2012 - %3, April

Bye Bye Snow and Ice (and a Whole Lot More)

| Fri Apr. 6, 2012 4:37 PM EDT

 Credit: Alan Wilson via Wikimedia Commons.

Credit: Alan Wilson via Wikimedia Commons.

We've heard a lot about the  life-threatening challenges facing penguins and polar bears as snow and ice disappear. But what about all the other life of the cryosphere—the parts of Earth where water is in its solid state for at least one month of the year (map below)? From a new paper in Bioscience:

Global average air temperature has warmed by 1 Celsius (°C) over the past century, and in response, the cryosphere—the part of the Earth’s surface most influenced by ice and snow—is changing. Specifically, alpine glaciers are retreating, the expanse of Arctic sea ice has been shrinking, the thickness and duration of winter snowpacks are diminishing, permafrost has been melting, and the ice cover on lakes and rivers has been appearing later in the year and melting out earlier. Although these changes are relatively well documented, the ecological responses and long-term consequences that they initiate are not. 

Credit: Andrew G. Fountain, et al. BioSphere. doi:10.1525/bio.2012.62.4.11, from the NSIDC Atlas of the CryosphereCredit: Andrew G. Fountain, et al. BioScience. DOI:10.1525/bio.2012.62.4.11, from the NSIDC Atlas of the Cryosphere

The paper describes impacts identified through decades-long ecological studies. The authors found two ecosystem-level responses—that is, responses rippling across various species and trophic levels—as a result of the disappearing cryosphere:

  1. Changes in foodwebs resulting from the loss of habitat and from the loss of species or the replacement of species (a.k.a. the big stuff we tend to notice and take photos of).
  2. Changes in the rates and mechanisms of biogeochemical storage and cycling of carbon and nutrients, caused by changes in physical forcings or ecological community functioning (a.k.a. the little stuff that's hard to see but that underpins the big stuff in #1).

 

A firn field of old, recrystallized snow.: Doronenko via Wikimedia Commons.A firn field of old, recrystallized snow: Doronenko via Wikimedia Commons.

Here's some specifics of what the researchers found:

  • Decreasing snowfall threatens burrowing animals and makes plant roots more susceptible to injury because snow acts as an insulator.
  • Disappearing sea ice has led to declines in the abundance of diatoms (phytoplankton), primary producers of the marine foodweb that support krill, which support seabirds and mammals.
  • Disappearing sea ice also seems unexpectedly to be decreasing the sea's uptake of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
  • On land, changing snowpacks can alter plant communities.
  • Melting permafrost affects the quantity of carbon dioxide that plants and microbes take out of the atmosphere, in ways that change over time.
  • Shrinking glaciers add pollutants and increased quantities of nutrients to freshwater bodies.
  • Melting river ice pushes more detritus downstream.
  • Disappearing ice on land and resulting sea-level rise will affect social systems, economies, and geopolitics. Many of these changes are already evident in the ski industry, in infrastructure and coastal planning, and in tourism.
  • Significant effects to water supplies and therefore agriculture are predicted. 

 

 

The video from the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center Scientific Visualization Studio shows dwindling perennial Arctic sea ice from 1980 to 2012. The gray disk at the North Pole shows where no satellite data was collected. The second half of the video (wait for it) plays the same animation but without the overlay graph.

The paper:

  • Andrew G. Fountain, et al. The Disappearing Cryosphere: Impacts and Ecosystem Responses to Rapid Cryosphere Loss. BioScience. 2012. DOI: 10.1525/bio.2012.62.4.11 

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Pregnant? Put Down the Pesticide

| Fri Apr. 6, 2012 4:21 PM EDT

Exposure to pesticides while pregnant can cause women to give birth earlier, and to have smaller babies, according to a new study in Environmental Health Perspectives.

The study found that the expectant women exposed to organophosphate insecticides were more likely to give birth a few days earlier, and their babies weighed at least a third of a pound less at birth. These are the most common type of pesticides used around the world. And as Huffington Post reporter Lynne Peeples notes that these weren't women working in agriculture or lawn care, who might be exposed to large amounts of the pesticides—they were just your average pregnant ladies:

"This is not an unusual group," said Dr. Bruce Lanphear, about the women who were studied. "These are women exposed primarily through diet and perhaps pesticides used in and around the yard," said Lanphear, a researcher on the study of organophosphate pesticide exposure published Thursday in Environmental Health Perspectives.
Nearly all pregnant women carry pesticide residues in their bodies. The new study's 306 expectant moms -- from a diverse range of economic and racial groups and from urban, suburban and rural areas in and around Cincinnati -- were no exception.

This is bad news for babies, as preterm birth is a major factor in infant mortality, and being born at lower weights is linked to long-term health concerns like delayed development or learning disabilities.

