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New York State of Green

Despite widespread criticism of the state budget, it may be one of the most environmentally friendly ever By Cecelia Martinez

While everybody else in New York state is busy blasting the recently passed budget, some environmental groups are quietly celebrating the number of measures included in the budget agreement that will increase the sustainability of the state as well as protect eco- friendly programs already in place.

“We were really hopeful,” says Jessica Ottney of the Nature Conservancy, a global organization whose Eastern New York chapter is located in Albany on New Karner Road.

The 2009-2010 enacted budget allocates $222 million to the Environmental Protection Fund (EPF) of the Department of Environmental Conservation, which enables the purchase of land for conservation, as well as funding for chemical and pollution control, and the protection of wildlife.

The $222 million is $17 million more than Gov. David Paterson had originally proposed, and environmental groups are thankful for the victory.

“The Nature Conservancy is thankful that in these difficult economic times, environmental funding was not disproportionately reduced,” says Kathy Moser, deputy state director for the Nature Conservancy in New York.

The Nature Conservancy works together with about 150 other conservation groups as part of an organization called Friends of New York, which strives for increases or restorations in the budget each year.

“We talked to many many lawmakers, almost all of them, and really made the case that the cuts that were proposed would be very detrimental to these programs,” Ottney says. “Although it is less than it has been in past years, it was really fantastic that we got a $17 million restoration. This money supports things from parks to water conservation—it runs the gamut. “

The budget secured funding for the EPF through a real-estate transfer tax, a fee paid for real-estate transactions. “This is not a new fee, that is the traditional source of income for environmental programs in New York state,” Ottney says.

Albert E. Caccese, executive director of Audubon New York, agrees: “In both good and bad economic times, the real-estate transfer tax has provided a strong and sustainable source of funding for the EPF to support critically important projects for restoring our water, land and air resources and keeping New Yorkers working.”

Wildlife-protection initiatives were particularly vulnerable to the proposed budget cuts this year.

“For zoos, botanical gardens and aquaria, they were slashed to zeroed out,” Ottney says. “That would have been a very significant loss. Those funds not only go to zoos but actually support programs that care for living animals and plants. The funds will make sure that those institutions are available.”

The EPF, which has been providing funds for environmental conservation for more than 15 years, also funds environmental education programs and outdoor recreation.

“The vital support that EPF funds provide for living museums in every corner of New York state will allow us to continue educating millions of New Yorkers through innovative ecological literacy programs,” says Lois Carswell, chairman of the Coalition of Living Museums, “and provide economic stability to local communities.”

Another aspect of the budget that has conservation groups excited is the expansion of the New York bottle bill. Dubbed the “Bigger Better Bottle Bill” by its advocates, the bill marks the first major overhaul of the bill since its creation in 1982. Under the new law, bottled watter—which makes up nearly a quarter of the bottled beverages sold in the state—will be included in the state’s nickel deposit program, and beverage companies will be required to return 80 percent of the unclaimed bottle and can deposits to the state.

According to conservationists, not only will this program increase recycling and reduce litter, but it will also bring in more than $100 million in revenue to close the gap in the state budget.

“This was really the year to do it,” Ottney says. “With the revenue needs of New York and recycling being in the forefront, those issues really lined up this year to make it happen.”

Organizations also point out the other revenue benefits of investing in environmental conservation. Solid-waste programs help support an industry with $1.3 billion in revenue and 30,000 jobs, while wildlife watchers in the state contributed an estimated $1.6 billion plus an additional $250 million in sales tax revenue to the state economy in 2006.

Ottney also points out specific lawmakers that were instrumental in the formation of this “green” budget.

“Sen. Antoine Thompson from Buffalo and Assemblyman Robert Sweeney from Long Island were amazing champions for the environment this year,” Ottney says. “They should really be commended for this achievement.”

Cap’n Trade

The best hope for curbing carbon emissions (and slowing global warming) faces rough seas in Congress By Shawn Stone

President Barack Obama has been pretty consistent about keeping his campaign promises. Lower taxes on the “middle class,” aka people making $250,000 or less per year? Check. Loosen restrictions on Cuban-Americans traveling to Cuba? Repeal the worldwide family planning gag order? Check and check.

He also promised to do something about “climate change,” aka global warming—and that battle is just beginning.

