Avengers star Mark Ruffalo is one of a handful of Hollywood A-listers committed to the fight against climate change. Credit: Gage Skidmore, FlickrCC.
Dear EarthTalk: Who are some of the greener movie stars out there today and what are they doing to fight for the planet? — Stacey DiGiorno, Chevy Chase, MD
While a handful of Hollywood A-listers — Robert Redford, Meryl Streep and Ed Begley Jr., to name a few — have been actively campaigning for the environment for decades, a new wave of green celebrities is using star power to help convince millions of fans around the world to live greener lifestyles and speak up for environmental protections and climate mitigation.
Leonardo DiCaprio continues to distinguish himself as one of the greenest stars out there. He started the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation in 1998 with the mission of protecting the world’s last wild places, and since then he has channeled millions of dollars in grants toward various direct-action initiatives and awareness-raising campaigns all over the world. His 2007 documentary, The 11th Hour, features interviews with a variety of leaders and luminaries who document the grave environmental problems facing the planet’s life systems, while his 2016 film, Before The Flood, focuses on the environmental impacts of global warming on different locales around the world. Last December, DiCaprio met with then-President-Elect Trump to discuss the importance of the U.S. remaining committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and honoring its commitments as part of 2015’s Paris climate agreement.
Another big star who’s gone green is Arnold Schwarzenegger. The Terminator earned his environmental cred during his six years as California’s governor when he shepherded legislation through a hostile state legislature, establishing the most stringent emissions reduction mandates in the nation, and issued executive orders to up the energy efficiency requirements for existing and new state government buildings. He also helped pave the way for the introduction of automobiles powered by emissions-free fuel cells by building the beginnings of a hydrogen refueling network across California. Schwarzenegger has been outspoken about the need for state and local governments to take the lead in the battle against global warming — a message that never resonated more clearly than now with climate-denier Donald Trump in the White House.
Mark Ruffalo may have played The Hulk in Marvel Comics’ Avengers movies for good reason: He’s pretty green — and resource extractors don’t like him when he’s angry. The A-list actor is outspoken against the environmental and health ills of fracking, a technique that recovers gas and oil from shale rock by drilling down into the Earth to direct a high-pressure water mixture at the rock to release the gas inside. He founded the non-profit Water Defense in 2009, and later went on to join engineering professor Mark Jacobson, banker and solar executive Marco Krapels and filmmaker/activist Josh Fox to launch The Solutions Project, which aims to help move the U.S. to 100 percent renewable energy. He has also been active alongside the Standing Rock Sioux in fighting the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota.
Some other movie stars for the environment include Edward Norton, Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Daryl Hannah, Pierce Brosnan, Charlize Theron, Matt Dillon, Matt Damon, Julia Roberts, Will Ferrell, Tom Hanks and George Clooney. At least you can feel better about going to the movies now that you know the stars on the screen are using some of the money they are making at your expense to help the planet.
Dear EarthTalk: Is it true that fuel cell cars are finally available for mainstream drivers in the U.S.? — Jack Mixson, Wilmington, DE
For years, green car enthusiasts have been heralding the dawn of a new era of pollution-free driving powered by fuel cells, which combine readily available hydrogen with oxygen to fire up the engine. NASA created the first commercial grade fuel cells in the 1960s to power satellites and space capsules, and automakers have been talking up their potential for use in cars and trucks ever since.
But the idea has never gotten beyond the prototype stage, due mostly to the lack of any refueling infrastructure. After all, drivers are used to being able to refill their tanks on almost every corner, while the new generation of electric and plug-in hybrid and electric vehicles (EVs) can be recharged from any electrical outlet.
But FCVs (fuel cell vehicles) may still represent the holy grail of auto travel because they combine the environmental benefits of electric vehicles (no reliance on fossil fuels and no pollution) with the driving range (300 miles between refueling) of conventional cars. While GM, Hyundai and Daimler are heavily invested in fuel cell vehicle production, Toyota and Honda are already offering fuel cell vehicles for sale or lease to drivers in California, given the Golden State’s head start in creating a hydrogen refueling network. According to the California Fuel Cell Partnership, 27 hydrogen refueling stations are already up and running around metro Los Angeles and the Bay Area, with 33 more coming online soon.
Toyota’s Mirai FCV seats four and offers all the trimmings of any new car — touch-screen entertainment, dual climate control, steering wheel mounted controls, radar to prevent accidents and help with parking, and a 312-mile range per fill-up. The MSRP on the Mirai is $57,500, but Toyota is currently offering $7,500 back. Another option is a 36-month lease on the Mirai for $349/month plus $2,499 up front.
Meanwhile, Honda’s new Clarity FCV is similarly appointed but offers a roomier interior (seating for five) and a longer range (366 miles per fill-up). Californians can lease the Clarity (it’s not for sale in the U.S.) for $369/month for 36 months plus $2,868 due at signing, with Honda covering the first $15,000 worth of hydrogen fuel.
Drivers behind the wheel of the Mirai or Clarity qualify for a one-time $5,000 tax rebate from California for driving a green car, not to mention access to HOV lanes statewide even with just a single occupant.
Of course, fuel cell drivers won’t want to leave California just yet. Outside of the Golden State, there are exactly three publicly accessible hydrogen refueling stations (Massachusetts, Connecticut and South Carolina each have one). But later this year Toyota, in partnership with France’s Air Liquide, will start to roll-out a new network of hydrogen refueling stations around the Northeastern U.S. so drivers there can start to enjoy the benefits of driving the latest, greatest and greenest technology ever to grace the American road.
