Special 2011 Green Screen Newsradar Edition

January 5, 2011

In This Issue:

  1. Environmental Security
  2. Endocrine Disruptors
  3. Peak Oil
  4. Rare Earths
  5. Nanomaterials
  6. Epigenetics
  7. Emerging Climate Issues
  8. Peak Water
  9. Coal's Role
  10. The Grid



One of the TipSheet's resolutions is to help environmental reporters see ahead — to point to the news that is coming but may not have happened yet.

The year ahead will bring some predictable stories. House Republicans (and some Senate Democrats) will try to prevent EPA from using its legal authority to regulate greenhouse gases. A bipartisan effort may be mounted to revise the Toxic Substances Control Act. Congress will jockey over subsidies for alternative energy, as well as nuclear, coal, and oil. "Fracking" will continue to produce large amounts of natural gas — and controversy. Oil will continue to appear on the shores of the Gulf of Mexico, and wetlands there will continue to recede. Nitrogen and phosphorus in runoff from the continental US will continue to cause seasonal "dead zones" not only in the Gulf, but elsewhere.

There are other important environmental stories ahead that are less obvious. These are stories that your editor may not see as news until you explain them. Yet in coming decades they may profoundly impact the lives of the people you write for. The TipSheet is going to start the year with a list of subject areas where much of tomorrow's news is likely to be found — and a few links to get you started exploring them. We hope to update and expand this list during the coming year.

Here, then, are some of the stories we see coming up over the horizon.

1. Environmental Security. Some very serious, high-level U.S. generals and intelligence experts are now saying that environmental factors may produce some of the gravest national security threats the U.S. will face in coming years. The message was driven home in 2010 when floods in Pakistan — possibly worsened by climate change — displaced millions of people, destabilized a government unable to cope, and strengthened the hand of the Taliban in a nuclear-armed country. Wilson Center. NATO. Institute for Environmental Security.

2. Endocrine Disruptors. Chemicals commonly used in consumer products and pervasive in the environment can "fool" our endocrine systems by mimicking natural hormones in our bodies. Not only do they cause transsexual fish, but they can seriously affect the reproductive health of humans. Our Stolen Future. NIEHS. EPA.

3. Peak Oil. Is the heyday of petroleum over? "Peak oil" refers to the point in history where oil gets harder to find and more expensive to produce — and in shorter supply. Theorists may argue about whether the world has actually reached that point, but oil's price has been trending upward for a long time. Is economic well-being to be measured in cars? Peak oil may force redefinition of transportation and energy systems — not to mention the geopolitics of oil-fueled wars. As 2011 begins, it is electric cars that are starring in the auto shows. It could also push us back into the economic slough we are trying to climb out of. Previous Story: TipSheet of Aug. 3, 2005. ASPO. Matt Savinar.

4. Rare Earths. The rare earths are a set of 15 very obscure elements (ever heard of lanthanum?) which are considered critical to emerging high-tech applications such as batteries, magnets, and energy-efficient lighting. China currently dominates the world market for these commodities, although developable quantities exist in the U.S. and other countries. USGS. New York Times. Previous Story:
TipSheet of Dec. 8, 2010.

5. Nanomaterials. Nanomaterials are materials of extremely small particle size — down to one nanometer — and by extension the technologies for making and using them. Their proportionately larger surface area can create unusual effects and potentially larger health and environmental impacts. Nanotech has burgeoned in the last decade, and nanomaterials are now common in consumer products. Wikipedia. Previous Stories: TipSheets of Aug. 6, 2008; March 1, 2006; and May 12, 2004. To date, the US National Nanotechnology Initiative has been more about boosterism than about examining potential risks.

6. Epigenetics. Sometimes the environmental factors a person is exposed to can override what was once considered their genetic destiny. Epigenetics is the study of inheritable changes in phenotype or gene expression caused by things other than changes in underlying DNA. These can include, we are now learning, a host of environmental factors. Wikipedia. EHP. Previous Story: SEJournal of Jan. 15, 2009.

7. Emerging Climate Issues. The rich-poor divide will continue to bedevil international climate negotiations. Fossil-fuel-funded politicians will continue to deny proven scientific realities. A U.S. climate bill seems unlikely. None of that is exactly news. But global inaction as the earth warms inevitably raises a new issue: how nations will adapt to the climate change we are committing ourselves to. While the basic science is solid, some emerging climate science questions may (or may not) make warming worse than anyone expected: cloud feedbacks, ocean currents, natural oscillations, and release of methane stored in land and ocean sediments. One starting point: IPCC. Another is SEJ's Climate Change Guide.

8. Peak Water. The world's usable water is not distributed evenly, and many parts of the world are running drastically short. Most good opportunities for storing and sharing water seem to have been exhausted. The problem may be worsened by climate change. Scarcer water may bring famine, armed conflict, migration, ecosystem destruction, and higher prices. Previous Story: TipSheet of Oct. 27, 2010. Pacific Institute.

9. Coal's Role — Peak or Otherwise. Coal, once King, is finding armed crowds at the palace gates. Once billed as an abundant fuel that would not run out for centuries, coal's mining industry is finding itself stretched thin and highly stressed. The pressure to reduce electric power generation from the fuel that produces the most carbon dioxide per unit of heat is only the beginning. In the US, no new coal power plants have been started for two years. China is expanding its coal-power base, but lacks enough coal to fuel its plants and is importing from the US and other countries. Even China is on a crash course to diversify away from coal. As if all that weren't enough, coal is a major source of mercury in the environment. "Study: World's 'Peak Coal' Moment Has Arrived," Greenwire, September 29, 2010, by Patrick Reis. New York Times articles. DOE.

10. The Grid. Every decade or so, the US has experienced huge regional power blackouts that have resulted largely from the obsolescence, insufficiency, and lack of coordinated management of its electric grid. Efforts have been made to correct this, but their success is debatable. As new, alternative sources of power come online in coming years, the need for an upgraded, updated, and more robust power distribution system will grow. To encourage customers to save power — or generate their own — a "smart grid" will be needed. This could be a huge opportunity to create "green jobs" as well as to green up the balance sheets of US corporations. Previous Story: TipSheet of Dec. 10, 2008.. NERC. FERC. NARUC. EIA.


Some Green Radar Screens


Environmental reporters in the know have "traditionally" relied on a small number of key sources for clues about the Next Big Issue on the environment/energy beat. Here are some favorites and old reliables.

SEJ Publication Types: