Brendan I. Koerner discusses greenhouse gases and other environmental concerns.

Real-time discussions with Slate writers.
Nov. 29 2007 5:09 PM

Gassed Up

Environmental columnist Brendan I. Koerner takes readers' questions on greenhouse pollutants and other concerns.

Brendan I. Koerner, Slate's Green Lantern columnist, was online at Washingtpost.com on Thursday, Nov. 29, to discuss the harm of the " other greenhouse gases" plus whatever environmental questions readers had. An unedited transcript of the chat follows.

Brendan Koerner: Hey y'all, I'm here. Happy to be chatting today—first time every trying one of these. Thanks to those who've already submitted some excellent questions. Let's get started.

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Arlington, Va.: Thanks for taking my question. All of these suggestions you may seem helpful, but only at the margins. I think the suggestions are more useful at making people feel less guilty about their impact on the Earth than they are at actually solving the problem of global warming. Isn't it true that all of these small measures we take won't really do anything until meaningful national and international agreements takes place? It feels like I'm bailing out a ship with a teaspoon, while most of the other passengers are filling it up with buckets.

Brendan Koerner: Vital, vital question. To some extent, you're absolutely correct—even if everyone in the U.S. suddenly started bringing canvas bags to the supermarket, it wouldn't help a ton. The energy hunger of China, India, etc. is just too great. On the other hand, we have to start somewhere, and changing habits is Step One. But I'm also trying to tackle some macro issues in the column, as well as pointing out (when called for) what steps really do amount to just feel-goodery. Sure, there's a chance all of our good intention may come to naught. But abject pessimism at this point seems a wee bit uncalled for.

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Washington: I am trying to use less plastic, saying no to bags at CVS and grocery stores. I was wondering if any of those pay-by-the-pound places will allow people to bring in their own containers, or it that against health regulations? I am tired of feeling guilty about buying lunch.

Brendan Koerner: Good question. Have you tried asking one of the deli proprietors? I've found that such measures typically don't occur to store owners—my wife recently brought a canvas bag to the dollar store, and they looked at her like she was nuts. But they filled up her bag regardless. In any event, nice to hear yet another example of growing awareness—even if, as our previous questioner pointed out, it may just amount to a teaspoon's worth of goodness.

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Phoenix: What are the pollution consequences of trash-to-steam projects, especially to people living near such projects?

Brendan Koerner: I'll confess that I don't know a ton about trash-to-stream technology. I have read, however, that one of the problems is how effectively folks can separate out their most hazardous waste. For example, what if people toss in lots of batteries that contain cadmium and other potentially harmful chemicals? Even when city's offer high-tech recycling, too few consumers take advantage. Aside from that, though, I don't feel well-informed enough to comment. But I'll add the trash-to-stream question to the ideas queue for my column. Many thanks for the question.

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Boonies, N.Y.: Online shopping must rank up there with the un-greenest of vices, right? Unfortunately it's my reality, living in the boonies of New York State and being hours away from anything worth buying.

Brendan Koerner: Not necessarily, and I actually have an online shopping column in the works. Presuming your neighbors also receive goods via UPS or FedEx, it would actually seem more efficient to shop this way—just one vehicle making the rounds, instead of many vehicles hauling out to the distant mall. One point I want to examine also is land use—are warehouses more efficient users of land than retail stores? Keep an eye peeled on my column—I should have some interesting life-cycle data to share in the not-too-distant future.

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FordTruck5Speed (The Fray): Now that we know that methane is going to kill us all, when will Congress outlaw the bean burrito?

Brendan Koerner: If Congress outlaws the bean burrito, I'm moving to Canada.

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janeslogin (The Fray): Among the old theories from my college days a half century ago: When the carbon dioxide gets high enough, there might be an algae bloom at the surface of the oceans sucking the atmospheric carbon dioxide back down, perhaps even causing global cooling. Also, we have no clue as to how much geothermal carbon dioxide is leaking from volcanoes and the like. I have no thoughts about either, but I never have heard the discussion of the demise of these theories.

Brendan Koerner: There's certainly been some recent discussion about abetting the growth of sea algae in order to create massive carbon sinks. But we have to be careful about such steps, since we don't really have great data on what makes the best CO2 sink at present. For example, I've read reports contending that a lot of tree planting doesn't really help our carbon situation, since those trees are too far from the Equator. We also need to give thought to what types of trees can do the best job of sucking CO2 from the atmosphere—not all trees are created equal in that regard.

As for volcanos, you know, I get about two e-mails on that topic per week. At first I dismissed them, but now I'm wondering where the meme started, and how much truth there is to it. Another future column topic...

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Knoxville, Tenn.: If excess carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels is the cause of global warming, then why are we still recycling paper? Shouldn't we be placing it in landfills to put the excess CO2 from the fossil fuels back in the earth? Also: The global economy is based on continued economic growth and expanding populations, and is fueled by petroleum. What are the implications of this on the global environment, and is the global economy doomed to fail in the near future as petroleum production declines, leaving a population demanding even more from environment than ever before?