Dear EarthTalk: Is the extraction of lithium for lithium ion batteries really worse for the environment than fracking? — Mitch Newhouse, Oak Park, IL
In a world of modern technology, lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries are hard to escape; they’re in cell phones, laptops, and basically anything else with rechargeable batteries. In fact, the demand for Li-ion batteries rose from zero percent market share in 1991 to 80 percent in 2007, and the European Commission expects the tonnage of lithium used in batteries to double between 2010 and 2020. With no viable alternatives anywhere near mainstream production, Li-ion batteries look like they’re here to stay for a while.
But thanks to some misinformation on the Internet, lithium extraction has gotten a bad rap. As Mark Sumner points out on Daily Kos, a pair of photos released by the community group Saskatchewan Proud shows a badly scarred and stripped mine site on the top along with the text, “This is a mine where lithium is extracted for electric car batteries.” On the bottom is a photo of a neat and orderly fracking drill site surrounded by vibrant-looking green forest and lakes with the text, “This is an oil sands site in Alberta…Tell me more about how your electric car is better for the environment.”
But Sumner points out that the top image in fact depicts one of the world’s 10 largest copper mines (BHP’s Escondida Mine in Chile) and has nothing to do with lithium extraction. Lithium extraction does take an environmental toll, from the process of pumping briny groundwater containing lithium carbonate out of the ground and leaving it in pools so the excess water can evaporate. But the main environmental consequence of this is large amounts of water used to bind to the lithium to facilitate extraction.
“There’s nothing you would think of as mining,” reports Sumner. “No blasting. No trucks driving around carrying loads of crushed rock. No sprays of sulfuric acid.”
While it’s true that chemicals are used to refine lithium after it is collected, potential dangers pale compared to those from fracking, which involves pumping harsh chemicals underground to break up shale layers to free natural gas, which can lead to groundwater pollution and even cause minor earthquakes.
Currently Li-ion batteries’ biggest problem may be their tendency to combust — remember the recall of 500,000 hoverboards and then the infamous early version of Samsung’s Galaxy Note 7? The ions inside Li-ion batteries can react if the wall between them is compromised, generating enough heat to potentially catch fire. Manufacturers have mitigated such issues in most applications, but the problem can still rear its ugly head when improperly discarded Li-ion batteries are exposed to pressure and heat in a landfill or recycling facility that can stimulate combustion. This is why it’s so important to properly dispose of Li-ion batteries (or products containing them) at hazardous waste or battery recycling locations.
Of course, alternatives to Li-ion batteries do exist with huge potential, but none are economical enough to produce, yet to be anywhere near ready for mass production. Some of the most promising include batteries made from sodium-nickel chloride, silver zinc or aluminum graphite. But the expense of the raw materials and the immaturity of the production processes will keep these emerging battery technologies on the drawing board for years to come, while lithium ion continues to dominate the market.
Contacts: Saskatchewan Proud, https://www.facebook.com/SaskatchewanProud/; Daily Kos, http://www.dailykos.com/story/2016/5/6/1524012/-Someone-is-lying-about-electric-cars-on-the-internet.
Dear EarthTalk: Even though pesticides may take an environmental toll, isn’t it worth it given how many more mouths we can feed thanks to their use? — Mickey Jurowski, Palatine, IL
The advent of new technologies coming out of World War II led agricultural researchers to start experimenting with new classes of chemicals they could use to boost agricultural production. As human populations swelled, these “advances” were applied around the world so farmers could grow more food to feed the hungry masses and stave off widespread famine. This transition from essentially organic farming practices to what we now consider “conventional” (that is, aided by chemicals) has been dubbed “The Green Revolution.” But “green” in the name doesn’t mean it’s been good for the environment.
Chemical fertilizers are synthetic or inorganic materials added to soil to aid in plant life. Pesticides kill insects or other organisms that are harmful to crops, while herbicides kill any unwelcomed vegetation that may affect their growth. According to data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), American farmers use upwards of a billion pounds of pesticides every year. Meanwhile, the United Nations reports that globally we use about five times that.
Indeed, the widespread adoption of these synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides has done a great job at boosting crop efficiency to feed more and more of us. For example, India was on the brink of a mass famine in the 1960s due to rapid population growth. Using the techniques of the green revolution, Indian farmers were able to grow enough produce and rice to stave off widespread starvation. Another advantage of pesticide use in India and elsewhere has been the prevention of disease, because pesticides kill insects carrying viruses that could be passed on to the crops.
However, pesticides not only kill the pests but also the natural enemies of those pests. In nature, everything is balanced out. Indeed, there is no free lunch, as pests respond to treatment by breeding stronger offspring that are resistant to these chemicals, and with natural predators gone, these pests will quickly multiply, which is why the need for pesticides to kill these pests keeps increasing.
Furthermore, persistent organic pollutants, also known as “POPs,” are highly toxic pesticides and chemicals that do not decompose. They poison non-target organisms in the environment because they are passed through the food chain (bioaccumulate). Consumption of POPs disrupts the endocrine system and is linked to cancer and infertility in humans. Pesticides also take a toll on our environment, contaminating water and soil. Along with insects, pesticides are also toxic to fish, birds, frogs and more.
Pesticide use is very controversial and should be taken seriously. While here at home, the EPA has banned many pesticides that are harmful to our environment and our health (though the battle for safer food rages on), in many other countries agricultural oversight and environmental regulations are non-existent or unenforced. Fortunately, we can all be part of the solution by eschewing conventionally grown foods and opting for organic varieties whenever we can. While growing your own food is one sure way to know that what you’re eating is safe, you can also find an increasingly large amount of organic food in your local supermarket, let alone at a Whole Foods near you. Another great way to eat healthier and organic is to shop at local farmers’ market. Find one near you by searching the free online database maintained by the non-profit Local Harvest.
Contacts: EPA, www.epa.gov/agriculture/agriculture-organic-farming;
Local Harvest, www.localharvest.org/farmers-markets/; Whole Foods, wholefoods.com.