This Week in Dark Money

| Fri Apr. 6, 2012 3:24 PM EDT

For the first installment of a new weekly feature, here's a quick look at the week that was in the world of political dark money:

Dudes dominate super-PAC giving: No surprise here: Super-PAC contributions, like certain magazine award nominations, are dominated by men. The Houston Chronicle reported that women account for just 14 percent of super-PAC donors, citing it as an example of the "link between the underrepresentation of women in the political money chase and the underrepresentation of women in U.S. elected office."

Colbert wins award for dark-money mockery: On Wednesday's Colbert Report, Stephen announced that his show had won a Peabody award for it satirization of super-PACs. To poke fun at the runaway campaign spending following the Citizens United ruling, the Colbert Report founded its own super-PAC, Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow, which ran bizarro political ads in early primary states. 

 

Romney hires GOP guru: As MoJo's Andy Kroll reported, Ed Gillespie, the man who created the powerhouse American Crossroads super-PAC with Karl Rove, has hopped aboard Mitt Romney's presidential campaign. The move calls into question the supposed ban on coordination between super-PACs and candidates' campaign operations.

"Take the Money and Run for Office": Last week's episode of This American Life explored the world of campaign finance. Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) and former Senator Russ Feingold (D-Wisc.) discussed the campaign reform bill they championed, which the Supreme Court ultimately ruled unconstitutional. NPR's Planet Money blog published a companion piece charting the delicious ways politicians woo megadonors.

Congressional fundraisers: NPRAppetite for seduction: Congressional fundraisers, by meal NPR

 

Romney's radioactive supporter: Texas billionaire Harold Simmons, who has pumped at least $700,000 into the pro-Romney Restore Our Future super-PAC, is pressuring the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to allow him to dump radioactive materials including depleted uranium into his giant West Texas landfill. The "King of Superfund Sites" is hoping for Republican victories in November, having invested $16 million in the 2012 elections, including $12 million in American Crossroads.

Small banks launch super-PAC: Friends of Traditional Banking, a new super-PAC representing the interests of "traditional banks," says it plans to raise money through small contributions. "Everyone knows that traditional banks didn't cause the economic crisis, but that didn't stop Congress from heaping massive new regulations on them and their customers," the group, which like most banks opposes Dodd-Frank's "massive new regulations," said in a mission statement.

Friday Cat Blogging - 6 April 2012

| Fri Apr. 6, 2012 2:54 PM EDT

Today's theme was supposed to be catblogging done entirely from an iPad, a task that seems like it ought to be fairly straightforward but decidedly isn't. And I almost did it! But there were a few minor quality control issues last night related to both Photoshop and MoJo web access, and I didn't quite have time to iron them out this morning. So this is old-school catblogging done on my old-school desktop computer. But next week for sure!

Will Banning Pink Slime Destroy the Planet?

| Fri Apr. 6, 2012 2:11 PM EDT

I've studiously ignored the pink slime controversy, but now that the whole thing is pretty much over and the slime industry seems to be close to collective bankruptcy, Brad Plumer brings us news that maybe it was all a big mistake. After all, the pink slime processors recover an extra ten pounds of edible beef from each cow, which means we need fewer cows to feed us all. And fewer cows means less global warming:

If those numbers are correct — and, fair warning, they do come straight from the beef industry — then a ban on pink slime would, potentially, require the slaughter of another 1.5 million cows to meet the nation’s beef needs. And, because cows are a major source of heat-trapping methane, that can have a serious global-warming impact.

How much impact, exactly? The average cow emits the equivalent of about four tons of carbon dioxide per year. To put that in perspective, the average car emits about five tons per year. So, in the worst case, a total ban on pink slime would be the equivalent of adding 1.2 million cars to the road, from a climate perspective.

Wait a second. I don't really have an axe to grind here, since pink slime doesn't disgust me much despite everyone's best efforts to activate my gag reflex over the past few weeks. It's a mere drop in the vast ocean of crap that I shovel into my body daily. Still, pink slime only cuts down on carbon if it would otherwise get thown out. But it doesn't, does it? If it doesn't get added to your Big Mac, it will just go back to being used in pet food and cooking oil. I assume that's less lucrative for the cattle industry — though I'm not sure why since cat food costs about as much per ounce as ground beef — but the effect on global warming is zero. One way or another, the stuff is all going to get used.

Or am I off base on this somehow?

UPDATE: Generally speaking, pink slime probably represents a higher value use of the raw ingredients than, say, oil or cat food. And if the industry can squeeze more value out of its cows, that will probably increase demand for cows. I can buy that. However, it's a second order effect and depends very sensitively on actual industry practices and consumer preferences. More data needed! However, if I had to guess, I'd say that the effect of pink slime on overall cow production is fairly small, not the 1.5 million that the industry estimates via simple arithmetic.

