2013 - %3, January

Bye-Bye Marshes, Hello Mud

| Thu Jan. 10, 2013 7:06 AM EST

Arrowhead Marsh near Oakland could turn to mud by 2080.

By now, we're used to hearing about the threats sea level rise poses to human society: It can wash away urban areas, give a boost to storms, and swallow island nations. But new research from a team at the US Geological Survey shows that rising seas can also devastate fragile ecosystems.

mouse
So long, Mr. Mouse! Wikimedia Commons

Using a custom-built sea level modeling tool, USGS's Western Ecological Research Center forecast the future for a dozen salt marshes in the San Francisco Bay Area, home to several species of federally protected birds and other animals. The predictions are grim: 95 percent of the marsh area could become mudflats by 2100, the effect of four feet of sea level rise (a level projected by previous studies). That's a problem for marsh-loving endangered species like the salt marsh harvest mouse (left) and the California black rail bird, both found only in the Bay Area, and for other beach-dwelling birds that count on solid ground to lay their nests.

Take a look at the video below, which shows the projection for a marsh in San Pablo Bay; yellow is land, light blue is average sea level, and dark blue is high water level: 

By the end, no more marsh (have a favorite Bay Area marsh? You can see projections for it here). Here's that same story, told a different way, as the marsh goes from a healthy green to muddy brown:

san pablo marsh
Courtest USGS

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Leaded Fuel Is a Thing of the Past—Unless You Fly a Private Plane

| Thu Jan. 10, 2013 7:06 AM EST
A Cessna 172, which flies with leaded gasoline

If you read our magazine cover story on the long, awful legacy of lead in gasoline, you were probably relieved that toxic metal is now banned from all gasoline. The thing is, it's not.

Some 167,000 piston engine aircraft—about three-quarters of private planes in the United States—are still spewing lead into our air. That's because their fuel, known as avgas, uses the same tetraethyl lead addictive since banned in automobile gas, making it the No. 1 source of lead emissions in America. (The jet fuel used in big passenger planes does not contain lead.) Lead-free alternatives are available for most piston engine aircraft, but the phaseout of leaded fuel has been slow. Last June, the FAA finally created the Fuels Program Office to replace leaded avgas by 2018—24 years after it was banned in automobiles.

Leaded avgas emits only a small fraction of the lead once coughed out by cars, but it disproportionately affects people living near the 20,000 airports where it's used. The EPA estimates (PDF) there are 16 million people living within one kilometer of those airports, and 3 million children attend schools in the same radius. According to a 2011 study by Duke University researchers, kids who live near airports have elevated levels of lead in their blood. And as Kevin Drum wrote in his Mother Jones piece, even low blood lead levels have bad health and social consequences.

Corn on Hardball: Will Republicans Shut Down the Government?

Wed Jan. 9, 2013 10:04 PM EST

When Congress debated the fiscal cliff in December, Republicans threatened to shut down the government in order to get the spending cuts they wanted. During the next budget showdown this March, it looks like they might do the same. DC bureau chief David Corn and Salon editor-at-large Joan Walsh discuss how the Republicans will handle the next fiscal cliffa "three cliff circus," Corn calls it, referring to the debt ceiling, the sequester, and the expiring continuing resolutionon MSNBC's Hardball.

David Corn is Mother Jones' Washington bureau chief. For more of his stories, click here. He's also on Twitter.

Is Health Care Spending Finally Under Control?

| Wed Jan. 9, 2013 7:57 PM EST

Health care spending in America grew by 3.9 percent in 2012—the lowest rate since 1960, when the government began collecting this data. Last year was the third in a row that health care spending grew slower than expected, according to a government study published this week in Health Affairs.

Has America finally started to get a handle on health care spending? It's possible, but not likely: according to the report, the slowing growth in health care spending is mostly due to the recession. A dive in the number of people enrolled in private health insurance—probably due to job losses—was one of the biggest factors in slowing growth. Between 2007 and 2010, 11.2 million people left private health insurance:

chart of private health insurance

Hartman et. al, Health Affairs, January 2013

Many of these people ended up uninsured—the number of people without health insurance increased by 7 million during that time. Uninsured people, as you might expect, spend less money on health care. Meanwhile, hospital stays, perscriptions, and other services don't cost any less than they used to. The chart below shows the reasons for growth in individual and national health spending. Note how medical prices are the main factor driving growth, while the effects of an aging population and other "nonprice factors," namely how much and how often people are using medical services, vary from year to year:

Factors Accounting For Growth in Per Capita National Health Expenditures and Personal Health Care Expenditures

 

Hartman et. al, Health Affairs, January 2013
 

Now that the economy is beginning to recover, health care spending is expected to rebound; the most recent government projections expect it to grow 7.1 percent in 2014, then an average of 6.2 percent annually between 2015 and 2021. Some argue there are signs that health care spending is slowing down in the long run, though it will still be growing as a share of the economy.

The silver lining is Obamacare, which will add to the amount the government spends on health care but is expected to reduce the growth of health spending in the long run. Additionally, more people will be insured, and with better insurance, so (at least in theory) each dollar spent on health care will go further and help more people in need of medical care.

The State of Pensions in America

| Wed Jan. 9, 2013 7:40 PM EST

Jared Bernstein examines the state of retiree income:

Take a look at this useful set of pictures from the BLS on the not-very-healthful status of defined benefit (DB) private pension plans in America today (DB pensions provide guaranteed, periodic payments in retirement). A quick glance led me to believe that these data points should be a front-and-center defense against those who would cut deeply into Social Security and Medicare benefits.

In sum, as DB private pensions weaken, we need to strengthen public ones. The loss of DB private pensions—and their partial replacement by financial-market-dependent defined contribution plans—represents a shift in the locus of risk of retirement insecurity from employers to workers.

Aside from my obduracy on the issue of minting a $1 trillion platinum coin, probably the biggest pushback I get from fellow liberals on any subject is about my willingness to modestly cut the future growth of Social Security as part of a bigger deal to improve the long-term solvency of the system. One of the most compelling arguments my critics have is the one above: Social Security isn't especially generous as it is, and with private pensions on the decline it's more important than ever to keep benefit growth at least at current levels.

So why haven't I changed my tune on this? Well, Jared excerpts a bunch of charts showing how defined-benefit pensions have declined over the years, but there's another chart that he doesn't show. It's the one on the right, and it shows median household income for both middle-aged workers and those over age 65. (Adjusted for inflation, of course.) Despite the decline of DB pensions, the median income of retirees has grown 75 percent over the past four decades. The median income of middle-aged workers has grown a bit less than 8 percent.

So am I thrilled about increasing taxes on middle-class workers in order to prevent benefits for retirees from growing even the slightest bit more slowly? Not really, because relatively speaking, retirees are the ones doing better in recent years. What's more, these numbers don't include the value of health benefits. Since retirees are 100% covered by Medicare, the relative growth rates would probably be even more dramatically in their favor if you counted that.

Now, there are a bunch of things you can say about this. Perhaps we should tax the rich instead of the middle class to keep Social Security solvent? I'm in favor of taxing the rich at higher rates, but the truth is that there's a limit to this. We're going to need to raise taxes to keep Medicare solvent too, and we can't get it all solely from the rich. At some point we're going to have to raise taxes on the middle class too.

Alternatively, you can argue that the real problem here is that middle-class incomes have stagnated so badly. So instead of moderating the growth of retiree income, we should stimulate the growth of worker income. I couldn't agree more. Unfortunately, I'm not sure how to do that, and in the meantime we still have to consider whether or not we want to tax the middle class at higher rates for the benefit of the elderly.

Finally, you might criticize me for showing only median income. What about the poorest seniors, who rely solely on Social Security? There I agree. Any change to Social Security should have no impact on the poorest retirees. In fact, most of the reforms I like end up cutting benefits more heavily on the better-off in order to increase benefits a bit at the low end.