Obama favors a “cap and trade” system to reduce carbon emissions. There is no better explanation of how cap and trade is supposed to work than the “Cap and Trade 101” position paper from John Podesta’s liberal think tank, Center for American Progress: “Each large-scale emitter, or company, will have a limit on the amount of greenhouse gas that it can emit. The firm must have an “emissions permit” for every ton of carbon dioxide it releases into the atmosphere. These permits set an enforceable limit, or cap, on the amount of greenhouse gas pollution that the company is allowed to emit. Over time, the limits become stricter, allowing less and less pollution, until the ultimate reduction goal is met.”

That’s the “cap” part. The trade part involves companies who produce less carbon emissions selling their permits to super-polluters. Overall emissions are supposed to decline; more efficient companies are economically rewarded. Oh, and the U.S. government, which will auction off these permits, is supposed to make a bundle of money doing so (at least $50 billion per year, according to the Congressional Budget Office). The idea is to use that money to help offset any resulting rise in energy prices.

Congressmen Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and Edward Markey (D-Mass.) have just introduced such a bill. Most Republicans and many Blue Dog Democrats (especially those from coal-producing or coal-burning states) are gearing up for a fight.

No one brings the crazy quite like Congresswoman Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.). She recently introduced a constitutional amendment “to prohibit the President from entering into a treaty or other international agreement that would provide for the United States to adopt as legal tender in the United States a currency issued by an entity other than the United States.” As the blog Wonkette kindly pointed out, no one in the Obama administration has advocated, hinted at or even murmured in their sleep any such idea.

Now, Bachmann’s taken an interest in cap and trade, applying her usual scholarship by misquoting a Massachusetts Institute of Technology study at public forums in her home district. Minnesota Public Radio reported that Bachmann told a St. Cloud audience that the average American household would see a $3,000 per year increase in heating bills, while the actual MIT estimate was $340 per year. She has also been bringing along Chris Horner of the right-wing Competitive Enterprise Institute, and author of Red Hot Lies: How Global Warming Alarmists Use Threats, Fraud and Deception to Keep You Misinformed.

Like many people who don’t go along with the overwhelming scientific consensus on global warming, Horner takes a shotgun approach to his argument: load up and let fly. As he wrote on Human Events online in 2007, even if global warming is real, nothing we can do can change it: “No one dares say that the expensive Kyoto Protocol would detectably affect climate.” And the polar bears? Don’t worry; they can swim. Most relevant to today’s right-wing discourse, he sees socialist engineering and a desire “to control others’ lifestyles.”

The more even-tempered American Enterprise Institute dresses the same arguments in more reasonable-sounding language: Cap and trade is too expensive; it won’t work; and, as Ben Lieberman wrote in a HF position paper in 2007, “cap and trade bills are nothing short of a government re-engineering of the American economy.”

That’s the underlying political fear that has burgeoned with Obama’s election—fear that cap and trade, like health-care reform and a renewable energy policy will change the game as profoundly as the economic and social policies of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan.

The Waxman-Markey bill is the opening salvo in this year’s fight. There has already been one setback to anything happening soon; the U.S. Senate rejected the Obama administration’s attempt to include any climate change bill in the budget reconciliation process. (Translation: Only 51 votes are needed to pass a bill in this process; now a cap and trade bill will need 60 votes and thus is not immune from a filibuster.)

Is the bill any good? The general consensus is “yes,” but that’s if the emission permits are issued only through an auction and the number of carbon “offsets”—which allow companies to pollute if they “offset” their emissions somewhere else—are severely limited.

As The American Prospect’s Ezra Klein wrote April 1 on his blog about Waxman and Markey, “They’re aggressively liberal, terrifically informed legislators who get the moral urgency of climate change and possess the intellectual firepower to grasp the necessary scale of the response. If this is as far as they felt able to go on an opening bid, it’s hard to see the legislative pathway that strengthens, rather than weakens, the legislation.”

Maybe any bill is better than nothing. Or not.

Green is the New Black

With more and more eco-chic goods hitting the market, a few products can help change how we think about conservation By Kathryn Geurin

There is no doubt that we are a culture of consumption, or that consumer choices are driven by the trendy image of the moment. While the conservation movement gains much-needed steam, and the eco-minded plead for society to fight the consumer addiction, a curious thing has happened. Being “green” has become the new hip thing. The fashion runways are swirling with designer eco-duds, you can buy a laptop with a bamboo casing, contemporary art-furniture crafted from recycled plastic yard toys, or your very own solar-cell backpack.

