Marking Mid-Winter

We’re halfway there.

To spring.

On Feb. 2, prognosticating rodents are hauled out of hutches and held high, their gloved handlers grasping them tightly around their furry mid-sections. Assembled crowds will wait to see if the groundhog casts a shadow, thus sealing our fate for six more weeks of winter or granting us an early spring reprieve.

The modern celebration of Groundhog Day, for all its silliness, coincides with solemn faith tradition observances including the Catholic celebration of Candlemas and the Wiccan observance of Imbolc.

For me, it marks the half-way point on the gardening calendar between the darkest night of the year — the Winter Solstice — and spring’s official start on the Vernal Equinox.

Even as the temperatures remain stubbornly low, the real story is more sunlight. Six weeks ago, on the Winter Solstice, sunset was at 4:30 p.m. Today, it is at 5:10 p.m. The midday sun appears a few degrees higher in the sky and feels warmer on my face. We’re picking up one more minute of sunlight daily. That rate will double to two minutes daily by the end of February.

A gardener friend told me about her grandmother’s traditional Groundhog Day garden walk, during which her grandmother would “wake up” the trees and plants with a gentle tap from her walking stick.

When I heard this folk tradition, it made sense to me as gardener wisdom.

Inspecting each plant and tree carefully gives the gardener opportunity to observe disease or damage and make plans for pruning, repairing or transplanting.

Groundhog Day also ushers in the sugaring season, when maple trees (other tree species work too) can be tapped with a spigot and the flowing sap collected with no injury to the tree.

It’s nice to imagine that a hard rap could wake up a sleeping tree and make the tree’s sap drip faster.

The truth is that sap flow is triggered by increased sunlight plus warmer days and cold nights. Maple sap looks and tastes like water, with only the slightest hint of sweetness.

It takes about 40 gallons of collected sap boiled down to produce one gallon of syrup. I’m looking forward to helping some friends tap their maple trees this month.

Groundhog Day is a time to spot spring harbingers. There might be early-blooming hellebores, snowdrops or early crocus varieties to see in sunny wind-protected spots.

Along my neighbor’s driveway, a witch hazel bush has tight, swelling buds that will unfurl into red, finger-like petals during sunny February days and curl back into a protective bud at night. If you look carefully, some maple trees already sport a red haze on their crown.

I’ll bring my garden notebook out to the yard this week and take a fresh look at each tree, bush and plant. I might even give them a rap with a stick.

5 Ways NJ Used to Be a Clean Energy and Climate Leader…and Could Be Again

New Jersey used to be clean energy and climate leader.

We’re not anymore. But we can be again. (Newsroom!)

Here are 5 things that have changed since Governor Christie first took office in January 2010.

(I’m indebted to Scott Dodd’s Nov. 2013 Slate and Katherine Bagley’s Dec. 2013 InsideClimate pieces. They connected a lot of the dots for me and provided important links in this post.)

1. We used to have an office of Climate and Energy.

It was dismantled by Governor Christie soon after he was inaugurated in January 2010. But thanks to the Internet, we can see how Global Warming used to have a prominent role on the state government’s website, with links to the Office of Climate and Energy. See, the old page is still there.

Solution: Sign the “Create Office of Clean Energy” bill that was approved by both houses of our Legislature but pocket vetoed by Governor Christie on Wed, Jan. 22.

2. We used to be part of RGGI.

RGGI (pronounced “Reggie”) is a multi-state cap-and-trade system that creates jobs, brings clean energy investment to the state, and moves us closer to NJ’s mandated 2020 GHG emissions goals.

Its current members are the nine states that surround NJ: CT, DE, MA, MD, ME, NH, NY, RI, and VT.

And we used to make 10. Governor Christie pulled NJ out of RGGI in 2011 and has twice vetoed efforts to let the voters decide. We’re missing out on good jobs, cleaner air, and clean energy growth.

Solution: Let’s rejoin. The best move on the table right now is to sue, and that’s what’s happening.

On Jan. 8, three NJ appellate court judges heard testimony from Environment New Jersey and the Natural Resources Defense Council based on the lawsuit they filed in 2012.

Here’s a good article from Environment New Jersey on what’s at stake.

3. We could have been part of the NE “Clean Air” coalition.

The governors of our neighboring Northeastern states decided that it’s not OK for states West and South of us to spew their coal-plant air pollution our way.

So, the Governors of those states are asking the EPA for help to stop it: DE, CT, ML, MA, NH, NY, RI, and VT.

Gov. Christie decided that NJ didn’t need to be part of this effort so he didn’t sign on.