In the end, we're going to have to increase taxes to fund pension and healthcare benefits for an aging society. If I have my way, the bulk of those taxes will come from the rich, who have seen their incomes skyrocket over the past few decades. But there's not much question that at least some of the taxes will have to come from middle-class workers. Given how poorly they've done over the past 40 years, I think those taxes should be kept to a minimum. And like it or not, that means tightening up a bit on the future growth of retiree benefits.

So if you've ever wondered what motivates my persistence on this issue, this is it. There's just a limit to my appetite for increasing taxes on the middle class in order to fund benefit increases for retirees.

MAP: 2012 Was the Hottest Year on Record in the US

| Wed Jan. 9, 2013 6:34 PM EST

Just saying.

This NOAA map shows a sampling of places where weather records were broken last year. You probably guessed that red indicates heat. Yellow represents dryness; orange is a double whammy record for heat and dryness.

Image courtesy of NOAA

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BP's Oil and Especially Dispersant Toxic to Baby Corals

| Wed Jan. 9, 2013 6:00 PM EST
Mountainous star coral (Montastraea faveolata) spawns, releasing sperm and eggs that will combine to produce larvae: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association

Results are in from the first controlled laboratory tests on how Deepwater Horizon oil and the dispersant Corexit® 9500 affect coral larvae. Conclusion: Baby corals of at least some species are likely to be killed when exposed to oil and are especially likely to die when exposed to dispersants. The results have just been published in the science journal PLOS ONE.

Coral larvae are delicate little beings that drift away from their parents (see video below) to settle on near or distant reefs. The study from Mote Marine Laboratory scientists focused on two coral speciesmustard hill coral  (Porites astreoidesand mountainous star coral (Montastraea faveolata)—from the Florida Keys, an area not directly impacted by the spill. Both species are common reef builders in the Gulf and the Caribbean. 

The researchers tested larvae in water containing 1) the dissolved components of Deepwater Horizon oil from the source; 2) weathered oil; 3) the dispersant Corexit® 9500; and 4) the combined oil and dispersant. They monitored the coral larvae for 72 hours at different concentrations of each solution, and tested how the mountainous star coral larvae fared in solutions that were slowly diluted over 96 hours.

Highlights from the paper:

  • Larvae exposed to oil components died sooner and settled less than control larvae given only seawater.
  • Mustard hill coral larvae were significantly less likely to survive and settle amid high concentrations of oil components (0.62 parts per million).
  • Mountainous star coral had significantly lower survival rates even at the lowest oil concentration (0.49 ppm diluted over time).
  • Larvae exposed to weathered crude oil had significantly lowered survival rates and stopped settling after 72 hours, while the control larvae continued to settle through 96 hours.

 

Settlement by larvae exposed to crude oil. Mean percent (% 6 SE) new settlement by P. astreoides larvae exposed to Louisiana weathered crude oil (solid bars) and a seawater control (open bars) observed at each time point (24, 48, 72 and 96-hr). Mean percent (% 6 SE) cumulative settlement by P. astreoides larvae after 24, 48, 72 and 96-hr exposure to Louisiana weathered crude oil (dashed line) and a seawater control (solid line)" doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0045574.g001

Both species were highly vulnerable to Corexit® 9500:

"Our results support the growing knowledge that certain coral species may fare worse than others during oil spills," said Kim Ritchie, principal investigator.
  • No mountainous star coral larvae settled or survived at the medium and high concentrations (50 and 100 ppm).
  • No mustard hill coral larvae settled or survived at the high concentration (100 ppm).
  • Both species of coral larvae were significantly less likely to survive and settle amid medium concentrations (4.28 ppm for mustard hill coral and 18.56 ppm for mountainous star coral) or high concentrations (30.99 for mustard hill and 35.76 ppm for mountainous star) of oil mixed with dispersant.
  • Even at a low concentration (0.86 ppm) of oil-dispersant mixture diluted over 96 hours, most of the mountainous star coral did not survive.

