2009 - %3, September

'Pull the Plug' on Pandas?

| Tue Sep. 22, 2009 3:41 PM EDT

BBC wildlife expert Chris Packham has said it's time to "pull the plug" on pandas. Packham, who hosts a BBC program on wildlife, says the giant panda has "gone down an evolutionary cul-de-sac. It's not a strong species." Packham went on to explain that pandas receive far too much conservation funding because they're cute and cuddly, and that captive breeding programs are useless because there isn't enough wild habitat to sustain them.

I'll agree with Packham that there likely isn't enough habitat to sustain giant pandas, partly because that habitat is shrinking all the time due to China's recent economic ramp-up. But China isn't just thinking of conservation when it breeds pandas: Nearly 200 pandas have been rented out to zoos around the world at $1 million a year... each. And if those pandas have cubs abroad, those cubs also belong to China and must be paid for ($600,000 each). 

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EPA Takes Another Step Toward Regulating Emissions

| Tue Sep. 22, 2009 3:18 PM EDT

The Environmental Protection Agency took a significant—if wonky—step forward on addressing global warming on Tuesday, with the announcement that the agency has finalized rules on greenhouse gas emissions reporting.

The new rule will require all major polluters to begin collecting and reporting their greenhouse-gas emissions. The EPA already puts out an annual inventory of their emissions, but this takes reporting down to every individual source emitting 25,000 metric tons or more of CO2 per year. Congress directed EPA to write the new rule in 2007, but the Bush administration never acted on the requirement. The registry will be a key element in regulating carbon dioxide.

The rule will cover approximately 10,000 sources, accounting for roughly 85 percent of the country's total greenhouse gas emissions. Electric utilities, oil and chemical refineries, major manufacturers, iron and steel producers, and concentrated animal feeding operations will need to start collecting data on January 1, 2010 and reporting that data by 2011. Heavy-duty vehicle and engine manufacturers will have a one-year delay on the new rule, with reporting set to begin in 2012.

Obama tipped his hand on the announcement of the new rule in his speech to the UN, noting the new rule as a sign of domestic progress. "For the first time ever, we'll begin tracking how much greenhouse gas pollution is being emitted throughout the country," said Obama.

"The American public, and industry itself, will finally gain critically important knowledge and with this information we can determine how best to reduce those emissions," said EPA administrator Lisa Jackson in a statement.

The rule could play a key role in guiding the number and distribution of carbon credits under a cap-and-trade system, should Congress enact a plan in the near future. Or, in the absence of a new law governing emissions, it signals that the EPA is moving forward on regulations with or without Congress.

Saying Goodbye to Clove Cigarettes

| Tue Sep. 22, 2009 2:47 PM EDT

Walking home from high school one day during freshman year, I ran into my sometimes friend Michel Finzi with his sidekick, a smart-ass kid named George who played in the school band. Finzi, a good-looking French kid who was always regaling me with stories of the girls and surfing at Cape Cod, a world totally foreign to me, was smoking something enticingly pungent. "What's that?" I asked.

"A Krak," Finzi said. "Wanna try?" He handed over a burning Krakatoa brand clove cigarette.

I took a drag of the sweet, heavy smoke, and after about five seconds was floating pleasantly. "Cool," I said. So Finzi, who was headed the other way, generously gave me my own to smoke. By the time I got home, I'd finished about half of it and was feeling pretty damn sick. Had to lie down a while.

Thus began my occasional affair with clove cigarettes. But never again did I smoke one alone. A complex etiquette developed among my close friends. A clove had to be shared with others. Spoken of in codes. Symbols on the package took on special meanings. One could not smoke it past a certain point. One could never ask for a lit clove, reach out for it, or even eye it furtively in the hands of another. It could only be offered. But woe befall those who would Bogart it—hold it longer than the others deemed appropriate. For that sin, you risked ignominy.

What Obama Told the UN on Climate Change

| Tue Sep. 22, 2009 2:44 PM EDT

Barack Obama sought to affirm the United States' desire to address climate change on Tuesday in an address to the United Nations, an attempt to demonstrate his commitment to action despite dimming hopes that Congress will pass a new law before the Copenhagen climate talks in December. While he touted the efforts the US and other countries have made thus far, he was also upfront about the difficulties that lay ahead in negotiations.

"We understand the gravity of the climate threat," Obama told the gathered leaders. "We are determined to act, and we will meet our responsibility to future generations."

His remarks sought to highlight what the US has been able to accomplish this year even without passing a cap on emissions. "I am proud to say that the United States has done more to promote clean energy and reduce carbon pollution in the last eight months than at any other time in our history," said Obama, citing investments in renewable energy and efficiency through the stimulus, the extension of tax credits for renewable energy, the development of offshore wind, and the recent announcement of new emissions standards for automobiles.

"And already, we know that the recent drop in overall US emissions is due in part to steps that promote greater efficiency and greater use of renewable energy," he said (though he didn't add that it's in large part due to the dismal economy and a fuel-switching at some power plants). He also cited the House passage of a cap on emissions, and the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee's work on an energy bill, which will likely be paired with a cap-and-trade bill.

Obama also pledged that at the G20 meeting later this week, he would work with other leaders to "phase out fossil fuel subsidies so that we can better address our climate challenge." And he cited the administration's additional efforts to work with other major emitters through six meetings of the Major Economies Forum this year and partnerships with nations with China, Brazil, India, Mexico, and other nations.

"Taken together, these steps represent an historic recognition on behalf of the American people and their government," said Obama. "But though many of our nations have taken bold actions and share in this determination, we did not come here today to celebrate progress. We came because there is so much more progress to be made."

Obama noted that the United States has a responsibility to provide financial and technical assistance to developing nations for clean energy technology and adaptation. But he also called on rapidly-growing developing nations—i.e., China and India—to "do their part as well."

