Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Plastic Diet


In August 2007, when famed oceanographer Sylvia Earle addressed The Commonwealth Club about "A Celebration of the Oceans," her speech was less a celebration and more an overview of dire news about the planet's deep waters. "About 90 percent of the big fish that we love to consume are gone," she said. She talked about aquatic "dead zones," areas of the seas in which everything is dying. The earth's wildlife support network, she continued, was diminishing. Mercury poisoning was a growing problem with big, deep-sea fish on our plates.

But Earle, who served as chief scientist of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in the first Bush administration, also argued that there were things people could do to reverse things, by expanding marine sanctuaries, for example.

Today, some people are wondering about another threat to our oceans.

About 20 years ago, predictive reports began filtering in concerning a small-scale ecological disturbance in the making – if one took “small-scale” to mean Texas-sized, and “ecological disturbance” somehow implied raft of poisonous plastic particulates. But seeing as this isn’t the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, perhaps we can dispense with the euphemisms.

The raft was quickly dubbed the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, and it has become a very real problem. Created by the currents of the North Pacific Gyre, which circle slowly inward like an incredibly anticlimactic Charybdis, it has been gathering floating debris for quite some time. Prior to plastic, that debris was mostly plant matter, usually decomposing quickly and then sinking to the depths in the constant, organic snow that sustains ecosystems straight to the bottom of the Mariana Trench.

Over the past several decades, however, an influx of non-biodegradable, manmade material has created a floating layer of trash, trapped in the middle of the Pacific.

Runoff is a large source of the trash. Pollution (bottle caps, toys, plastic bags, tape dispensers, you name it) is washed from storm drains and shores into the ocean, where it is caught by the currents and deposited in the Garbage Patch. Cruise ships and freighters are also notorious contributors, dumping waste directly into the sea.

It is wreaking havoc on wildlife. Hundreds of thousands of seabirds, mammals and sea turtles are killed by the garbage every year; the damage to fish populations is far greater. More worrying still, the plastic that constitutes the majority of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch never, ever goes away. Even as it breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces, plastic polymers remain intact, resulting eventually in a toxic layer of poisonous contaminants that have already begun accumulating in our own food chain.

Mercury poisoning is no longer the only reason to moderate our intake of large game fish.

What can we do to alleviate the situation? Some people donate to missions such as Project Kaisei, sign a congressional petition, or volunteer for a little time at sea themselves to help the cleanup. There's also a little something called the Plastic Diet, and it’s about what you’d imagine: a drastic reduction in the amount of plastic we use on a daily basis.

Soda bottles, shopping bags, disposable razors, mechanical pencils, almost everything sold in a convenience store. If it can’t be avoided – as with a majority of kids’ toys, computer hardware and medical products – advocates of the plastic diet say it’s often possible to ensure responsible disposal. Though efforts to clean up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch have so far proven costly, difficult and even environmentally unsound, an ounce of prevention may truly be the best approach.
Johan Wolfgang von Goethe years ago said, "It's simply not enough to undestand, but to act." So with knowing comes caring, and with caring there is hope that we will find an enduring place for ourselves within the natural systems that sustain us, that keep us alive. As never again, perhaps, we have a chance to get it right.
--Sylvia Earle, August 1, 2007
-- By Andrew Harrison

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Today Copenhagen, Tomorrow ...?


The Commonwealth Club has been bringing together thought leaders from around the world for more than a century -- it'll be 107 years this February -- but it has now expanded its reach. For the first time ever, The Club held an event outside of the United States this past Tuesday when it presented a high-level program in Copenhagen, Denmark, featuring California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger (pictured, center), Himin Solar Founder and CEO Huang Ming (photo left), Nobel laureate and IPCC Chair Rajendra Pachauri. The event was moderated by Climate One Founder and Commonwealth Club Vice President Greg Dalton (photo right).

KQED Radio broadcast the event as a special program the following night. If you missed that broadcast, it will also be aired on KRCB FM on Dec. 17, 2009, at 7:00 p.m. Excerpts will air on KRCB TV in January. The program will also be podcast. 

For more on The Club's visit to Copenhagen, see our photo reports.

Climate One's Greg Dalton to Discuss Copenhagen on CBS5 on Dec. 20


Get a behind-the-scenes look at the high-stakes issues being negotiated at the UN climate summit in Copenhagen this Sunday, December 20. Greg Dalton, Commonwealth Club vice president and founder of its Climate One initiative, will appear on the CBS5 morning news with Phil Matier between 7:30 a.m. and 8:00 a.m.

Bay Area residents who don't get up that early on the weekends: Set your DVR!

For some visuals of the Copenhagen summit, see our report.

The Views from Copenhagen, Part III

The United Nations' climate summit in Copenhagen this month is winding up to a finish, but it is still unknown whether it will be a big finish with a binding agreement signed by the 192 nations represented there or it will end with only a face-saving agreement or less. One source who has been attending the event and observing the back-and-forth tells us that we shouldn't believe the predictions that the summit will end without an agreement; instead, our source says, we are seeing lots of grandstanding and posturing in attempts to get the most favorable deal by each of the participants.

Is that correct? We will know soon. In the meantime, we wanted to share with you these photos from Copenhagen. 