"To understand how oil and dispersant could affect wild corals, more research is needed on their complex natural life cycles," said Kim Ritchie, principal investigator on the emergency Protect Our Reefs grant supporting this study and manager of the Marine Microbiology Program at Mote. "Coral larvae seem to settle with help from landing pads called 'biofilms' that are formed by microbes like marine bacteria. This delicate natural process might be interrupted by dispersant and its mixture with oil, so it's important to know how it works in detail."

Aerial view of the oil leaked from Deepwater Horizon, May 6 2010: Reuters/Daniel Beltra via Flickr

The Deepwater Horizon rig spewed more than 200 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico and responders used nearly 2 million gallons of dispersant to try and keep the slicks from reaching shore—a mitigation that likely exacerbated the threats from oil toxins underwater.

The open access paper:

  • Gretchen Goodbody-Gringley, Dana L. Wetzel, Daniel Gillon, Erin Pulster, Allison Miller, Kim B. Ritchie. Toxicity of Deepwater Horizon Source Oil and the Chemical Dispersant, Corexit® 9500, to Coral Larvae. PLOS ONE. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0045574.g001

*The coral larvae in this study were collected under the government research permit FKNMS-2010-080-A2 issued by the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. Coral reefs within the Sanctuary are protected by federal law.

Assessing the Lead-Crime Evidence: A Followup

| Wed Jan. 9, 2013 5:58 PM EST

Yesterday I linked to some criticism of my article about lead and crime from Scott Firestone, a public health researcher in Chicago. If you'd like to follow the conversation further, statistician Andrew Gelman has more here, and Firestone responds in comments.

Ozone From Biofuel Farms Could Cause Thousands of Deaths a Year

| Wed Jan. 9, 2013 4:35 PM EST
A eucalyptus plantation in Thailand.

Biofuels have a variety of drawbacks. They jack up the price of food, making life hell for the urban poor in the global south, while also pushing small-scale farmers off of land and into misery, as I wrote yesterday. They may contribute to, rather than reduce, greenhouse gas emissions, because they provide incentives to plow up carbon-trapping old forests.

Turns out they can also make you sick. Certain fast-growing trees used for biofuels in Europe can also "increase concentrations of ground-level ozone, resulting in millions of tonnes in crop losses and an additional 1,385 deaths per year," reports Climate News Network, teasing out the results of a recent study (abstract here) by a UK research team published in Nature Climate Change. The ozone in the upper atmosphere is a good thing—it "filters out dangerous ultra-violet sunlight." But at ground level, ozone is a "toxic irritant" that makes people wheeze and can be life-threatening for vulnerable populations. When it wafts into fields where crops are grown, ground-level ozone also "causes more damage to plants than all other air pollutants combined," the US Department of Agriculture reports

The authors offer a few solutions to mitigate the problems they identify:

The Lancaster team suggest that the unwelcome consequences could be mitigated by the choice of coppice trees genetically engineered to reduce isoprene emissions—one genetically modified poplar has already been tested under laboratory conditions—or by the choice of other biofuel crops such as grasses, or by shifting biofuel production away from densely populated areas and highly productive cereal land.

I have another suggestion: Use farmland to grow food, and focus energy policy on techniques that benefit the environment: conservation, efficiency, and green technologies like wind and solar.

Proposed Legislation Would Block Bank Execs From Regulating Banks

| Wed Jan. 9, 2013 4:09 PM EST

Four years after the financial crisis, and two years after "financial reform," top bank executives are still allowed to serve on the boards of regional Federal Reserve banks—institutions that are partially responsible for regulating the financial industry. People like Jamie Dimon, the JP Morgan Chase CEO whose term at the New York Fed just ended, have influence over whether banks get bailed out by taxpayers when they screw up. Dimon was on the New York Fed board during the 2008 financial crisis, and his bank got over $390 billion in low-interest emergency bailout loans from the Fed.

If liberal Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has his way, all that may soon change.

Sanders announced Wednesday that he will reintroduce legislation to forbid financial industry executives like Dimon from sitting on any of the 12 regional Fed boards of directors.