Solution: Come on. Let’s join all our neighbors in fighting for cleaner air.

4. We used to be #2 in solar installations.

Now we’re #6. That’s right, NJ was the #2 state for solar for several years behind gigantic, sunny California.

You want to know why solar is such a good fit for NJ’s clean energy needs? Because we have so many darned big flat roofs on our commercial buildings. Not to mention, a bevy of formerly-industrial brownfield sites that are perfect for solar arrays. And close to the all-important power distribution grid.

So what changed? It’s complicated but it has to do with how NJ set up financial incentives called SRECs, federal cash grants, state incentives, and the 2008 financial crisis. (This July 2012 Star-Ledger article will help.)

As well, Christie raided dedicated clean-energy funds to balance his budget. Like $1billion.

Solution: Let’s reestablish the Office of Clean Energy (See #1) and let them do their job.

5. Our Governor used to believe that taking action against human-caused climate change was a state priority for his office.

As recently as 2011, Governor Christie said: “In the past I’ve always said that climate change is real and it’s impacting our state.”

Not anymore. His equivocations around using the words Sandy and climate change in the same sentence are well documented. One long but well-worth-it read.

Solution: Governor Christie can step firmly and decisively on the right side of history and even be a leader for climate change action.

* * *

Remember the slogan “Trenton Makes, the World Takes?” That’s not just a slogan.

New Jersey has a proud history of getting the job done.

There’s no more important issue facing us today than preparing for climate change impacts. We can and should be doing it right now.

Want to be part of the solution?

Come to the Feb. 20 NJPPN event with Geoffrey Feinberg from Yale University’s Project on Climate Change Communication and Climate Nexus. It’s called America’s Future: Communicating with our Neighbors on Climate Change.

RSVP today.

Green Links: The Week’s Thinking, Reading, Writing

Must-Read, Long:

Trusting Harvard: The Cost of Unprincipled Investing [$2.99 on Kindle], by Robert A.G. Monks & Marcy Murninghan


Green Links:

At WEF14, Lord Stern says he wishes he’d been more fierce on climate action and recommends the @NewClimateEcon group.

NYT piece shows business catching up on climate change risks.

Phoenix is planning for 100F nights. And others cites are too, because it’s a lot less expensive to plan for resilience than pay for repair. “Federal taxpayers spent $6 on disaster cleanup for every $1 spent on community reliance”

Trust Across America’s 2014 Top Thought Leaders. Some people I already look up to, and others I’m looking forward to learning from.

Cogent explanation about why risk is “uncertainty that matters” and must be counted for sustainability decisions.

By me: 5 NJ Climate Change Resources That Are Completely Under the Radar and Shouldn’t Be.

Word out of Davos is that businesses are realizing they can gang together for real climate action.

Last week’s 4-hour U.S. Senate climate change hearing. and

Sanity from Andrew Winston: If We Don’t Tackle #Climate Change, The Rest of Our Problems Are Moot.

Masterful job by Elaine Cohen to explain GRI v. IIRC.v. SASB

Smart read from Thomas Kolster “Nobody cares about sustainability.”

SUPER explanation of SRI investing: “Buy green. Sell stranded.”

5 “Jersey Strong” Climate Change Resources

As a coastal state, New Jersey is going to feel the impacts of climate change sooner than a lot of other places. This is especially true when it comes to sea level rise and flooding. (Both links highly recommended.)

Even though our Governor doesn’t talk much about how climate change will impact New Jersey, a lot of other people are. (Including the DEP: Read the June 2013 climate change impacts report.)

With that in mind, I wanted to share five really great NJ climate change resources that are under the radar, but shouldn’t be.

There are people all over our state who are working hard so that New Jersey will be stronger than the next storm. (And everything that climate change is going to dish up in coming decades.)

1. World-Class Scientists: The Rutgers Climate Institute


2. Support for Sustainable Businesses: NJDEP’s Sustainable Business Initiative (SBI) and FDU’s Institute for Sustainable Enterprise (ISE)

  • —The SBI’s next meeting is Feb. 4 from 1-3:30pm in Trenton.It will feature Jeana Wirtenberg, author of the new book Building a Culture for Sustainability-People, Planet, and Profits in a New Green Economy.  She’ll discuss lessons learned from nine successful NJ-based global companies.Contact Athena Sarafides at to RSVP and more information.
  • —Don’t miss ISE’s March 4 breakfast seminar features sustainability heavyweight John Ehrenfeld, author of Flourishing. RSVP and more information.


3. Strong Legislation: NJ’s 2007 Global Warming Response Act

A lot of people don’t know that NJ has a strong climate change law with GHG emissions targets already on the books. Well, we do.


