Julia Whitty

Julia Whitty

Environmental Correspondent

Julia is an award-winning author of fiction and nonfiction (Deep Blue Home, The Fragile Edge, A Tortoise for the Queen of Tonga), and a former documentary filmmaker. She also blogs at Deep Blue Home.

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Julia is a writer and former documentary filmmaker and the author of The Fragile Edge: Diving & Other Adventures in the South Pacific, winner of a PEN USA Literary Award, the John Burroughs Medal, the Kiriyama Prize, the Northern California Books Awards, and finalist for the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, and Deep Blue Home: An Intimate Ecology of Our Wild Ocean. Her short story collection A Tortoise for the Queen of Tonga won an O. Henry and was a finalist for the PEN Hemingway Award. She also blogs at Deep Blue Home.

James Hansen Testifies to Climate Science Meddling

| Tue Mar. 20, 2007 7:30 PM EDT

The Bush administration once again faces charges from James Hansen, a foremost climate scientist, of interfering with science in order to downplay global warming. Hansen is director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York, and was one of the first experts to warn of the threat of climate change.

The US House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, during its second hearing on Monday, released a memo stating that documents "appear to portray a systematic White House effort to minimize the significance of climate change." From New Scientist:

In written testimony, Hansen said: "In my more than three decades in government, I have never seen anything approaching the degree to which information flow from scientists to the public has been screened and controlled as it has now."

The committee also heard a former White House aide attempting to defend his editing of government reports on climate change. Phil Cooney, chief of staff at the White House's Council on Environmental Quality from 2001 to 2005, said editing was part of the normal review process between agencies.

Right. Just for the record, before he joined the White House, Cooney was a lobbyist for the American Petroleum Institute and now works for ExxonMobil.

The committee [first] heard of this top-down pressure on climate scientists during the first hearing in January. Former government scientist Rick Piltz said that Cooney had tried to downplay the consequences of climate change in government documents.

In a 10-year policy plan, Cooney and Brian Hannegan, also at CEQ, made at least 181 edits to emphasize scientific uncertainty regarding the effects of climate change and 113 changes to minimize the importance of human contributions to global warming, according to the committee's memo.

For example, Cooney replaced "will" with "may" in the sentence: "Warming temperatures will also affect Arctic land areas." He also deleted this sentence: "Climate change has global consequences for human health and the environment."

Do these guys really think they're going to escape the mayhem? Or are they all believers of that latter-day oxymoron, Intelligent Design?

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Chasing Branson's Earth Challenge? Catalyst Might Turn CO2 Into Fuel

| Fri Mar. 16, 2007 7:28 PM EDT

News from the Max Planck Institute in Potsdam, Germany, describes how a new catalyst that can split carbon dioxide gas might allow us to use carbon from the atmosphere as a fuel source. You know, the way plants do. If so, the Germans might find themselves in contention for Richard Branson's Earth Challenge:

The Virgin Earth Challenge is a prize of $25m for whoever can demonstrate to the judges' satisfaction a commercially viable design which results in the removal of anthropogenic, atmospheric greenhouse gases so as to contribute materially to the stability of Earth's climate.

As New Scientist reports:

"Breaking open the very stable bonds in CO2 is one of the biggest challenges in synthetic chemistry," says Frederic Goettmann, a chemist at the Max Planck Institute for Colloids and Interfaces in Potsdam, Germany. "But plants have been doing it for millions of years."

Plants use the energy of sunlight to cleave the relatively stable chemical bonds between the carbon and oxygen atoms in a carbon dioxide molecule. In photosynthesis, the CO2 molecule is initially bonded to nitrogen atoms, making reactive compounds called carbamates. These less stable compounds can then be broken down, allowing the carbon to be used in the synthesis of other plant products, such as sugars and proteins.

In an attempt to emulate this natural process, Goettmann and colleagues Arne Thomas and Markus Antonietti developed their own nitrogen-based catalyst that can produce carbamates. The graphite-like compound is made from flat layers of carbon and nitrogen atoms arranged in hexagons.

"Carbon monoxide can be used to build new carbon-carbon bonds," explains Goettmann. "We have taken the first step towards using carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as a source for chemical synthesis."

Future refinements could allow chemists to reduce their dependence on fossil fuels as sources for making chemicals. Liquid fuel could also be made from CO split from CO2, says Goettmann. "It was common in Second World War Germany and in South Africa in the 1980s to make fuel from CO derived from coal," he adds.

Crops Feel the Heat of Warming Climate

| Fri Mar. 16, 2007 6:47 PM EDT

Listen up, naysayers. Still think balmy temps will be good for the world food supply? Think again.

In the first study estimating how much global food production is already affected by climate change, researchers from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and the Carnegie Institution's Department of Global Ecology report that warming since 1981 has caused annual losses of roughly $5 billion to the major cereal crops. This during a time when annual global temperatures increased by about 0.7 degrees Fahrenheit, with even larger changes observed in some regions.

From 1981-2002, fields of wheat, corn and barley throughout the world produced a combined 40 million metric tons of food less per year because of increasing temperatures caused by human activities. From Lawrence Livermore

"There is clearly a negative response of global yields to increased temperatures," said David Lobell, a Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory researcher and lead author of the study that appears online March 16 in Environmental Research Letters. "Though the impacts are relatively small compared to the technological yield gains over the same period, the results demonstrate that negative impacts of climate trends on crop yields at the global scale are already occurring."