"They will need to commit to strong measures at home and agree to stand behind those commitments just as the developed nations must stand behind their own," he said. "We cannot meet this challenge unless all the largest emitters of greenhouse gas pollution act together."

Yet he cautioned against over-optimism about the path forward on international negotiations, and cautioned against allowing "the perfect to become the enemy of progress" in crafting a new treaty. "As we head towards Copenhagen, there should be no illusions that the hardest part of our journey is in front of us," he said. "We seek sweeping but necessary change in the midst of a global recession, where every nation's most immediate priority is reviving their economy and putting their people back to work. And so all of us will face doubts and difficulties in our own capitals as we try to reach a lasting solution to the climate challenge."

He urged nations to be "flexible and pragmatic," and to "work tirelessly in common effort" in the next months, with only 15 days of negotiations left ahead of the December summit in Copenhagen.

"The journey is long. The journey is hard," he said, "and we don't have much time left to make that journey."

Will Ferrell Stands Up for Health Insurance Companies

| Tue Sep. 22, 2009 1:53 PM EDT

The voice for the voiceless:

Auditing the Auditors: Contractor Oversight AWOL

| Tue Sep. 22, 2009 1:51 PM EDT

This explains a lot: Little league teams have more players than the Defense Contract Management Agency (DCMA) has staffers overseeing how military contractors are spending the government's money. Contract transactions have spiked 328 percent since 2000, but there are presently a mere 14 contracting officials monitoring them.

It wasn't always this way. As of 1994, the military's contracting agency had 102 staffers reviewing the purchases, subcontracts, and other expenditures by the companies on the Pentagon's payroll. These numbers are contained in the latest report [PDF] by the congressionally chartered Commission on Wartime Contracting, which investigated how the primary agencies responsible for Pentagon contracting—the DCMA and the Defense Contract Audit Agency—are handling their oversight responsibilities. The report, which also found the DCAA is "under-resourced," blasts the agencies for their lackluster performance on this front, concluding that the lack of personnel "has resulted in a spiraling down of business-system oversight in contingency contracting." The commission is puzzled how it got to this point: "The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been going on for many years and the Commission is at a loss to understand why leadership has not aggressively pursued additional staffing until recently."

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The World's First Global Debt Clock

| Tue Sep. 22, 2009 10:49 AM EDT

World leaders are gathered today at the UN General Assembly to discuss reforming the international financial system, laying the groundwork for a global climate change agreement and many other costly and contentious issues. They would do well to remember the money that has already been wasted through inaction (and costly wars) by consulting the Economist Intelligence Unit's new Global Debt Comparison tool.

Featuring the EIU's reams of data on countries around the world from as far back as 1999 and economic forecasting stretching out through 2011, this nifty display allows one to compare public debt per capita, public debt as a percentage of GDP, total public debt, and the yearly rate of change in debt. As of this morning, the clock rang in at an eye-watering $35 trillion…and growing. Check it out!

Cute Animal in Danger: Snow Leopard

| Tue Sep. 22, 2009 7:29 AM EDT

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin struck a blow for wildlife this week, reintroducing critically endangered snow leopards to the Caucasus where they have been extinct since the 1920s. Putin's act was the fulfillment of a promise he made earlier after Russia won the 2014 Winter Olympic Games. It's a move, some say, meant to reduce anxieties that construction for the Olympics will damage the local environment.

Though the snow leopard became extinct in the Caucasus, there are still an estimated 6,000 of the big cats living in the Central Asian mountains. It's hard for scientists to know exactly how many snow leopards truly exist in the wild, since the animals live between 10,000 and 17,000 feet elevation. Getting to snow leopard habitat is dangerous--due to unstable local politics as well as the intense cold--so instead of setting up observation posts, researchers sometimes set up camera traps to collect data. Although the leopards' harsh natural habitat provides some measure of protection, poaching continues to be the main threat to the species: the animals' beautiful, distinctive coat is highly valued and their bones are used in traditional Chinese medicine. Climate change, it's been suggested, will also reduce available habitat and possibly prey species.

Eco-News Roundup: Tuesday September 22

| Tue Sep. 22, 2009 7:06 AM EDT

News from our other blogs, and around the Web, you might have missed.

Repubs' Redux: Kevin Drum wonders what conservatives are offering as healthcare reform.

Opposite Day: In Germany, some customers sell power to the electricity company.

Red in Tooth: A Kenyan drought is hurting elephant populations. [National Geographic]

Obama's Climate Shot: Obama's address at the UN may give climate change legislation a much-needed jumpstart.

For the Birds: Native American tribe is penalized for killing bald eagle for religious purposes. [Los Angeles Times]

Becoming a Statistic: The US ranked #37 in WHO's rating of health care systems.

 

5 Creative Uses for: Coffee Filters

| Tue Sep. 22, 2009 7:00 AM EDT

A few weeks back, I posted about alternative uses for coffee. If you have extra coffee, chances are you also occasionally have extra filters. The reuse gurus over at AltUse.com have done it again with these brilliant ideas. Use filters to:

1. Filter cork out of wine. Place an unbleached filter over your glass and before you pour the wine. Minimal impact to taste.

2. Stop a razor nick from bleeding. Tear off a small piece of filter and cover the nick. Stems bleeding fast.

3. Clean windows. Use filters instead of paper towels. Picks up dirt and dust without leaving lint behind.

4. Absorb food grease. Durable filters soak up excess oil without disintegrating. Works for bacon, pizza, french fries, or any of your other favorite greasy foods. Bonus: After frying, pour leftover oil through a coffee filter, then use it again.

5. Line house plants: Prevent soil seepage by placing a coffee filter in the bottom of a plant pot.