4. Robust Collaborations and Partnerships: New Jersey Climate Adaptation Alliance

The alliance was formed in 2011 by a diverse group of concerned stakeholders who want to make sure that NJ is prepared for coming climate change impacts.


5. World-Class Speakers: North Jersey Public Policy Network

Come to the Feb. 20 event with Geoffrey Feinberg from Yale University’s Project on Climate Change Communication and Climate Nexus.

It’s called America’s Future: Communicating with our Neighbors on Climate Change.  Don’t miss this chance to hear and ask questions of one of the country’s best-informed researchers on why climate change is so incredibly hard to talk about. RSVP today.

Green Links: The Week’s Thinking, Reading, Writing

Must Reads:

Grist’s Ben Adler asks: Why is Chris Christie silent on climate change, even as New Jersey is threatened by rising seas? Includes good background on how New Jersey used to be a leader for clean energy and climate action planning

New York Times front-pages leaked IPCC draft, highlighting mounting costs of climate inaction:


Green links:

Four great (tree-free!) ebooks for your new-to-green friends & colleagues from Julie Urlab at Taiga Company

Pondering ways to connect the “Blackfish Effect” to climate action. Similar in cognitive dissonance?

Why storytelling matters. Required reading from Seth Godin for the sustainability and climate action worlds.

Great analogy for restoring & protecting: “broken windows” theory from Hudson Riverkeeper

Just a super share from Susan McPherson on how to be your best on social media

My take on NY Comptroller DiNapoli’s climate action win:

A solar car! Future-fiction or not-so-far-off?

Are your U.S. Sens on the Boxer/Whitehouse Act on Climate taskforce? Mine are. Thanks to Senators Booker and Menendez

My “5 Things #Climate Skeptics are Right About” | Feb 20 event w/ Yale Center for Climate Change Communication’s Geoffrey Feinberg

Terrific essay: The sociology of climate change

Check out this SRI blueprint from Marcy Murninghan and Bob Monk: Trusting Harvard: The Cost of Unprincipled Investing

DiNapoli’s Triple Climate Action Win

Yesterday New York State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli used his office for good to help fight climate change. Among his many responsibilities, DiNapoli oversees the state’s pension fund. This includes keeping an eye on the companies that are in fund’s investments.

As the New York Times’ Diane Cardwell reports, DiNapoli helped craft an agreement to get a big electric company to take the first steps towards reducing its carbon emissions. This change will not only help make the air cleaner and healthier for people in the tri-state area, but also help our country overall.

Under Investor Pressure, Utility to Study Emissions

FirstEnergy, one of the country’s largest electric companies, has agreed to work toward reducing its carbon emissions in response to pressure from shareholders including New York State and Connecticut pension funds, New York Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli said on Tuesday.

The company, which operates in six states, including Ohio, Pennsylvania and New Jersey, promised to study and report on what it could do to help meet President Obama’s goal of reducing carbon emissions by 80 percent by 2050.

And I love the DiNapoli’s reasons for going after this agreement. He’s got a long-term view on how global climate change is going to impact businesses. And he sees his responsibility to make sure that the New York state pension fund takes those risks into account.

“Many of our energy holdings obviously have been very profitable for us in the short run,” he said. “What we’re trying to ensure is that in the long run that profitability is sustainable. We do see tremendous risk if issues of climate change are not incorporated into corporate strategy.”

This win shows that shareholder activism can work for broadly positive changes. DiNapoli is using his overseer role for the New York pension fund, and his ability to broker partnerships across state lines, to get businesses moving towards a lower-carbon future and more sustainable business practices.

And it tells me that climate change is no longer political kryptonite, which is an incredibly good thing. Government and businesses have to work together for climate change action.

The timing is not accidental. Just yesterday, the SRI investing coalition called CERES asked energy companies to give themselves “stress tests” to see how well prepared they are (or not) to deal with a lower-carbon future. Again, from the Times:

In the case of FirstEnergy, Mr. DiNapoli and his partners filed the proposal as part of a larger effort with Ceres, a coalition of environmentalists and investors, to make companies more environmentally responsive. The New York State pension fund owns 1,205,383 shares of FirstEnergy, according to the comptroller’s office, worth about $38 million at the market’€™s close on Tuesday. More than half of the power sources for the utility are coal, according to its website, but it says it has been working to reduce emissions and pollution over the last two decades by closing plants and installing more emissions-control equipment.

In his position as New York Comptroller, DiNapoli has a big stick for climate change action. And he’s using it.

