Celebrating Earth Day with insights and ideas on caring for the planet

By Dave Schwab, Laura Petersen and Karen Billing

The color green has become a superstar.

Lindsay Lohan, Britney Spears, Paris Hilton -- they can only dream of such celebrity.

Public officials come out in support of green. Little children learn about being green in school. Companies see business opportunities in going green.

Our planet may look blue from space, but green is the color of our flowering affection for Mother Earth.

As the 39th annual Earth Day (April 22) approaches, you will find tips and stories on a wide range of green topics throughout this issue. We started by asking local green leaders about the opportunities and challenges we face in caring for our environment.

Carolyn Chase is co-founder and “goddess” of Balboa Park’s annual EarthFair, which honors Earth Day. She said there are some encouraging signs locally.

“There is (now) a consistent set of local, nonprofit volunteer groups, and funded conservancies that have a lot of citizens and supporters involved in doing conservation work whether it’s restoring stuff, or saving stuff from development or, in the case of San Diego, creating a huge increase in organic farming,” Chase said. “There’s a high (environmental) awareness here because of the beauty of the place we live in.”

Chase, who is a former city of San Diego Planning Commissioner and is now CEO of Earthworks, a local nonprofit group, cited passage of AB 32, a state bill passed recently which sets a goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. These are the emissions that most scientists believe lead to climate change.

There are other hopeful signs of a new “can do” attitude being fostered with environmental change, said Chase. “People and businesses are starting to minimize their carbon footprints, investing in windmills, using travel agencies that do things to offset travel carbon emissions, etc.

On the down side, Chase pointed to a lot of environmental needs that still need to be addressed.

Chase said the goal now should be for individuals, groups and companies to achieve a state of “zero waste,” so there is no longer a need for more polluting and wasteful landfills.

“At the global level, the accumulation of these (environmental) problems is requiring large governmental policy action,” she said. And while she said California is going to remain an environmental leader, “We need the government to set high standards. We need to be planning the right infrastructure to support reduced air and water pollution and traffic impacts. We need to reduce our energy consumption. As (Sierra Club founder) John Muir said, ‘The battle we have fought, and are still fighting ... is a conflict between right and wrong and we cannot expect to see the end of it.’ ”

La Jolla High grad Ray Weiss, a UCSD professor in the Geoscience Research Division, is involved in global warming studies, mapping changes in marine and atmospheric chemistry. Asked about what’s positive about the “green revolution” in the social consciousness, Weiss answered: “The awareness is the most important thing, though I’m largely discouraged about (the prospect) of people closing the gap between what will actually occur (energy usage and global warming) and what will be required to cope with this problem.”

He pointed out that scientists have come up with a number of possible scenarios for global warming. One is the business as usual scenario, which estimated how quickly carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere will rise if nothing is done to curb their release into the atmosphere. “it turns out, right now, we are emitting more than what was predicted with the business-as-usual scenario,” said Weiss.

And carbon, though the most notorious greenhouse gas, is not the only problem.

Weiss noted that carbon tetrafluoride, which occurs naturally and as a byproduct of the manufacture of aluminum, accumulates and lasts for 50,000 years in the Earth’s atmosphere.

Concerning what still needs to be done to make the world more environmentally aware, the most important thing is to “avoid waste,” counseled Weiss. “Most emissions from fossil fuels are used in heating or cooling homes,” said Weiss. “So do things that insulate your home better. If you drive a vehicle bigger than you need, you’re wasting fossil fuels. Don’t leave lights on.”

Weiss added it’s important for scientists to explore use of alternative energy sources, include solar, wind and nuclear.”

Still, “the average European uses half as much energy as the average American,” Weiss pointed out.

Concerning obstacles standing in the way of energy conservation, Weiss said the biggest one is just getting people to do all the little things required, which, collectively, will add up and made a real difference.