UPDATE 2: I am now going to embarrass myself by playing amateur economist. What follows might be totally off base, so real economists are welcome to scoff and tell me what I've done wrong. Here goes:

  • According to this paper, the price elasticity of beef is -0.61. So a 1% increase in the price of beef produces a .61% decrease in the demand for beef.
  • According to this report, pink slime reduces the price of ground beef by about 3 cents per pound. Roughly speaking, that's a decrease of 1%.
  • An average cow produces about 500 pounds of edible meat.
  • Harvesting pink slime increases that by about 10-12 pounds or so. Let's call it 11 pounds.
  • Total beef consumption in the U.S. amounts to about 34 million cows per year, or 17 billion pounds of beef.

So here's what we get:

  • Banning pink slime raises the price of beef 1% and therefore reduces demand by .61%. So demand goes down by 100 million pounds.
  • With pink slime gone, 34 million cows each produce eleven pounds less of edible beef. That amounts to 370 million pounds.
  • To meet demand, we need to increase production by 270 million pounds. That comes to 540,000 cows.

If this is close to right, it means that banning pink slime really does have an effect, but it's maybe a third of what the industry claims. Feel free to contest this conclusion in comments. As always, there are a bunch of additional second and third-order effects, so modeling this with any real precision is very, very hard.

Using a Bit of Sunlight to Rein in Corporate Activism

| Fri Apr. 6, 2012 1:50 PM EDT

Paul Waldman makes a point about the value of exposing corporate activism:

You may have heard that in response to a campaign by the progressive group Color of Change, Coca-Cola, Pepsi, and now Kraft Foods have all withdrawn their support for the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the group that pushes conservative laws at the state level....Coca-Cola's explanation was that "Our involvement with ALEC was focused on efforts to oppose discriminatory food and beverage taxes, not on issues that have no direct bearing on our business."

I somehow doubt that the initial decisions to join were made at the highest level....It was probably some vice-president for policy who decided he was being clever by spreading the corporation's money around to groups who would make sure that the high-fructose corn syrup could continue to flow down the gullets of every true American without the impediment of a nickel of extra taxes. But if you want to play in the arena of public policy, you're going to be subject to scrutiny. And it didn't take a boycott or protests outside the corporate offices. All it took was for Color of Change to point out to everyone that these corporations were supporting ALEC, and they went scurrying. There might be a lesson there.

This, of course, is why dark money is so important to modern political campaigns. Most big companies don't want to get a reputation for political activism. They have Democratic customers and Republican customers, and taking sides is almost always a negative sum game. If their money is publicly donated, and it's donated to a group with a clear and wide-ranging political agenda, it's going to get them trouble.

Transparency would hardly solve all the problems caused by our modern-day conservative-industrial complex. But it would help. We have to start constricting the fire hose somehow.

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Mississippi Could Lose Its Only Abortion Clinic

| Fri Apr. 6, 2012 1:50 PM EDT
Is it a choice if your state doesn't have a single abortion clinic? Mississippi may soon find out.

Last year, Kansas narrowly avoided becoming the first "abortion-free" state. That title might soon go to Mississippi, thanks to a bill that would require clinic doctors to obtain official admitting privileges at a local hospital before they can perform abortions—a standard that many believe was custom-designed to foil the state's only abortion clinic.

Proponents of the bill, which was sent to the Governor's desk by the state Senate yesterday, claim they're just trying to protect women's health by ensuring that if a complication occurs after an abortion, doctors can admit the patient to a hospital. While all the physicians at the Jackson Women's Health Organization in Jackson, Miss. are certified OB-GYNs—another of the bill's requirements—only one of its doctors currently has admitting privileges to a nearby hospital. Instead, in the rare case of complications, the clinic has a patient-transfer agreement with a local hospital to ensure that women can be treated there.

Admitting privileges are usually only granted to in-state doctors who will provide the hospital with a certain number of patients per month. The clinic's owner, Diane Derzis, told the Associated Press that most of the clinic's doctors commute to Jackson from out of state because "they are routinely threatened and stalked for their work." And as Derzis explained to Jezebel, "We do not have enough problems to admit that many patients." Overall, Derzis isn't optimistic that any of the three hospitals in the area—two of which are religiously-affiliated—will grant the privileges to her staff and has promised to argue the law in court if her clinic can't secure them.

As MoJo's Kate Sheppard has reported, onerous clinic regulations like these, known by abortion-rights supporters as "targeted regulation of abortion providers" or "TRAP" laws, are a favorite new tactic of abortion foes. According to the Guttmacher Institute, at least eight other states require abortion providers to have hospital admitting privileges. Mississippi would be the first state to impose an OB/GYN requirement on abortion providers.