Sure, carrots are nice too. But in a world where businesses can continue to sit on their hands and claim that their top job is returning shareholder value, I say let’s use the sticks we’ve got.

In the best cases, like this most recent one, it’s only the threat of a stick. With this agreement, the pension fund will withdraw its shareholder resolution. Everybody wins. Healthy pension fund. Cleaner air for millions of people. Stronger energy company.

As a result, Mr. DiNapoli, the State of Connecticut and As You Sow, a shareholder advocacy group, agreed to withdraw a shareholder resolution they had filed for First Energy’s annual meeting this year.

(And this isn’t the first time that DiNapoli has used his office to help the environment. In March 2013, he got Dunkin Donuts to move towards more sustainable palm oil.)

DiNapoli’s leadership shows that shareholders, investors, government officials and businesses can work together to make a more sustainable future for all of us.

5 Things Climate Skeptics Are Right About

I’m all-in for climate change action.

But there are plenty of people who don’t agree with me about climate change and what we should do about it (and I count friends among them).

Honestly, this completely baffles me. How can we be so far apart on such an important issue?

Instead of throwing up my hands, I decided to write out the things I’m absolutely, positively sure they are right about. Here’s my list:

5 Things That I Completely Agree on With Climate Skeptics

1. Climate science is complicated and scary

2. We’re all worried about our job/kids/house

3. We all really hate having the same argument over and over

4. No one likes being told what to do/not to do/can’t buy/should think

5. We can and *will* figure it out

This list reminds me that there’s plenty of common ground. From astronomical property taxes to job growth to rebuilding after Superstorm Sandy, we definitely agree on many of the things that need fixing. It’s the how-to-fix-it part where I get stuck. So the first step for me is to learn how to listen better and understand more about where people are coming from.

That’s why I encourage you to bring your friends to North Jersey Public Policy Network’s Feb. 20 event, especially the ones who aren’t sure about climate change or are fed up with it.

It’s called “America’s Future: Communicating with our Neighbors on Climate Change.” It will be a guaranteed friendly, flame-free evening with one of the country’s best-informed researchers on why climate change is so incredibly hard to talk about.

No judgments, no blaming.

The night will start with small group discussions about climate change conversations run by Climate Nexus. And then we’ll hear from Geoffrey Feinberg of Yale University’s Project on Climate Change Communication and other panelists. Dr. Feinberg studies the different ways that Americans think and feel about themselves and climate change. There will also be time for your questions and comments.

NJPPN is hosting this event with the Institute for Sustainable Enterprise at Fairleigh Dickinson University.

I’m committed to bringing 4 friends who don’t feel the same way about climate change and politics that I do. I’m not planning on changing anybody’s mind. But I do hope to hear and understand more about what they’re thinking and why.

The event is free. RSVP at

Jan. 8 is NJ Enviros’ Next Stop to Rejoin RGGI

NJ’s not in RGGI.

But it should be.

RGGI is a multi-state cap-and-trade system that creates jobs, brings clean energy investment to the state, and moves us closer to NJ’s 2020 GHG emissions goals. (That are mandated by the state’s 2007 Global Warming Response Act.)

Governor Christie pulled NJ out of RGGI in 2011 and has vetoed efforts to let the voters decide twice.

The only move now is to go around him.

Next stop is a Jan. 8 hearing on the matter by three NJ appellate court judges.

Via cleantechnica:

Can Climate Hawks Beat Chris Christie To Let New Jersey Rejoin RGGI?

Two developments this month, one in the state legislature and the other in the state court system, have re-opened the debate on New Jersey’s participation in RGGI’s cap-and-trade program and raise the possibility it can continue decarbonizing power generation while earning millions in clean energy investment.

For Your January To-Do List: Radon Testing

Growing up in central New Jersey, I’ve heard about radon but never gave it too much thought. The word is part of my background—like Superfund, Brownfield and asbestos—that comes with being a native of my beloved but environmentally beleaguered state.

While researching healthy home ideas, I discovered that January is National Radon Awareness Month and that a simple test can tell me whether my home has elevated radon levels. I was even happier to find out that the West Orange Health Department offers free testing kits and information to West Orange homeowners.

“There are health risks associated with radon, so it is beneficial to know if it’s in your home because there are things you can do,” said Theresa DeNova, West Orange Health Officer.

Radon is a naturally occurring radioactive gas, which has always been a part of the bedrock under New Jersey, DeNova told me. The invisible and odorless gas moves up through soil and can enter homes through foundation cracks and openings around pipes and drains.

