Saturday, August 25, 2007

Is a 3,000 Square Foot House a McMansion?

Michigan Democrat John Dingell, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee and well known thorn in the side of environmentalists for blocking legislation to raise fuel efficiency standards for cars, is drafting a bill which would eliminate the tax deduction on mortgage interest for a house larger than 3,000 square feet. Dingell is quoted in the Washington Post as saying:

remove the mortgage interest deduction on McMansions -- homes over 3,000 square feet.

There probably would be a lot of support for removing this tax deduction for McMansions but does a 3,000 square foot really classify as a McMansion? While there is no agreed on definition, a house of 3,000 square feet seems a bit small to make the grade. In a post on this blog that I wrote earlier this month it was noted that nationally known land use law expert John Nolon from Pace University Law School uses the definition of 6,000 to 8,000 feet. He was quoted in the Guardian as saying that:

A 6,000 sq ft-8,000 sq ft house is a climate change disaster. If the country doesn't rein in the construction of these mansions the message to individuals is that they're encouraged to follow their urges. The phenomenon with McMansions is similar to that with SUVs: they express a certain sort of success, they're available and they're fun.

Nolon clearly is talking about very large houses when he uses the term McMansions. Dingell however is including houses that are only slightly larger than the average size new house. Why is he even using the term McMansion?

Perhaps Dingell is trying to appear green while proposing legislation which has no chance of passing. If he used Nolon’s definition and made the cutoff at 6,000 square feet that might be hard for the real estate and developer lobbies to defeat. The Washington Post article says that realtors and home builders are already up in arms about Dingell’s proposal. They probably won’t be the only ones.

Dingell is the chairman of an extremely important committee when it comes to the issue of global warming. We can only hope that he sincerely is trying to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and not just trying make it look like that is his goal.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Nothing Funny About Belching Livestock

It is not surprising that many people find it hard to take seriously the claims that methane expelled by cows can be a threat to the planet. It seems more like gross-out humor than serious climate science. Particularly since many people believe that the methane comes out at the end of the digestive tract as in humans. Actually most of this methane is expelled by belching.

According to a recent article in The Christian Science Monitor cows burp about once every 40 seconds. Their digestive processes yield as much as 100 gallons a day of methane and much of it is released through belching. Multiply that by all the cows in the world and you can be begin to see why this has no relationship to toilet humor. Considering that methane is a much more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide with regard to heat trapping (although it does not last nearly as long in the atmosphere) it is clear that this is very serious business.

To make this subject even more grim cows are not the only type of livestock that burp methane. For example, sheep are also part of this problem. A reporter from a Western Australian radio station discovered that in her part of the world this is particularly true because of the high salinity which results in the sheep eating bush that generates lots of burping.

Kay Balatero recently discussed the issue of belching cows on Gristmill blog and noted that scientists are looking for ways to change the diet of livestock to cut down on the belching. She finds herself doubting the wisdom of this effort:

But I'm somewhat skeptical about this dietary tampering; the idea of manipulating cow diets even further than we already have is a little disconcerting. We've seen corn-fed CAFO [confined animal feeding operations] cows become more susceptible to disease as a direct result of eliminating their natural diet of grass, leading to overuse of antibiotics by the beef industry. Would it be better to leave well enough alone, and simply consume less (sustainably raised) beef?

In theory, the problem could be solved by humans becoming vegans in vast numbers. Who needs billions of livestock if we no longer eat beef or lamb or consume dairy products such as milk, cheese, ice cream, and yogurt. The chance of this happening seems to be zero. If civilization is going down, it hardly seems likely that people would give up such perceived pleasures as eating a choice cut of grilled steak or a juicy hamburger from the barbecue during the descent.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Does DiCaprio’s Lifestyle Matter?

Most humans don’t fly. Among those who do most do not fly in their own private jets. But Leonardo DiCaprio does fly in his own private jet and since he is a celebrity calling for action against global warming this really bothers some people. It really bothers Glenn Barry who runs the climate change and global warming portal Climate Ark. It bothers Barry so much that he has issued an action alert to :

Let Leo know that the battle to stop the growth in aviation's greenhouse gas emission is one the most important environmental battles ever that requires his personal example. To be a credible messenger of global ecological sustainability Leonardo must both walk the walk and talk the talk. Let him know you will see his movie if he swears off private jets.