Photos top-to-bottom: 1) Huang Ming (founder and CEO, Himin Solar), Arnold Schwarzenegger (California governor), and Greg Dalton (Commonwealth Club vice president and founder of its Climate One initiative) discuss the climate summit. 2) Protestors have been pushed further back from the location of the summit's meetings, leading to a police ring around the meeting center, and the police are surrounded by a ring of protestors. 3) A protestor taunts a police officer. 4) It's going to be a white Christmas in Copenhagen, as is visible in this rooftop shot of bikes. 5) Not everyone's protesting; some, such as this mother and her child on a sled, are out enjoying the winter wonderland.

(All photos by Dr. Kerry P. Curtis.)

For more views from The Commonwealth Club's contingent in Copenhagen, see Part I and Part II.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Upcoming Commonwealth Club Programs on Comcast HD

Here's a quick update of the schedule for Commonwealth Club programs to airing on Comcast Channel 715 in the Bay Area. The programs air Sundays at 9 am:

Zeke Emanuel, "American Health Care System," January 3, January 17

Barbara Rose Brooker, "The Viagra Diaries," January 10

Dr. Gloria Duffy on KLIV's "The CEO Show" Tonight at 7 pm


Get an inside look at the importance of leadership in today's world when Commonwealth Club President and CEO Dr. Gloria Duffy joins KLIV tonight starting at 7:00 p.m. She will be a guest on KLIV's "The CEO Show," hosted by Carl Guardino, president and CEO of the Silicon Valley Leadership Group.

You can hear the program live tonight on KLIV 1590AM from 7:00 to 8:00 p.m., during which Guardino will be taking listener calls at 408-575-1600. Afterward, the program will be available in KLIV's online archives.

Monday, December 14, 2009

The Views from Copenhagen, Part II

The Commonwealth Club's staff and volunteers who trekked to Copenhagen, Denmark, for the United Nations climate summit practically had front-row seats to the debates and controversies at the event.

Top photo: The "Hopenhagen" site in downtown Copenhagen. Middle photo: This group of young people held a protest of a Canadian tar sands project. Bottom photo: What would a climate summit be without at least one protester -- and American, in this case -- dressed as a polar bear?

(All photos courtesy Dr. Kerry P. Curtis.)

For more, see Part I and Part III of this report. Also see the Club's Climate One blog.

The Views from Copenhagen, Part I

As 192 nations meet in Copenhagen, Denmark, to debate and debate and debate about what to do about climate change, The Commonwealth Club is there to report what's happening, plan upcoming climate programs for Club events, and even hold a program featuring California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, Nobel laureate Rajendra Pachauri, and others.

In the top photo below, you get a sense of why Copenhagen might have been chosen to host this event: bikes. Dr. Kerry Curtis, chair of The Club's Environment & Natural Resources Member-Led Forum, reports that there are many more bikes than cars around the apartment building where The Club's contingent is staying. Middle photo: The big meeting room, generally reserved for official delegates to the UN climate summit. Bottom photo: The Commonwealth Club team poses at the entrance to the conference.

(All photos courtesy Dr. Kerry P. Curtis.)

See Part II and Part III of this report.
For further reports from Copenhagen, also see the blog of Climate One, the Club's climate initiative.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Copenhagen Summit Site of Climate One Event with Gov. Schwarzenegger, Nobel Laureate Pachauri, & More

The Commonwealth Club's Climate One project will host a radio and television conversation with key players in Copenhagen during the UN Climate Change Summit on December 16th. The two-part event will feature California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, UK Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change Ed Miliband, Himin Solar founder & CEO Huang Ming, and Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Chair Rajendra Pachauri. Greg Dalton, Commonwealth Club vice president and director of Climate One, will moderate the event that will take place on the sidelines of the UN climate summit currently going on in Copenhagen, Denmark.

Even if you couldn't make the trek to Denmark, you can follow the Club's reports from the summit -- and you can tweet your questions for the participants -- at:
The deadline to tweet your questions is Tuesday at noon -- so prepare your questions now for our expert panelists and send them in!

The two-part Climate One program, which was underwritten by The ClimateWorks Foundation, will be broadcast on KQED FM, Dec. 16, 2009, at 8:00 p.m. and on KRCB FM Dec. 17, 2009, at 7:00 p.m. Excerpts will also be broadcast on KRCB TV in January. Also, the program will be podcast, and brief video clips will be posted to the blogs of The Club and Climate One

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Who Do YOU Think Should Play Capt. Sullenberger in the Movie?


Last night, Capt. Chesley Sullenberger told The Commonwealth Club about his experience piloting US Airways Flight 1549 and making the emergency landing in the Hudson. He told the sold-out crowd about leadership, discipline, and training.

Moderating the event was ABC7 News anchor Dan Ashley, who concluded the evening by asking Sullenberger who should play him in a movie of his life. Sullenberger quipped that it should probably be someone better looking than him.

But a Club staffer has nominated Keith Carradine as a good film Sully. Go ahead, take a look -- he's a pretty good likeness, isn't he?

Who would you nominate as a film version of the heroic Hudson captain? Let us know!

(photo by William F. Adams)