The NJ DEP website explains that radon in the home presents health risks associated with lung cancer. The tiny radioactive particles can be inhaled and become trapped in the lungs, increasing the risk of developing lung cancer.

The site also has a fact sheet about radon exposure health risks and deaths. It says that, in New Jersey, of the annual 4,700 lung cancer deaths, as many as 140-250 may be associated with radon exposure. The risks are greater for smokers than non-smokers but both are affected.

The free radon testing kits—including processing and mailing—are made possible through West Orange’s cooperation with the Radon Awareness Program (RAP). RAP is a joint initiative of the Essex County Cancer Coalition (ECCC), the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, and the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey.

I picked up my test kit at the health department office. The instructions told me to open the small round metal container and place it in the lowest livable area, which in my case means the basement. After two to four days, I’ll seal up the container and mail it for processing in the postage-paid envelope provided. (Update: The test results were normal.)

As well as occurring naturally, radon contamination can also come from industrial sites. DeNova told me that she has been involved with radon since 1984, when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency remediated a former radium-processing site on the border between West Orange and Montclair.

West Orange is in the “moderate potential” range for elevated indoor radon levels, according to the EPA. Since The chance that any particular home has elevated levels of radon can be estimated, but the only way to know for sure is testing.

Radon is calculated in a measurement called a picoCurie per liter of air, abbreviated to pCi/L. The average U.S. indoor level is 1.3 pCi/L. Federal agencies recommend acting if a home’s radon level is greater than 4 pCi/L.

If  test results come back indicating a elevated radon levels, the issue can be taken care of with fixes like sealing foundation cracks or installing a fan.

For homeowners who do not wish to participate in the RAP program, the offers website offers a list of state-certified companies that provide testing services and do-it-yourself kits as well as vendors who can help lower the amount of radon in your home.

What We’ll Talk About in 2014

Ecosystem Services and Natural Capital.

These are my predictions for the hot sustainability topics of 2014.

The first, Ecosystem Services, helps you account for all the ways that the natural world benefits people. (A tree gives shade, timber, fuel, etc.)

The second, Natural Capital, puts a value on those things. (How much is that tree worth to you? What’s the one-time value of it as timber, fuel and materials? What’s the ongoing value to you while it stands for how it holds carbon, cleans the air, stores water, gives shade, offers habitat?)

And, keep an eye out for how conversations with these terms increasingly focus on two things:

1. A narrower focus on our choices impact humans, specifically. (And less about the bigger picture of protecting the environment and non-human species as well.)

2. How our choices about using natural resources have a measurable monetary cost.

Here are two new articles bearing these twinned themes out.

The first an op-ed is from former NJ governor and former EPA head Christine Todd Whitman.


Assessing the Long-Term Costs of Ignoring the Environment

Pundits and politicians tend to present economic development and environmental regulation as opponents in a zero-sum game. Such a view is shortsighted and foolish; we need to take a longer-term view of the affects that our actions toward our surroundings have on our health and our safety –- two resources that once lost cannot simply be repurchased.

Thankfully, we now have research and measurement tools we did not have at our disposal decades ago, and it behooves us to utilize those tools to view environmental protection through the lens of our future and our children’s future. In our benevolent mission to grow the economy, we should not be in too great a rush to ignore environmental testing and results. The price we pay at the end is much greater than we can afford, both in terms of dollars and human lives. [emphases added]

Note how Whitman focuses on humans’ well-being and the costs of our actions.

The second is an excellent long read by philanthropist Laurene Powell Jobs.


Ian Khama and Placing a Value on Nature

Assigning a real economic value to nature is thus a vital piece of building a sustainable global economy. But the real leadership on the issue is not coming from the G-20, the nonprofit world or anywhere you might expect. It’s coming from Africa.

And valuing natural capital is not just about accounting for costs; it’s also about using the price mechanism to set an acceptable level of natural degradation and to prevent an intolerable level—the point at which the price should become essentially unaffordable or priceless, because we have reached a level of pollution or degradation that we are unwilling to cross as a society. As those wearing face masks in Beijing can attest, you don’t realize just how priceless clean air, water and food are until you lose them.

Whitman and Jobs agree on the value of being able to value nature more rigorously. But what I love about Jobs’ article is that she explicitly goes further. I believe that Whitman is good intentioned, but her words make me think she hasn’t come very far at all from a status quo, incremental changes mindset.

I see this in her words that some things, once lost, “cannot simply be repurchased.”

Once lost, human health and safety can’t be repurchased at all.

Because they never should have been sold to begin with.

Jobs hits the mark that Whitman misses: once we know the true cost of some actions, the right action might be not to do them at all.