"Most people tend to think of climate change as something that will impact the future, but this study shows that warming over the past two decades already has had real effects on global food supply," said Christopher Field, co-author on the study and director of Carnegie Institution's Department of Global Ecology.

Using global yield data from the Food and Agriculture Organization for 1961-2002, Lobell and Field compared average temperatures and precipitation with yields over the major growing regions. On average, they found, several food crops responded negatively to warmer temperatures. They then used these relationships to estimate the effect of observed warming trends.

"To do this, we assumed that farmers have not yet adapted to climate change, for example by selecting new crop varieties to deal with climate change," Lobell said. "If they have been adapting – something that is very difficult to measure – then the effects of warming may have been lower."

Most experts believe that adaptation would lag several years behind climate trends, because of the difficulty of distinguishing climate trends from natural variability. The importance of this study, the authors said, was that it demonstrates a clear and simple relationship at the global scale, with yields dropping by approximately 3-5 percent for a one-degree Fahrenheit increase. "A key to moving forward is how well cropping systems can adapt to a warmer world," Lobell said. "Investments in this area could potentially save billions of dollars and millions of lives."

So what happens if, as some predict, change comes too fast for even intelligent agriculture to keep up?

British Environment Minister Turns to You Tube To Pimp Carbon Cuts

| Wed Mar. 14, 2007 7:19 PM EDT

It's a heartening move. It's long overdue. And it's not enough.

The British government today revealed its draft climate bill, with 60% cuts in carbon dioxide emissions by 2050--making Britain the first of the heavy hitters to produce a significant plan for reducing greenhouse-gas emissions. Britain's plan will measure emissions against their 1990 levels--like the essentially defunct Kyoto Protocol--while exceeding Kyoto by seeking an average 5.2% cut among developed-world nations by 2012.

From Nature.com:

The plan will involve setting five-year targets for emissions reduction, called 'carbon budgets'. These targets should see Britain cut its carbon emissions by between 26% and 32% by 2020--exceeding the 20% cuts agreed by many European nations at a summit last week. The United States has no federally mandated emissions targets, although some individual states have set goals.

Again from Nature.com:

It is not clear exactly how the UK targets will be met, although the government has pledged to invest in energy efficiency, home power-generation schemes, renewable-energy technologies, and increased carbon trading. Miliband stressed that individuals will be able to make a difference: "In the end, this isn't something that governments and businesses can do alone," he said.

The Los Angeles Times reports that new legislation is not as stringent as many political leaders are seeking:

[California] Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who has overseen the adoption of similar legislation in California, joined Blair for the launch by satellite link via the ITN network. He said technology and carbon tradeoff partnerships across the globe would allow gains that would not be achievable individually. "This is a huge, huge announcement," Schwarzenegger said of the proposed British legislation.

Yet California's regulation is far more ambitious than the British proposal, calling for an 80% reduction in greenhouse gases by 2050. Again from the LA Times:

Many environmental groups also have urged annual targets. Friends of the Earth welcomed the proposed law but called for it to be even stronger, with targeted emission cuts of 3% every year, annual progress reports and taxes on international aviation and shipping emissions. "The government's current target--a cut in emissions of 60% by 2050--is no longer considered to be a sufficient contribution by the U.K. or other developed countries," the organization said in a statement.

African Dust Cooled 2006 Hurricane Season

| Mon Mar. 12, 2007 2:35 PM EDT

Right-coasters and south-coasters can thank African dust for a quiet hurricane season in 2006. A little puff from just the right place in the Sahara cooled the pyrotechnics of storm formation. The Mother Jones piece "The 13th Tipping Point" (Nov/Dec 2006), explained just how Saharan dust is one of the critical global-warming tipping points keeping our world in balance—and likely to screw things up right royally if it falls out of balance.

From the MoJo article:

Global warming is expected to shrink the Sahara by increasing rainfall along its southern border. A greener Sahara will emit less airborne desert dust to seed the Atlantic and feed its phytoplankton, to suppress hurricane formation, and to fertilize the CO2-eating trees of Amazonia. Hardly a neighborhood on earth will look the same if Africa tips.

And the latest news from Sciencemag.org:

Meteorological signs were unanimous in foretelling yet another hyperactive hurricane season, the eighth in 10 years. But the forecasts were far off the mark. The 2006 season was normal, and no hurricanes came anywhere near the United States or the Caribbean.

Now two climatologists are suggesting that dust blown across the Atlantic from the Sahara was pivotal in the busted forecasts. The dust seems to have suppressed storm activity over the southwestern North Atlantic and Caribbean by blocking some energizing sunlight, they say.

But, unremarked by forecasters, an unusually heavy surge of dust began blowing off North Africa and into the western Atlantic at the 1 June beginning of the official hurricane season. Two weeks later, the surface waters of the western Atlantic began to cool compared with temperatures in the previous season.

Climatologists William Lau of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, and Kyu-Myong Kim of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, in Baltimore argue in the 27 February issue of Eos that the arrival of the thick dust and the subsequent cooling were no coincidence. The dust blocked some sunlight and cooled the surface, they say. That cooling went on to trigger a shift toward less favorable conditions for the formation and intensification of storms in the western Atlantic, they argue. As a result, no storm tracks crossed where nine had passed the previous season.

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