Critics are quick to decry these eco-trends as deceiving anti-solutions. After all, the energy and materials it takes to produce a new photovoltaic backpack far outweigh the energy saved by no longer having to plug in your iPod. And for the $700 it costs for a solar-cell bag powerful enough to juice your laptop, you could buy a hefty share of carbon offsets or adopt 14 acres of rainforest.

But our culture is in the formative stages of collective eco-consciousness. We have unwittingly trained ourselves to be reckless consumers, and we need to retrain ourselves to make conscientious, sustainable choices. Of course, thrifting a vintage top from the Goodwill rack is really much greener than popping into the mall for the hot new eco-chic baby-T-shirt. But perhaps brandishing the message of sustainability will shape our actions and our thinking. After all, who wants to be caught trashing their vitaminwater bottle while wearing a new “I Recycle” T-shirt?

So, for those jumping on the eco-trend train, here are a few great gadgets and gifts that will help us rethink old habits.

Cold water to the face the only thing that will wake you up? The H20 multi-function alarm clock from Stuff Junction runs on a replaceable water battery. A quick top-off at the tap will keep the clock powered for two to three months, and switching modes—between time, alarm, countdown timer and temperature—is as easy as rotating the round clock. The display senses gravity and changes orientation automatically. The tiny bundle of innovation will only run you $20. Of course, don’t just ditch your current alarm clock, but when it bites the dust, consider this water-powered replacement.

Want a personal-sized source of alternative energy? Skip the solar-powered backpack, and opt for the HYmini from Miniwiz. This palm-sized wind turbine harnesses wind power to charge all your 5V gadgets: cell phones, ipods, PDAs, digital cameras, the HYmini includes a universal adapter to charge just about anything. The basic HYmini will run you $49.95. You can add a string of up to four solar cells to achieve peak performance. But we’d recommend getting the handlebar attachment; the HYmini powers up on the breeze as you ride. Not only do you free yourself from the need to recharge at an outlet, it’s a great reminder that alternative power works—and it might give you the kick you need to leave the car in the driveway and hop on your bike.

Looking for tools to help you teach the tykes about energy costs and conservation? Keep an eye out for the Power Hog. It hasn’t hit the shelves yet, but the prototype took second place in this year’s Greener Gadgets Design Competition. Imagine your typical plump piggy bank, only with an outlet in the snout and a curly power cord for a tail. You pick an oft-used electrical family luxury (think TV here). Plug that into the Power Hog’s snout, and plug the pig into the wall. Drop a quarter in the bank, and the Power Hog will meter out 30 minutes of electricity. More power requires more money. It’s a simple way to enforce the idea that energy comes at a cost. Playing outside, is, as always, toll-free.

Wondering what they do with all that colorful vinyl from billboards after their lease is up? All that sturdy PVC is usually dumped in landfills, where it does not decompose. Enter Vy & Elle (get it, vin-yl, yeah), a company devoted to creating one-of-a-kind bags from the discarded advertising. Vy & Elle have already repurposed more than 100 tons of billboards for this project, and the supplemental materials are created from recycled plastic bottles; the final bags are 95 percent recycled waste materials. Ranging from the utilitarian to the designer, the bags make a colorful statement against corporate wastefulness, and they’re sturdy and stylish to boot. A basic shopping tote will set you back $29. Buying the tote is a start. Filling it up at your local farmers’ market will really make a difference.

Reusing what we can will always be more sustainable than building and buying new. In the case of Dyscern, that concept can not only help conserve resources, it can help conserve your hard-earned dollars. As small as they are, our digital gadgets leave one of the largest carbon footprints. Dyscern specializes in the recovery, rebuilding and resale of returned and salvaged PDAs, cell phones, mp3 players and Apple products. Dyscern’s re-products are graded by condition, thoroughly tested, and even guaranteed. So you can have your new iPod, with a reduced carbon footprint and at a reduced price. Maybe you’ll even power it up on your ride to work.

We are driven by trends, so let’s hope the “green” trends drive us toward a better awareness of how our actions impact our world.

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