“I once read an article that said, ‘Global warming doesn’t have a mustache,’ ” said Weiss. “Unlike the threat of militancy in Iraq, global warming and climate change, though a much greater and longer-term problem, is not an immediate threat, but is (coming) 10, 15 years away. I don’t know if we (humans) have the makeup to deal with something like this that appears to be so abstract.”

While Nobel Prize winner Al Gore and other activists fuel the green movement, it falls to scientists to explore and explain the “abstract” realities of environmental damage.

“You can’t really achieve much of anything at all without having a fundamental understanding of the basics,” said Solana Beach resident Jeff Severinghaus, Ph. D., a researcher at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography.

Much of that basic science work is being undertaken locally.

Gore’s peace prize was shared with the thousands of scientists who have been gathering and studying the data. Their efforts have brought a mounting body of evidence to the general public that humans are changing the climate.

For example, Scripps Institute of Oceanography has been monitoring more than 3,000 floats in global oceans to measure temperature for the past 10 years. These floats show the top one-third of the water is warming.

Much more research is needed on the possible impacts of rising temperatures, Severinghaus said.

Currently, scientists are studying glacier movement because as glaciers move and deposit their formerly frozen water into the oceans, they contribute to the rise in sea levels.

“It’s very important to understand what controls sliding,” Severinghause said. “Right now our understanding is very poor.”

Rainfall is another critical system that needs more study, he said. The possibility of less rainfall in already dry areas could have profound economic and human effects, such as the inability to grow crops.

The value of knowledge empowers individuals, inventors, businesses and decision-makers to find effective solutions.

Unfortunately, funding for research has been flat-lined by the federal government.

“We’re facing a shrinking budget precisely at a time when the need is greater than ever,” Severinghaus said.

But where big government is not stepping up, small governments are increasingly stepping in.

Solana Beach, Del Mar and San Diego have all signed the U.S. Mayors Climate Protection Agreement, committing to work towards meeting the Kyoto Protocol, which calls for greenhouse gas emission reductions to 7 percent below 1990 levels, by 2012.

The county’s second smallest city is leading the charge, Solana Beach is actively shaping a walkable community, so residents and visitors can get out of their cars. More and more residents are joining the city’s Clean and Green Committee to work on environmental initiatives.

In Del Mar, an energy advisory committee is drafting recommendations to reduce the city’s carbon footprint.

San Diego was one of the last cities to implement mandatory recycling, but now has a climate protection action plan. For example, the city has set a goal to produce 50 megawatts of solar power to operate city facilities.

“I think we’re doing O.K.,” said San Diego City Council member Donna Frye. “We could be doing a whole lot more and doing it a whole lot better.”

Frye, a well-known environmental advocate, said San Diego needs to address how it approaches trash, energy and water.

“These are the types o things that take some planning, very long-range infrastructure projects,” Frye said. “They have not been made a priority to the extent I believe they should be. If we don’t start doing something now, it’s only going to get worse and get more expensive.”

Frye, however, would like to see more green leadership from America’s commander in chief.

“Rather than one state doing this and one state doing that, we need a very significant overall energy policy for the U.S.,” Frye said. “Then the state governments and local governments can get involved and have a comprehensive solution.”

It’s up to voters to decide how important green issues are in the ballot box, and that’s where organizations such as the Sierra Club, which is one of the nation’s oldest environmental organizations, come in. Founded in 1892, the group encourages people to explore, enjoy and protect the planet. The local San Diego Sierra Club does everything from preserving canyons to championing recent recycling ordinance that mandate recycling of construction and demolition waste.

The club’s efforts are in many ways a model of how green gets done.

“A lot of it is education, getting people to realize that they really do make a difference,” said Cheryl Reiff, Sierra Club San Diego’s chapter coordinator. “Individuals often feel like there’s nothing they can do, and there really is.”

Reiff said individuals can always make a difference by getting active in a cause they are passionate about, being smart about the products they use and being selective about the politicians they elect.

“Be aware. Don’t just take things for granted, be aware of what the alternatives are,” said Reiff. “Be aware of your choices and the impacts they have.”