While bills like these are usually submitted under the guise of patient safety concerns, many proponents make no bones about their true goal: to end access to legal abortion. That is certainly the case in Mississippi.

During the House floor debate last month, the bill's author state Rep. Sam Mims said, "If this bill causes less abortions to happen, I believe it's a positive result." In a statement applauding the proposal, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves went even farther, saying, "This is a strong bill that will effectively end abortion in Mississippi." Gov. Phil Bryant said he will sign it and vowed, "As governor, I will continue to work to make Mississippi abortion-free."

Of course, if the Jackson Women's Health Organization is forced to close, it won't mean the end of abortion in Mississippi. It will just make the procedure less accessible—and less safe—for some women. During final debate on the bill, members of the black caucus noted that while wealthy women will be able to access private or out-of-state abortions if the state's only public clinic is shuttered, many low-income women in Mississippi won't have that option. "People who have resources can do certain things," explained Sen. David Jordan. Felicia Brown-Williams, who works in public policy at Planned Parenthood Southeast, agrees. "This bill will create a climate where desperate women resort to desperate measures. Women's lives will be jeopardized, not protected."

When asked if women might turn to dangerous, back-alley abortions if the clinic closes, Sen. Dean Kirby, who voted for the bill, answered, confusingly, "That's what we're trying to stop here, the coat-hanger abortions. The purpose of this bill is to stop back-room abortions." Maybe he just needs a refresher on what illegal abortions are actually like.

If You're Denying, You're Losing

| Fri Apr. 6, 2012 12:58 PM EDT

Matt Steinglass says that all the talk about Barack Obama being a socialist or Mitt Romney being a social Darwinist is a "reverse dog whistle." These aren't words with subtle meanings that your own supporters understand but no one else does, they're words designed simply to piss off your opponents. And it works! When you fight back against this stuff, you lose:

What liberals say: Barack Obama is not a socialist! Socialism is government control over the entire economy, not bailouts of private banks and industries that leave them private, like Obama's (which Bush started anyway)! Obamacare isn't a government takeover of health-care, it's based entirely on private insurers! That's less socialist than Medicare!
What voters hear: Obama...socialist....socialism...bailouts...Obama...Obamacare...government takeover...socialist.

What conservatives say: Mitt Romney is not a social Darwinist! He's a middle-of-the-road Wall Street executive! Just because his business success has made him rich doesn't mean he doesn't care about poor people! Social Darwinists believe poor people are inherently inferior to rich people; Romney doesn't believe that, he thinks deregulation and tax cuts will empower the poor to better themselves! Recognising that we need to cut Medicare spending growth doesn't make you a social Darwinist, Romney's just recognising budgetary reality! 
What voters hear: Romney...social Darwinist...Wall Street...rich...social Darwinist...poor people are inferior...cut Medicare...Romney.

As the old saying goes, If you're explaining, you're losing. Or, more pungently, there's the (possibly true!) story about LBJ spreading a rumor that his opponent was a pig-fucker. Aide: "Lyndon, you know he doesn't do that!" Johnson: "I know. I just want to make him deny it." If you're denying, you're losing.

This is, in general, a fraught question. When should you respond to a slur? In the internet age, it's now taken for granted that the answer is always and instantly. And maybe so. But Matt is suggesting that sometimes you're just letting your opponents mess with your head. The people pissed off by the slur are mostly true believers who aren't going to be affected by it in any case, and by fighting it you're doing nothing but bringing it to the attention of people who would otherwise just brush it off and then check to see if NCIS is in reruns tonight.

I don't expect any change to the "always and instantly" rule, but this is worth a thought anyway. Maybe there are times when it really is better to take a deep breath first.

Chart of the Day: Net New Jobs in March

| Fri Apr. 6, 2012 12:14 PM EDT

Here's my usual monthly chart showing net new jobs created in March. Why net? Because the U.S. population increases every month, which means you need a certain number of new jobs just to tread water. This chart subtracts that out to show the true net growth in employment.

Bottom line: the number of net new jobs added in March was about 30,000. That's better than zero, but still pretty crappy. If my previous post about the shadow banking system didn't convince you that the economy is still too weak to be thinking about austerity, this one should.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for April 6, 2012

Fri Apr. 6, 2012 11:49 AM EDT

Soldiers assigned to the 53rd Transportation Battalion, 7th Sustainment Brigade, Fort Eustis, Va. prepare to return home from Kuwait upon completion of an eight-month deployment in support of Operation New Dawn where the battalion proved crucial to the successful transfer of equipment and supplies out of Iraq as part of the troop drawdown last December. Photo by Spc. Jhansene Lopez, 53rd Transportation Battalion.