On other extreme, David Roberts blogging on Huffington Post has a simple reaction to all this agitation over how DiCaprio travels. Roberts says “eh.” Roberts explains his “who cares” attitude by saying:

I care about global warming. I don't think celebrity behavior is going to affect the issue one way or the other…

Whether or not celebrities matter in the fight against global warming it is a sure bet that we are going to keep hearing from celebrities on this issue. Celebrities are so much part of the media that is it almost impossible to imagine the media without them. Probably the mayor of Seattle, Greg Nickels, who originated the U.S. Mayors’ Climate Protection Agreement which has now been signed by over 600 mayors and town supervisors has done more to combat global warming than all of the celebrities combined if you leave out Al Gore but outside of the Seattle area you are unlikely to see him show up in the media. The value of the media to the fight against global warming is largely to show pictures of the effects of climate change such as melting glaciers, stranded polar bears, etc. When it comes to taking action against global warming the media will focus on celebrities which is not where the action is.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

What’s the Deal with Dingell?

A debate among environmentalists is raging over whether the proposals by Michigan Democrat John Dingell, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, represent a sincere effort to fight global warming or a sneaky way to prevent meaningful legislation on raising CAFE standards for cars. On Gristmill blog, David Roberts is defending Dingell while Joseph Romm accuses Dingell of using the “poison pill” strategy to undermine legislative efforts to raise CAFE standards.

Trying to decipher Dingell’s motives becomes even more complicated when you realize that only last December when asked whether a scientific consensus on global warming has been established Dingell replied:

"This country, this world, the [human] race of which you and I are a part, is great at having consensuses that are in great error. And so I want to get the scientific facts, and find out what the situation is, and find out what is the cure, and find out what is the cure that is acceptable to the country that I represent and serve."

So here is someone who only recently was wondering whether humans are to blame for global warming and now has proposed the following strong measures as listed by David Roberts:

A carbon tax of up to $100 per ton.

A gas tax of $0.50 a gallon.

A cap-and-trade system.

Ending the mortgage tax deduction for "McMansions" over 3,000 sq. feet.

All with the goal of reducing GHG emissions 60-80% by 2050.

Clearly there would be great political opposition in the United States to at least three of these proposals, the carbon tax, gas tax, and end of the mortgage deduction for many people. And coming from someone who only about eight months ago appeared to have been in the global warming skeptics camp has to raise doubts over the sincerity of these proposals. However, after holding hearings on global warming and energy maybe Dingell has had an epiphany and has decided that he is the one to put forth truly strong legislation, sort of like Richard Nixon, who made his reputation by being an anticommunist deciding that he would be the one to open the door to communist China.

Even if Dingell’s motives can not be unequivocally determined, his proposals seem to provide hope that the debate in the US Congress has at last shifted from whether human sources are the cause of global warming to what to do about it.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Folly of Building McMansions

Although people buying SUVs have taken most of the heat for making foolish purchases while the global warming crisis has taken on alarming proportions the folly of those buying McMansions is now starting to gain attention. An article in the Guardian quotes John Nolon, a leading land use law expert from Pace University Law School, as saying:

A 6,000 sq ft-8,000 sq ft house is a climate change disaster. If the country doesn't rein in the construction of these mansions the message to individuals is that they're encouraged to follow their urges. The phenomenon with McMansions is similar to that with SUVs: they express a certain sort of success, they're available and they're fun. If legislative folks don't take some kind of position on mansionisation, it will go unchecked.

Compared with modest size houses of perhaps 2,000 square feet McMansions of 6,000 to 8,000 square feet take more energy to heat in the winter and cool in the summer. Also, there is a lot more space to light and more room for all those energy using appliances such as TVs and computers. With about half of electricity being generated with coal burning in the United States it is not hard to see why McMansion building is another driver of global warming.

The article points out that there are places that are starting to take action to halt this madness. For example, Boulder, Colorado, the first city in the US with a carbon tax, has imposed a cap on the size of new house after the average size new house grew to over 6,000 square feet.

The excesses in American society seem endless. Limiting house size might be a good place to start attacking the bigger is better problem. Bigger isn't better because our planet isn't getting any larger.