industry has tried to keep it quiet.

But at a time when health care is shifting its focus from treating illness to preventing it in order to cut costs, we cannot afford to ignore something with a likely annual price tag in the tens of billions of dollars.

That means making clear to consumers the health implications of a high-sugar diet, and changing food policy to support less the foods that are making us sick.

Sugar comes in many forms now, including, yes, sodas, fruit juices, sports drinks and baked goods, but also yogurt, bread, canned fruit, ketchup, spaghetti and barbecue sauce, and even crackers.

Sugar is, especially in the form of taxpayer-subsidized high-fructose corn syrup, a cheap additive. It is also likely highly addictive and, at the high levels now being consumed, very unhealthy.

The new report, from the Center for Science and Democracy, says that U.S. intake of excess sugar increased 25 percent from 1970-2000, mirroring an increase in obesity rates so great that Maine, at 28.4 percent of all residents, is merely in the middle of the pack.

Sugar intake has declined somewhat in the last few years, but Americans still now consume about three times the daily amount of sugar recommended by the World Health Organization.

The report cites mounting evidence linking excess sugar consumption to weight gain, not only because of the calories but because of its impact on metabolism, hormones and blood sugar levels.

Overconsumption of sugar also is connected, in that report and in other research, to a legion of other health issues, including hypertension and heart disease.

The cost is enormous. Obesity alone represents an annual cost of $190 billion, or a full one-fifth of annual medical spending.

Making people informed of this growing body of research will help somewhat.

But that will be counteracted by industries selling the highly processed products, which by their nature are more profitable and more easily marketable than the healthier whole foods that should make up the bulk of one's diet.

A better approach would be to shuffle some of the subsidies to smaller farms, which would have the added bonus of boosting local economies.

Lawmakers missed an opportunity to do that in the latest Farm Bill. With the impact of that decision becoming more clear by the moment, they can't afford to miss it again.